Golf — Jason Dufner didn’t shrink when Memorial victory appeared out of reach


DUBLIN, Ohio — Jack Nicklaus probably deserves better, his long-running PGA Tour event just outside the town where he grew up once again plagued by bad weather and delays.

But there was the Golden Bear, sitting beside his wife, Barbara, on a deck chair behind the 18th green in the Sunday gloaming, waiting to — hopefully — welcome another champion amid the raindrops following two lengthy stoppages that threatened to push the tournament to Monday.

And there was Jason Dufner to save the day, as he holed a 32-foot par putt just a few yards from Nicklaus, one that clinched a Memorial Tournament victory that didn’t seem possible after the 2013 PGA Championship winner shot 77 on Saturday.

To say that Dufner, 40, breathed a sigh of relief is not so much cliché as it was confirmation of the putting technique he disclosed this week that has him concentrating on oxygen intake as he stands over the ball on the green.

The process that saw Dufner shoot consecutive 65s to take a 5-shot, 36-hole lead and set a tournament record wasn’t of much use as he slashed his way to a 77 on Saturday and seemingly shot himself out of contention.

But he clawed back on Sunday, making four birdies on the back side and surging ahead of the likes of Rickie Fowler, Justin Thomas, Matt Kuchar, Bubba Watson and third-round leader Daniel Summerhays — who shot 78 on Sunday.

“Yesterday I was pretty frustrated with how I finished, how I played,” Dufner said. “So I kind of burned some steam off on the range and got it out of my system. It’s easy to kind of go home mad, but I didn’t want to go home mad last night and wanted to feel confident going into today.”

Dufner became the first player to shoot a score of 77 or higher and win since Nick Faldo did it at the 1989 Masters, where he beat Scott Hoch in a sudden-death playoff.

Of course, it wasn’t going to be a breeze for this tournament or Dufner, who now has five PGA Tour wins in a late-blooming career that saw him toil for years in the game’s minor leagues before making it to the PGA Tour in his late 20s.

“I’ve always been a fighter,” said Dufner, who shot a final-round 68. “Especially since I turned professional. Doing this hasn’t come easy for me. There’s been a lot of struggles and a lot of setbacks. I didn’t come straight out of college and play the PGA Tour. It took me almost 10 years to get out here. Took me another two after that to win and actually get to where I felt comfortable.

“So I always take pride in kind of being a fighter, trying to come back. I played really good a couple of weeks ago in Dallas and have a great history at Colonial, and I missed the cut. I was pissed. I was upset. I was disappointed. You have all these thoughts in the moment.

“I was determined to get in contention [here]. And there was two 65s and I’m cruising, then not cruising [Saturday] and come back today.”

No playoff was necessary Sunday, somewhat remarkably. The leaderboard was jammed after Summerhays stumbled at the start, and then two 77-minute weather delays pushed the finish into the evening.

Such issues are nothing new around here. In the 42 years of the tournament dating to 1976, at least one round has been delayed or postponed due to weather 27 times.

This happened after warm, sunny skies for the first three rounds and a similar forecast for Sunday. Nicklaus undoubtedly knew better. A two-time winner of his own event, Nicklaus, 77, all but expects some sort of hassle, that being the nature of the event. He chuckled at the notion, knowing how close the tournament came this time.

“How could you complain about the weather we had this week,” he said. “How many people did it affect? It only affected maybe 20 guys. And at the end, that’s all it did. We had a great week of weather. And if you get through a week in Columbus, Ohio, without a drop of rain, that’s pretty good. And unfortunately we just had a little bit at the wrong time.”

Much like he did during his playing career, Nicklaus doesn’t fret much over things he can’t control. Nor did Dufner. He got a bad break when he hit his tee shot at the 18th hole just before play was called for the second time.

He knew a stoppage was imminent, and he hoped the tee shot could be delayed. He ended up hitting it into a strong wind, seeing his ball come up short of a fairway bunker in the rough. Then play was stopped, and when he returned, all Dufner could do was advance the ball a short distance, still in the rough.

Dufner hit on the green, then knocked in the 32-foot putt to clinch what turned out to be a 3-stroke victory, getting a bigger reaction out of Fowler — who would have had a chance to tie with a birdie and a Dufner bogey.

“To see him make that putt on the last was pretty cool,” Fowler said.

As is custom, Dufner walked off the 18th green to a waiting Nicklaus, a firm handshake and words of wisdom as meaningful as any trophy.

“To always have my name attached with this event, Mr. Nicklaus, that’s the thing that makes me proud the most,” Dufner said. “And I think just being part of history in golf is amazing to me.”

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