PGA Day 2: Dufner defies his name but not all 63s are equal
Oak Hill turned into Soak Hill which turned into Soft Hill on Friday at the PGA Championship in Rochester and though the fairways here are in danger of being the first in history to be resodded AFTER a major due to the size of the divots being taken the course is not quite beaten yet. The weekend forecast is bright and sunny and more importantly, cool, meaning that it could yet dry out enough for this wonderful venue to show its true challenge.
Jason Dufner started his assault on Ben Hogan’s/Curtis Strange’s course record early with a spectacular eagle on 2 that landed about 20 feet behind the hole and then took a perfect line so that it could go nowhere but the bottom of the cup. Soon the chase for Hogan’s record turned into the chase for Johnny Miller’s record and he joined just a handful of players who have had a makeable putt for 62 on the final green. Like all others before him, he missed that putt and unfortunately missed very badly with a stroke so bad that it could eventually haunt his psyche if he doesn’t win this weekend. The putt was a total whiff, didn’t come close to getting to the hole. You only get so many putts for 62 in majors (as in, 99.99% of all pro golfers NEVER get one) and it’s wise not to leave them short.
That said, at the same time it might be a good thing that the putt for 62 didn’t fall because surely the debate would have raged on whether it really qualified as the “lowest score ever in a major” and that could have weighed on his chances this weekend. Rarely has a major championship venue played as easy as Oak Hill did this afternoon after a rain-soaked morning. Regular tour events play more difficult and 62s and better are not that uncommon. To say Dufner’s 63 ranks anywhere near Miller in ’73 or Nicklaus in ’80 is not even close. Even had he shot 62, it wouldn’t have measured up to Phil Mickelson’s 66 at Muirfield to close out the Open just three weeks ago.
It’s not often that you refer to someone who just shot 64 as “Poor”, as in “Poor Webb Simpson”, but poor Webb’s round was so overshadowed by the afternoon theatrics that by the end of the day it was almost an afterthought. Simpson sits 5 behind the leader Dufner, at -4. Robert Garrigus and Adam Scott had multiple-shot leads earlier in the day as well but by the time dusk fell, you could hardly remember it. Justin Rose also looked really strong and both he and Scott have great chances to capture a second major in a season.
First round co-leader Jim Furyk holed one from across the green on the 1st for birdie and that set the tone for another good day, shooting 68 but looking a bit like an aging veteran contending early before an inevitable fade. After 6 horrible scores in row in this year’s majors, it will be interesting to see if he can hold it together through the weekend. Matt Kuchar on the other hand is making it look easy and he has some history at Oak Hill, with a near-defense of his US Amateur title here in 1998. Kuchar is without question one of the favorites going into the weekend.
Henrik Stenson is very quietly near the top again and it’s hard to imagine anyone getting into contention at a major in more stealth a fashion. But before anyone is going to play “Let’s Look for Swedes” (old David Letterman skit for you youngsters) Henrik has to prove that he’s a serious contender on Sunday and that has yet to happen for him. Tiger Woods on the other hand managed as much attention as Jason Dufner despite being way, way back and it’s amazing how far off his game he has fallen in just 5 days. He’s at +1, McIlroy is Even, Mickelson is +2, and it’s hard to see any of those three contending in these soft conditions though you would never say never with any of the three.
Along those lines one of the biggest stories to watch this weekend will be whether Oak Hill is able to conjure up a defense worthy of a major championship. Dan Jenkins said that the current assault puts the course in danger of being “de-majored” and that might not be far off. In the 1989 US Open, it rained so much that the moniker “Soak Hill” came into being but the winning score was -2 and the course took the water far better than it has so far this week. It’s almost as if fresh sod was laid in all of the fairways and when you see fried-egg lies in the middle of the green (balls landing and staying in their marks), it’s safe to say the course is not putting up its best defense. Here’s hoping that turns around as this is a magnificent venue and the last thing the PGA needs as a tournament is a 15-under winning score on such a great course.