PITTSFORD, N.Y. — On four occasions in 2012, Jim Furyk woke up on Sunday morning with the lead in a PGA Tour event and 18 holes left to play. He went out and won none of them.
Furyk also coughed up a late lead last year in his Ryder Cup singles match, when he bogeyed the last two holes against Sergio Garcia to gift a pivotal point toward Europe’s eventual 1-point win.
Ongoing trend, or buried and forgotten? We’ll find out on Sunday, when Furyk attempts to maintain the advantage he’s built after three rounds of the 95th PGA Championship at Oak Hill Country Club. It’s the slimmest of margins, just one shot over Jason Dufner, after both players gutted out impressive pars at the last hole, playing in the day’s final two groups.
Furyk made a 12-footer from the fringe on No. 18, the last stroke in a 2-under-par 68. Dufner overcame a drive into the heavy right rough a few minutes later, knocking in an 8-footer that hung on the right edge long enough that Dufner started walking toward it. Then the ball disappeared, giving Dufner a 71 and a spot opposite Furyk in Sunday’s last pairing.
In Dufner’s favor, and everyone else’s chasing Furyk: Only once in the past five years has the 54-hole leader at the PGA gone on to win. That was a year ago, when Rory McIlroy turned a three-shot lead into a record eight-shot win.
A pair of Swedes, Henrik Stenson (69) and Jonas Blixt (66), will be in the next-to-last group. Stenson is two shots back, Blixt three; they’ll attempt to become the first male golfer from Sweden to win a major championship.
Furyk is looking to win his second. He captured the 2003 US Open at Olympia Fields outside Chicago, and Oak Hill’s setup this week has reminded some of a traditional US Open course, which suits Furyk’s game well: Fairways must be hit, 6-footers must be holed, pars are good.
Birdies aren’t bad, either, and Furyk’s 3 at the par-4 17th hole deserves special mention. For someone who ranks 180th on the PGA Tour in driving distance, the thought of playing a 509-yard par 4 wouldn’t be met with much honest optimism. But Furyk’s a bulldog. He split the fairway, and then from 244 yards, knocked a fairway wood onto the green, 15 feet away. The birdie putt never left the hole, giving Furyk the outright lead at 9 under.
“I’m having fun with it, rather than getting tight,” Furyk said.
One of the 2012 tournaments Furyk let slip away was the US Open, which he led with three holes to play. Another was the Bridgestone Invitational, when he was in front with one to play. He also shared the third-round lead at the Tampa Bay Championship and the McGladrey Classic.
Furyk’s final-round scores in those four events weren’t bad — 69, 74, 69, 69 — but the end result wasn’t what he wanted. He’s still sitting on 16 PGA Tour titles and one major championship. He can change both on Sunday.
“I’ve been relaxed this week and felt very calm out there, and even when I haven’t hit good shots, I really haven’t let it bother me at all,” Furyk said. “That’s why on a bad start today, I was able to come back and turn it into a good round.”
Furyk bogeyed two of his first three holes, falling four shots behind Dufner, who couldn’t back up his course-record 63 on Friday with another under-par round. But Furyk made five birdies coming in, and when Dufner opened the door with a double bogey at 5, Furyk was the one to capitalize.
Dufner was steady after the early double, and played his final 10 holes 1 under. He’s looking for vindication, too: Two years ago at the PGA, he led after each of the last three rounds, before losing in a playoff. It’s the closest he’s come to winning a major.
“There’s a lot of guys that have a chance to win this tomorrow,” Dufner said. “You don’t have to play perfect to win these events. You’d like to play perfect, but I think patience is of the utmost importance on a Sunday in a major. I’m happy to be in the position I’m at, playing with Jim tomorrow.”
Beware the Swedes, though, especially Stenson, who has a third and two seconds in his last three events. He’s authored a courageous comeback after a swift fall down the world rankings. Two years ago, not eligible to play in the PGA, Stenson played in his club championship. He couldn’t even win that, so he’s come a long way.
Come Sunday night, Furyk is hoping to be able to say the same thing.
“People always ask: Would you rather be one ahead or one back? Well, I’d rather be one ahead,” Furyk said. “There’s going to be a winning score tomorrow, and whatever that score is, it means I don’t have to shoot as low as everyone else.
“There’s a crowded leader board at the top, and instead of really viewing it as who is leading and who is not, I’m really viewing it as I need to go out there tomorrow, put together a good, solid round of golf, fire a good number, and hope it stacks up well.”