DUBLIN, Ohio — One of the best perks from winning the Memorial is to walk off the 18th green and into a warm handshake from tournament host Jack Nicklaus.
Not to be overlooked for Jason Dufner was the posse of pals who also wanted to celebrate with him.
First among them was Rickie Fowler, whom Dufner put away with a 30-foot par save on the 18th hole at Muirfield Village for a 4-under 68 to complete an amazing turnaround. Dufner went from a five-shot lead on Friday to a four-shot deficit on Saturday and a three-shot victory on Sunday.
For a guy who prefers a flat line, that was a little more excitement than he needed.
Jordan Spieth, never a serious threat when his short game went cold, also hung around to see Dufner. Still on the course was Justin Thomas, who was in position to make a move until he missed a 4-foot birdie putt on the 13th and an 8-foot birdie putt on the 14th.
That’s some of the company the 40-year-old Dufner has been keeping.
Never mind they are a generation apart and would appear to have little in common. Dufner believes they helped rejuvenate him.
“There have been times where I’ve kind of fallen in and out of love with golf, to be honest with you,” Dufner said. “It was good to be around those guys. They’re excited. They’re passionate. They’re working hard at it. They want to play good. They’re hungry. They want to win tournaments. They want to win majors. So for me to be around them I think helped me kind of get to this point.”
Dufner said he looks at golf as a job. He is not big on casual golf when he’s home in Alabama. He practices. He works.
But he decided to head even further South for the winter and took up residence with Fowler in Jupiter, Florida. They weren’t always around at the same time, but Dufner wound up playing more than he ever would at home.
“We had a good winter,” he said. “I spent a lot of time down there in November and December, and I spent all of February down there. He was down there a lot. So I played with those guys a lot. Played with Justin Thomas a lot, and Rickie. We had some good matches. I think it was good for me.”
If he’s so tight with them, why wasn’t he in the Bahamas for their fabled spring break trips?
“I’m always invited to spring break,” Dufner said. “They always go during Hilton Head. I almost had a chance to win there. They were giving me grief because I wasn’t there with them.”
Fowler is close with Jack and Barbara Nicklaus. He would love nothing more than to win the Memorial, and he’s had a few chances. Fowler was runner-up in 2010, shot 84 from the final group playing with Tiger Woods in 2012 and was among the leaders on the back nine Sunday.
Dufner took the lead with a two-putt birdie on the par-5 15th. He picked up a critical birdie on the 17th with a 56-degree wedge to 3 feet. And then when a second rain delay arrived, that two-shot lead didn’t appear all that safe. Dufner was in trouble in deep rough. Fowler was in the fairway with a wedge to the green.
Upon returning, Dufner took two shots to get within 30 feet for par. Fowler just missed the green to the left. It looked as though Fowler would need to chip in to force a playoff – a shot Dufner has seen far too often during their games in Florida. Dufner ended the suspense by holing the par putt.
Fowler was thrilled for him.
“I want to beat him just as bad as he wants to beat me,” Fowler said. “But to see him make the putt on the last was cool.”
Thomas had such a good week with the putter that he was bummed to let two birdie chances get away, not to mention his par on the reachable 15th and a bogey on the 16th that effectively ended his chances.
“But I’m really happy for Duf,” he said
No one was happier than Dufner, a former PGA champion who picked up his fifth career victory and $1,566,000, the largest paycheck of his career.
He is back into the top 50, moving up to No. 27. More than moving up in the FedEx Cup, Dufner moved up 19 spots to No. 6 in the Presidents Cup standings. It was his Presidents Cup appearance at Muirfield Village in 2013 that made him realize he could play this course. He also played in the 2012 Ryder Cup.