The Season’s Final Major is now half-over (he said with a tear in his eye and a lump in his throat). Jason Dufner took full advantage of soft conditions to set a new Oak Hill East Course record and tie the low-round in a major with a 63 Friday (read about it here).
He’ll take a two-shot lead into the weekend with a full complement of the world’s best players right behind him. Adam Scott, the reigning Masters champion who also held the lead briefly in the final round at Muirfield last month, will accompany Dufner in Saturday’s final pairing, one of three players tied for second at seven-under-par. Those other two will be the penultimate group, Matt Kuchar, a two-time winner on Tour in 2013 and Jim Furyk who looks to rebound after a season of close calls and heartbreak in 2012. That final four is enough make a golf fan stick to the couch all weekend, aside from this being a major championship.
But the depth of Dufner’s challengers doesn’t end with the closest pursuers. Three of the pace are none other than the man who held off Dufner and others two months ago at Merion, Justin Rose. Rose got to six-under after a blistering second-nine where he took 29 shots Friday. Tied with Rose is perhaps the hottest golfer on the planet right now, Henrik Stenson. The tall Swede finished second to Phil Mickelson at the British Open and second to Tiger Woods at the Bridgestone Invitational in his last two starts. Stout.
But wait, there’s more!
The venerable Steve Stricker is looking to take his first major and is four back tied with long-hitting Robert Garrigus, who had it to eight-under at one point Friday before faltering coming in. At four-under is 2010 PGA champ Martin Kaymer, remember him holing the Ryder-Cup-clinching putt last fall? And 2012 US Open champ Webb Simpson who, for about four or five hours, shared the Oak Hill course record after a stellar 64. That was before Jason Dufner, though.
Clearly the tournament is Dufner’s to win (or lose, but let’s be positive here!). Ripe scoring conditions will continue through the weekend, although perhaps not quite as ripe as Friday. If viewers and spectators like a birdie-fest the players and Oak Hill will be able to provide.
That provides a bit of a double-edged sword for the leader and the chasers (so, like a quadruple-edged sword, I think). Easy scoring means a player who is back in the back can, perhaps, post an early 65 or less Saturday or Sunday and set a clubhouse number for the leaders to look at.
It also means that a 65 or less is gettable so the leaders will likely be able to match, or come close to a super-low score. I see anyone within five shots, that’s anyone in the top ten through 36, as having a reasonable chance. But players with the collective pedigree of this top ten are not likely to give up their position the way this golf course is playing.
The two big questions are 1) How does Jason Dufner follow up his 63? 2) Will the scoring conditions at Oak Hill allow a player to chase down Dufner, even if he plays well through the weekend?
Here are my picks from before the tournament in the reserve order of their standing (at least they all made the cut):
1) Brandt Snedeker – Made the cut on the number at +3, 12 shots back. No chance of capturing his first major, but a solid weekend could result in back-door top 10.
2) Tiger Woods – T-38, +1, 10 shots back. He’s on pace to finish where he did in 2003 at Oak Hill, T-39. A solid ballstriking round Friday turned out an even-par 70, with 32 putts. He can grind with Sean Foley post-round all he wants, it’s about making putts for Tiger.
3) Jason Day – T-15, -2, seven shots back. Day has an outside shot to win. But it will take something around 130 on the weekend. It’s not inconceivable at this Oak Hill. But he’ll need to avoid playing off the cartpath as he’s done both times on #17 thus far and perhaps that the leaders end up doing that instead.
4) Sergio Garcia – T-13, -3, six shots back. If Jason Day has an outside shot then Sergio has a one-foot-in-the-door shot. He CAN get around Oak Hill with his tee-to-green game, and a pair of 67s this weekend could go a long way, but only if the leaders falter.
5) Henrik Stenson – T-5, -6, three shots back. It’s no surprise that Stenson is in this position given his recent form. I give him the fourth best chance this weekend behind Dufner, Scott and Rose. Birdie chances won’t be a question for Stenson, it will be about avoiding bogeys to stay in the mix.