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Late Saturday afternoon, an hour or so into his third round at Oak Hill Country Club, Jason Dufner stood under a tall tree next to Allen's Creek. He'd hit a 3-wood off the tee at the 428-yard No. 5--probably the most difficult driving hole on the East Course--and his ball had smacked into branches guarding the right edge of the fairway. "Hit a poor shot," he said later. "Got a bad break. Hit some trees. Bounced in the hazard."
Dufner, who'd shot a record-breaking round of 63 the day before, had started the third round with a two-shot lead. Now the options before him were few, and none of them good. I was standing less than 10 feet away with a small group of reporters and photographers who'd been following his twosome; we watched as he sized up the situation. His face showed no hint of dismay. Yet as a student of the history of golf, Dufner had to know this was the hole where Tom Kite triple-bogeyed at the U.S. Open in 1989, blew his final-round lead and eventually finished ninth. (On Sunday, defending champion Rory McIlroy saw his bid for a final-round run up the leaderboard torpedoed by his triple bogey on the same hole.)
Of Dufner's two options, the safest one would be to punch his ball back into the fairway and take aim for a bogey. Dufner dropped his ball into the thick grass, chose his club--and selected his second option. He lined up for his shot, did his trademark waggle and swung away. The ball flew like a javelin past a wall of trees and over a scoreboard. A second or two later, a roar erupted from the crowd in the grandstand. His ball had landed in the near rough, only 10 or 12 feet from the green.
The next day, on his way to becoming the 95th PGA Champion, Dufner's accuracy off the tee was unerring, and he repeatedly hit amazing irons that rewarded him with tap-in birdies. But to me, his recovery on No. 5 in the third round was the shot of the tournament--or at least the shot that saved his chance to win it. Yeah, I know he double-bogeyed the hole (thanks to an errant putt); in fact, it was his only double bogey in all four rounds. But after that he had only a single bogey until the final two holes on Sunday, when it didn't matter. That's 26 straight holes of par or better.
With an ample waist, a mop of unruly hair and a demeanor so low-key you want to check his pulse, Dufner looks like a guy who's made a career out of flipping burgers (and sampling quite a few), not one of the world's elite golfers. But this past weekend, he made Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson look like weekend hackers. Maybe they should study his game a bit?
In fact, I think many of us could learn some things from Dufner's approach to golf--in particular, entrepreneurs and others whose main game is trying to grow a business.
One lesson is the importance of taking calculated risks. To me, that shot on No. 5 looked pretty crazy. But clearly, Dufner--who took a long time studying the narrow path to the green--knew he had a reasonable chance to pull it off and had the self-confidence to try it. In the media room after his victory on Sunday, Dufner said that once he reclaimed the lead in the final round, "I wasn't going to let up. I was going to keep trying to make birdies and keep trying to put the pressure on the rest of the field. I think sometimes when you get careful, you make mistakes."
Watching Dufner, you also learn the value of taking emotion out of the equation. He's often portrayed as laid-back and stony-eyed. His caddie told a reporter that the only time he'd seen Dufner nervous was on his wedding day. Not true, said Dufner, who admitted to jitters on his first 3-footer Sunday. But after making that putt on the first day, he added, "I would say I was pretty flatlined for most of the day." Somehow, he's learned to put his emotions in a place where they don't tighten his swing or skew his judgment.
Dufner also could teach lessons in patience and perseverance. At 36, he's not a kid. And until Sunday, he had only two PGA Tour wins on his resume. He nearly won the PGA Championship in 2011, when he had a four-stroke lead with three holes to play. But it all fell apart for him, and he lost to Keegan Bradley in a playoff. In 2012, he held a share of the second-round lead at the Masters but finished tied for 24th. For some people such setbacks would be shattering blows. Dufner, though, moved on--and there was no sign of choke in him on Sunday.
I imagine Dufner and the other 155 players at Oak Hill last week also know one other thing that we all would do well to remember: Down the road lie many more setbacks and disappointments. Winning a major doesn't change that. In fact, in golf--and often in business--you lose much more frequently than you win.
As runner-up Jim Furyk said Sunday evening: "I'm disappointed it's been a while since I've won. ... I guess it's days like this that will make the next one sweeter."
For more tournament coverage, go to RBJ Extra: The 95th PGA Championship.
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