PITTSFORD, N.Y — There is much to applaud about a major season that began in April with 14-year-old Guan Tianlang becoming the youngest competitor at the Masters and ended Sunday with Jason Dufner and Jim Furyk locked in combat at the PGA Championship for the Wanamaker Trophy.
If 2013 has demonstrated anything, it is that golf’s populism is in full swing despite the exclusionary mindset of many of the people who govern and guard it. While some persist in believing there is one preferred sex, swing and career path, the game continues to flaunt its diversity.
It’s in Adam Scott’s perfect swing and Furyk’s perfectly functional one.
It’s in the fast path to the PGA Tour of the 19-year-old American Jordan Spieth, who won an event as a temporary member, and 21-year-old Hideki Matsuyama of Japan, who in four months has made enough money to earn his playing privileges for next season.
It’s in the protracted journey of Dufner. A year older than Guan when he started playing golf, Dufner is an overnight success story that has played out over a decade and included a failed stint on the PGA Tour in 2004 when he made $317,770 in 28 starts.
At 36, Dufner is 15 months younger than Tiger Woods, who has spent the past five years in unsuccessful pursuit of his 15th major title. Dufner graduated from Auburn in 1997, Woods’ first full year on the Tour, and with his two-stroke victory Sunday at the PGA Championship at Oak Hill, he served a reminder that not every major champion has to be a prodigy.
As recently as last year, Dufner was routinely described as a journeyman player. He won his first two PGA Tour events in 2012, beating the World Golf Hall of Fame member Ernie Els in a playoff in New Orleans and coming back three weeks later to win the Byron Nelson Championship.
Dufner is the 18th player to win a major in the past 20 events, dating to 2009, the first full year of Woods’ drought. The only multiple winners in that time have been Rory McIlroy (2011 U.S. Open, 2012 PGA Championship) and Phil Mickelson (2010 Masters, 2013 British Open), further proof that the game does not discriminate. McIlroy was 23 at the time of his most recent major championship; Mickelson was 43.
Straddling the generations is Dufner, the laid-back late bloomer. Until he put himself in a position to win the PGA Championship two years ago, Dufner was invisible in plain sight, like most every other citizen golfer in the wide world of Woods.
Those who wonder why there are not more repeat winners in the majors should consider this: In the 20 majors between 1999 and 2003, there was one repeat winner: Woods, who won seven times.
Two years ago, when Dufner was in his sixth year on the Tour and winless, he said: “There’s tons and tons of guys that can play golf out here. The networks and the media maybe focus on bigger names for a reason. That’s who people want to see. People want to see Tiger Woods, people want to see Phil Mickelson. But there are other guys that can really, really play golf out here and that are good that you’ve never heard of.
Dufner added: “I just think it’s very, very competitive out here. I don’t think the average golf fan realizes how competitive it is to be on the PGA Tour, keep your card, win tournaments.”
The pool of talent is not getting shallower. In a nod to the game’s growth in Guan’s homeland, the PGA Tour on Monday announced the hiring of Greg Gilligan as its liaison in China, a newly created role.
Scott, the reigning Masters champion, said: “I think generally golf is in a great spot at the moment. With so many guys playing so well, and people getting to know all these players a little bit, I think it is also what makes it interesting for everyone.”
Dufner’s first brush with fame this year came when his friend and fellow golfer Keegan Bradley tweeted a photograph of Dufner slumped against the wall of a children’s classroom. In no time Twitter was alive with people tweeting photographs of themselves and others Dufnering.
If that is not the image of a major champion that those who govern and guard the game want to see, well, they better get used to it. Winning the PGA Championship “is definitely going to change my life,” Dufner said, “but I’m determined that it’s not going to change me.”