AVONDALE, La. — Jason Dufner’s recent late-tournament struggles made it easy to understand why a putt under 2 feet on a playoff hole at the Zurich Classic made him more nervous than the thought of getting married next weekend.
“There’s a been a good bit of pressure,” Dufner said. “People talking about, ‘Why aren’t you winning? Why can’t you close the deal? ... Friends, family, media, even people in my inner circle. And not in a negative way, but when you’re leading tournaments going into weekends and you’re finishing 24th, there’s going to be some questions.”
Dufner maintained his composure through not one, but two playoff holes against one of the more accomplished veterans in the game Sunday, beating Ernie Els with a birdie on their second extra trip up the par-5 18th to win for the first time in 164 starts on the PGA Tour.
The win should also stamp out some of the bad memories haunting Dufner since the Masters Tournament, when he shared the lead after two rounds but faded to 24th. The 35-year-old Dufner also held five previous leads through two rounds – two this year, only to fade down the stretch.
Entering the fourth round with a two-shot lead in New Orleans, Dufner shot 2-under-par 70 at TPC Louisiana, while Els had 67 to match Dufner for a course-record 19-under 269 total.
Both missed birdie putts within 8 feet on the par-5 18th in the first playoff, so they went back to the 18th tee for the second extra hole, which Dufner won by hitting the green in two strokes and tapping home a short birdie putt after Els’ birdie attempt from the fringe narrowly missed.
Dufner lost playoffs last year to Mark Wilson in the Phoenix Open and Keegan Bradley in the PGA Championship for two of his three career runner-up finishes.
“It’s always really tough playing on Sundays whether you’re in the lead or middle of pack, and today I was fighting, trying to win event, and I think I showed myself a good bit out there,” Dufner said. “It was tough. Ernie made a great run at me and it felt like with five or six holes (to go) we were probably going to be battling for the win.
“To get the monkey off of my back, it’s a great feeling.”
The 6-foot-3 Els, who goes by the nickname “The Big Easy,” hasn’t won on the PGA Tour since the 2010 Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, a little more than two years ago.
He did not have a single bogey in the final round or playoff, and would have won his 19th career PGA Tour title in, of all places, the Big Easy, if he could have made a birdie putt of a little less than 6 feet on the first playoff hole. He pushed it more than 2 feet past the edge of the hole.
“It was a nice little charge I made and, you know, nice to catch the leader,” Els said. “I had a chance to win the tournament with a 6-footer and missed it, but I made quite a few putts on the back nine to keep myself in it. ... Hit the ball pretty well today <0x2014> no bogeys on the final round <0x2014> so there’s a lot of positives.”
On the second playoff hole, Els’ tee shot went into a fairway bunker, and his second shot landed 137 yards from the pin. His third shot landed on the fringe, nearly 19 feet from the pin, but he nearly saved birdie from there, his putt missing by 2 inches.
Dufner then made his birdie putt from less than 2 feet, and in his typically low-key way, briefly raised both arms to acknowledge the cheering crowd before casually walking off the green to accept some congratulatory hugs, including from fiancée Amanda Boyd.
“It’s awesome. He’s been so close so many times. I don’t feel like it’s real,” Boyd said. “It will be a good wedding.”
Dufner called it a “great wedding present for both of us.”
“It helps with paying for the wedding, obviously,” added Dufner, who earned $1,152,000. “They’re a little more expensive than I thought or had imagined. ... It’ll be a big celebration not only for our marriage but also for my first victory out on the Tour.”
Luke Donald shot a 67 to finish third at 17 under, and move past Rory McIlroy for the No. 1 ranking in the world.
“That’s a nice consolation,” Donald said, adding that the rankings could change again when he takes next week off and McIlroy is expected to play. “It’s been going back and forth a little bit. Rory’s turn next week. ... It was a little bit of a motivation to try and play well today.”
Defending Zurich Classic champ Bubba Watson, playing for the first time since a life-changing win at the Masters over Easter weekend, entered the final round eight shots off the lead. He was unable to mount a charge after bogeys on his first two holes. He wound up tied for 18th at 11 under, a solid outing by most standards, but one of his worst finishes of the year.
“All in all, pretty good week being tired, coming back for the first time after winning the Masters, all this different media attention,” Watson said. “It’s something you got to get used to. (It) wears on you, tires you out. Somehow I finished <0x2014> I’m in the top 20. A lot of guys wished they did that.”
Els and Dufner were tied at 19 under after 11 holes. Els made par on each of his final seven holes of regulation. Dufner made par on his final eight, none more difficult than on 16, when he hit into water, but salvaged par with a 44-foot putt.
Els’ 17-foot birdie putt on 18 missed by about an inch, opening the door for Dufner to win in regulation if he could birdie the 585-yard hole to cap his fourth round.
While Els was on the practice green preparing for a possible playoff, Dufner chipped on to set up a potential winning putt from 10 1/2 feet.
Although he could not convert, pushing the ball about a foot past the right edge of the hole, he made up for it in the playoff.
Now it’s on to a mid-season wedding, though honeymoon plans are a little unclear and may be on hold until after the British Open.
“The honeymoon is going to be at The Players Championship,” Dufner joked about the event in two weeks at TPC Sawgrass. “They got an island green. Pretty cool event.”