The final moments Saturday at Oak Hill brought out more emotion as big putts kept falling in the PGA Championship, with one big difference.
These putts were for par.
Jim Furyk, after a 3-wood struck so poorly off the 18th tee that he couldn’t have reached the green even if he had been in the fairway, worked his way up the 472-yard hole until he had a 15-foot putt from the fringe to keep a one-shot lead. The ball curled into the left corner of the cup, and the 43-year-old emphatically shook his fist.
Adam Scott, whose sweet swing turned sour on the last few holes, was on the verge of letting the lead get another shot away from him when he knocked in a 15-foot putt for par on the 17th hole, bowed his head and pumped his fist.
And then there was Jason Dufner, whose disappointment turned to surprise on the 18th hole when he took a step toward the cup to tap in a missed putt and watched gravity pull it into the hole for a par that put him in the final group.
Perhaps those scenes were a prelude for Sunday, the final round of the final major of the year.
”It’s only going to get harder,” Furyk said.
Oak Hill finally had enough elements for a tough test, and Furyk showed enough of his western Pennsylvania grit for a 2-under 68 and a one-shot lead over Dufner.
Grinding to the end in a swirling wind that cast doubt on so many shots, Furyk closed with two clutch putts – one for birdie to regain the lead, the par putt to keep it – that put him 18 holes away from winning another major 10 years after his U.S. Open title.
There was nothing fancy about the way he worked his way to the top of the leaderboard at 9-under 201, but then, that’s rarely the case with Furyk. He made three birdies and two tough pars on the back nine, and the one bogey was a bunker shot that hit the pin and rolled 7 feet away.
He was so wrapped up in his game that he didn’t even know the score.
”Give me a leaderboard. Where are we at?” he asked before he was told he was one shot ahead of Dufner, and two clear of Henrik Stenson.
”I’m comfortable with where I’m at,” Furyk said. ”There’s a crowded leaderboard at the top, and instead of really viewing it as who is leading and who is not, I’m really viewing it as I need to go out there tomorrow and put together a good, solid round of golf. Fire a good number and hope it stacks up well.”
Dufner was eight shot worse than his record-tying 63, but at least he got into the final group at the PGA Championship for the second time in three years. At the Atlanta Athletic Club in 2011, he had a four-shot lead with four holes to go and lost to Keegan Bradley in a playoff.
”I was young, new to doing the majors,” Dufner said. ”I think that was the third or fourth major I played in. So hopefully, the experience I’ve had since then will pull me through and give me a chance to win tomorrow.”
Stenson, a runner-up at the British Open three weeks ago, dropped only one shot over the last 16 holes and ran in a pair of 12-foot birdie putts for a 69 and was two shots behind. Sweden’s odds of winning a major have never been this high. Stenson will play in the penultimate group with Jonas Blixt, who had a 66.
The surprise was Scott, who was poised to seize control at any moment.
Scott blasted a driver on the uphill, 318-yard 14th hole that was so pure he snatched his tee from the ground as the ball was still rising. It stopped 25 feet below the cup, and he had an eagle putt to tie for the lead. The Australian two-putted for birdie, and two holes later fell back with a double bogey on the 16th. Scott escaped further damage with a 15-foot par save on the 17th and managed a 72. He was four shots behind, along with Steve Stricker, who had a 70.
Those were the only five players within five shots of the lead.
Still with an outside chance was Rory McIlroy, who came to life with three birdies over his last six holes for a 67. McIlroy, trying to join Tiger Woods and Padraig Harrington as the only repeat winners of the PGA in the stroke-play era, knocked in a 40-foot birdie putt on the 17th and then showed more emotion than he has all year when he chipped in for birdie on the 18th.
”It was good to feel the sort of rush again,” McIlroy said.
He was at 3 under, still six shots behind.
Woods, meanwhile, will have to wait eight more months to end his drought in the majors. He opened with two bogeys in three holes and shot a 73 to fall 13 shots behind. It was a shocking performance from the world’s No. 1 player, mainly because he was coming off a seven-shot win at Firestone that included a 61.
Woods has made only seven birdies in 54 holes – four of them on par 3s.
British Open champion Phil Mickelson was even worse. He sprayed the ball all over Oak Hill on his way to a 78, matching his highest score ever in the PGA Championship.
No one looked terribly comfortable at the start, not with the swirling wind and water hazard that winds its way along the front nine.
U.S. Open champion Justin Rose fell apart early with back-to-back double bogeys that sent him to a 42. He wound up with a 77. Scott opened with a 20-foot birdie putt, only to follow with back-to-back bogeys. And when Dufner ended his string of pars by driving into the creek on No. 5 for double bogey, it appeared that this tournament was wide open. The leaders steadied themselves, leaving the title Sunday it still up for grabs but likely among fewer players.
Scott knows as well as anyone how unpredictable a final round can be.
He was four shots up with four holes to play at the British Open last year and watched Ernie Els win the claret jug. At Muirfield last month, Mickelson came from five shots behind on the final day and won by three.
”I would like to be leading,” Scott said. ”Four back is well within reach. Anything can happen in a major. We just saw the pin spots get tough today, and scoring in the final groups was very difficult. With so much danger around, it’s hard to be completely free where major pressure is on the line. Tomorrow is going to be similar.”