It’s true that the PGA West Stadium Course, set up for the CareerBuilder Challenge, wasn’t nearly the monster that made the PGA Tour’s players shiver in their shoes 29 years ago.
No matter. It still has all the elements for exquisite drama.
In quickly disappearing light, the sun having dipped well behind the Santa Rosa Mountains late on Sunday afternoon, Jason Dufner put an end to a winless string of more than two years with a couple of theatrical escapes on the course in La Quinta, including one he jokingly surmised was “one in 50 million.”
At “Alcatraz,” the island par-three penultimate hole on the Stadium, Dufner was not trapped but saved by the rocks, produced a remarkable chip and then saved par.
And in an ensuing playoff with Sweden’s David Lingmerth, Dufner got up and down for par from 107 yards, draining a 10-foot putt to force an extra hole. He then prevailed on the second overtime hole at 18 when Lingmerth yanked his second shot from the rough into the water, Dufner finishing with a two-putt par.
The shot and the break that the 2013 PGA Championship winner will remember came at the 17th. Dufner called Pete Dye’s island hole in the desert harder than its more infamous twin at TPC Sawgrass in Florida, where the Players Championship is contested.
“I’ve never hit it in the water at Sawgrass,” Dufner said with a shrug. “Neither me or anybody I’ve ever played with has ever hit a ball in the water at 17.”
The Sawgrass 17th is flat from the tee and the green is clean-shaven and supported by railroad ties. On the PGA West 17th, Dufner explained, the tee is elevated, the shot longer (165 yards) and the wind trickier.
On Sunday, Dufner chose an eight-iron, but pulled the shot just enough that the ball ran through the green. At Sawgrass, it would have motored into the water, and Dufner thought his ball was wet here. But he soon discovered it had settled in a bare spot between the rocks, giving him a decent lie, balanced stance and unencumbered swing.
He said the lie on dirt was like something out of the British Open, and he picked his shot clean, the ball running and hitting the flagstick before settling one foot from the hole. Dufner’s par kept him tied with Lingmerth, and neither could make a birdie putt on the 72nd hole to win outright.
Dufner was in trouble again on the first playoff hole after he drove into a bunker, but he put his second-shot wedge to 10 feet and made the nervy putt.
Of working diligently in the off-season to improve a game that had gone flat, Dufner said, “I worked on . . . trying to be confident again. Feeling like I’m a good player. When you play bad out here and you don’t have results or you don’t meet expectations, you get down. It’s tough out here.”
Phil Mickelson debuted his new swing for the new year and was encouraged by getting as close as three shots to the lead Sunday. He closed with a 68 and tied Andrew Loupe (68) and Kevin Na (68) for third at 21 under.
Mickelson showed considerable control, finishing No. 2 in the field in strokes gained from tee to green. But he didn’t hit his approach shots very close and ranked only 30th in strokes gained putting. He made only four birdies Sunday, though consecutive threes at 14 and 15 gave him a slight hope.
But Mickelson’s second shot on the par-five 16th sliced into the 20-foot-deep “San Andreas fault” bunker, and after failing to escape on the first try, Mickelson could only save a nice par.
Jamie Lovemark, the USC alum seeking his first PGA Tour win and playing in the final threesome, was undone by three shots into the water — at No. 8, 10 and 13 — all resulting in double bogey. He shot 73 and tied for sixth.