OK, it’s show of hands time. Anyone who thought the final Sunday of the year’s final major would arrive with the words “Jim Furyk” atop the leader board, please step forward to accept congratulations.
Yeah, that’s what we thought, too.
Though the fans were vocal in their support of the 43-year-old suburban Philadelphian as he grinded through 18 holes at Oak Hill on Saturday, chances are few of them would have guessed it’d be him who was within 18 holes of grasping the Wanamaker Trophy come Sunday.
Of course, with top position comes added all-or-nothing peril—providing the chance for more magnified celebration, or devastation—as the 19-year touring pro is already well aware.
The man with 16 wins on tour, including a U.S. Open title in 2003, had plenty of pedigree to make himself a contender for the championship. But, given his track record in majors in the decade since his breakthrough, specifically last summer, the odds seemed decidedly against it.
Only 14 months ago, Furyk entered the final day at the Olympic Club in San Francisco as the only man who’d not had a round over par and seemed on the verge of adding a second U.S. Open to his resume. He pulled two shots ahead of playing partner Graeme McDowell within the first five holes and reached the 16th tee tied for the lead with a pair of par fives—holes that had suited him all week—immediately ahead.
Problem was, with glory in his sights…adversity took over.
A 3-wood off the tee headed directly for the trees and wound up as a bogey. He was unable to keep an approach at 17 out of a bunker, then was unable to make birdie upon exiting. And, upon landing in sand again at 18, he failed to hole out and had to stand and watch as a previously unknown Webb Simpson posed with the hardware he’d seemed so ready to claim as his own.
“On the back nine,” Furyk said afterward at a press conference, “it was my tournament to win.”
Instead, with a tie for fourth, it became the 35th straight major he didn’t win since a three-shot lapping of the field at Olympia Fields in 2003—where his 272 over four rounds tied a 23-year-old mark (since lowered to 268) for the lowest score in U.S. Open history.
Five more majors have come and gone since the near-miss, and Furyk’s subsequent results line of tied for 34th (2012 British), tied for 42nd (2012 PGA), tied for 25th (2013 Masters), missed cut (2013 U.S. Open) and missed cut (2013 British) did little to create buzz that Rochester would be different.
Even his best round of the year—a tourney-opening 65 on Thursday—did little to budge the opinion needle, with experts generally viewing the performance as the sort of early sleight of hand that’s usually forgotten by late Sunday.
A second-round 68 left him two shots behind 36-hole leader Jason Dufner heading into Saturday, but the Alabaman’s double-bogey on the fifth reignited Furyk’s belief that an initially soaked and now rapidly-drying course was a complement to his style.
“The greens were a touch faster today. I had to readjust the machine out there,” said Furyk, who’d said after the first round that he thought the course was a “good fit” for his game.
He regained an outright lead Saturday with an uphill putt for birdie on 12, fell back even with Dufner after a bogey on 15, then ensured some Sunday drama with a 15-footer for birdie on 17 and a par from the fringe on 18 that was greeted by a pair of gut-felt fist pumps and suddenly made his final-round strategic plan—not any lingering nightmares from last summer—the topic of an initial post-round question from CBS’ Bill Macatee.
“I’ll have to assess the situation when I get out there,” he said. “It’s a crowded leaderboard, so the goal is to go out and fire a good number and try get out there ahead.”
Had he held the lead for more than just a few minutes in the late going, the queries might have focused more on last June. And if he's successful enough to find himself in winning position again, he'll have to contend with the possibility of a repeat meltdown as the hole numbers grow larger and the margin for error gets smaller.
It's no picnic on the weekend, he conceded at Saturday evening's press conference, and nothing makes it easier on the final 18.
"It's only going to get harder," Furyk said.