BY RYAN BLACK | firstname.lastname@example.org
AUBURN, Ala. — Jason Dufner arrived at the Auburn University Regional Airport late Sunday night, fresh off winning the biggest tournament of his career.
Staying true to his stoic demeanor, one never would have suspected what transpired earlier in the day — aside from the fact he was carrying some hefty hardware in the form of the 27-pound Wanamaker Trophy, awarded to the winner of the PGA Championship. Dufner captured the major championship by shooting a 2-under-par 68 in the final round at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y., finishing at 10-under par for the tournament and besting his playing partner (and eventual runner-up) Jim Furyk in the final pairing.
When asked various questions about what the win meant to him, one word kept popping up: “Neat.” It was “neat” to win such a prestigious event, “neat” to think about what it meant for his career, and most importantly, “neat” to accomplish a goal he had been dreaming about his whole life.
“That’s the craziest thing,’ Dufner said. “I’ve dreamt about holding this trophy for a long time, but never really thought I’d be able to do it. But now I can.”
It was a dream that had been deferred for two years. In the 2011 edition of the PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club, the Auburn alumnus led by four shots with four holes to play. That advantage was erased by the time he putted out on the 18th hole, as Dufner was forced into a three-hole aggregate playoff against fellow American Keegan Bradley. Dufner came up just short, falling by one shot.
The same man who defeated him in that playoff two years ago was also one of the first to greet Dufner when he walked off the 18th green on Sunday.
“Keegan and I have formed a good friendship playing out there and Ryder Cups,” Dufner said. “For him to come back and congratulate me just kind of shows his character. We’ll always be tied in a couple of ways, obviously with the playoff in Atlanta and now both of us have won PGAs. So it was a pretty cool for him to be there.”
Of course, his quick exchange with Bradley only came after Dufner embraced his wife Amanda.
“She was really excited,” he said. “There’s been a lot of people behind me. My circle — my team — is really good. The people I have around me are really good, so I just want to share this moment with them the best I can. It’s great to have people like that care about you.”
This win was about more than himself, though, as Dufner dedicated it to the entire Auburn community.
“The Auburn family is really strong,” he said. “And of course, the fan base is really strong and united, so this win’s for all the people here in Auburn, all the Auburn fans out there, to give them something to cheer about.”
But the former Tiger has bigger plans in store that could win him even greater renown among locals — if things fall into place, that is. Beginning with Thursday’s opening round, Dufner began picking up acorns at the historic course, and instructed Amanda to continue picking up more as the week went on. His hope is to put the acorns in the ground next spring and see them grow into tall oak trees on the 50 acres of land he owns outside Auburn, where the couple is building a new home.
And if Dufner has his way, his home won’t be the only place the acorns are planted.
Toomer’s Corner, anyone?
“That would be nice if they’re up to it. It’s an idea,” he said. “Now we’ve got some time before we can actually plant something in that area, but it would be pretty cool. That’s probably pretty selfish on my part, but maybe that will be an option.”
For now, that will have to wait, a feeling with which Dufner is familiar. After his playoff defeat two years ago, he was asked whether it ever crossed his mind that a similar fate could await him Sunday.
“Today I had a really good, clear process of what I needed to do, so I didn’t think about it too much,” he said. “There are times where you’re like, ‘Man, I really need to step on it a little bit or I’ll lose this one,’ but I was just in a really good spot mentally today to go out there and shoot a good round.”
Heck, Dufner said Sunday’s round was a piece of cake compared to Friday, when he tied a major championship record (along with 23 others) by carding a 63.
“You know you’re chasing history, something that nobody’s ever done, so that was really more nerve-wracking for me,” he said of his pursuit for a sub-63 round. “Today I was just trying to do the best I could to stay in that tournament and have a chance to win in the end.”
And he did just that, all but sealing the deal with a spectacular wedge shot on the 16th hole, spinning it back to within 18 inches of the hole for a tap-in birdie.
With the Wanamaker now in his possession, Dufner said it will be displayed somewhere in the new house, but its exact location will be left up to his wife. As crazy as it may sound, Dufner viewed his playoff loss at the hands of Bradley as a positive.
Remove the pain of losing, he said, and Sunday’s victory wouldn’t have meant as much.
“If I didn’t go through those things, I don’t know if I would have been here today,” he said. “Those things made me tougher and stronger and more determined to get to the top, so I think that was key for me to be able to get this trophy today.”
In a rare departure from his customary impassive disposition, Dufner broke character, allowing himself to contemplate the significance of what he had achieved.
“I’m starting to kind of get it — it’s sinking in,” he said, with the faint outline of a smile forming for a split-second. “My name is on this trophy with a lot of unbelievable players and nobody can ever take that away from me.”
Then, as quickly as it came, the wry smile disappeared.
The champion’s face went blank once more.