Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Stacy Lewis & Jason Dufner Both Find Validation in Weekend Wins

Both major American golf tours played in sunny, springtime weather in the Deep South this past weekend, and the winners in both the men’s and ladies’ events – though taking different routes to their destinations – each silenced their critics and gave their respective reputations and confidence an important boost.

Jason Dufner, a winless, late-blooming 35-year-old journeyman who has been playing on the Nationwide and PGA Tours since 2004, and Stacy Lewis, a fourth-year LPGA player who already has a major victory to her credit, might not appear to have much in common, at first glance – beyond the obvious fact that they are both professional golfers, and both hoisted trophies at their respective tour events this weekend. Dufner’s win, in the Zurich Classic at TPC Avondale, just outside New Orleans, was his first Tour victory; Lewis’, at the Mobile Bay LPGA Classic in Mobile, Alabama, was her second – but both wins provided validation, of a sort, for these two very different professional golfers.

Both Lewis and Dufner gained visibility with the media and the public during the 2011 season. Dufner rose to a certain fame for almost winning a major – the PGA Championship, the final major of the PGA season, which he lost in a dramatic 3-hole playoff to PGA rookie Keegan Bradley. Lewis, on the other hand, shot into the ladies’ golf firmament in only her third season on tour with a dramatic win at the first major of the season – the Kraft Nabisco Championship, which she snatched from the grasp of the LPGA’s most dominant player, Yani Tseng of Taiwan, by a commanding 3-stroke margin. Press coverage of both golfers in the months since those events have been full of speculation; in Dufner’s case the press have asked when he will get the playoff-loss monkey off his back and come back to finally score a “W”, for Lewis the speculation has been along the lines of “Was the Kraft Nabisco win a fluke, or does this gal really have what it takes?”

Jason Dufner is such a low-key character (one media wag has nicknamed him “Flatline” for his seemingly emotion-less demeanor) that even a win and a $1.152 million payday – a week before his wedding, no less – elicited no more than a mere twitch of a smile, and an admission that it was nice to get that behind him, during a post-round interview. Dufner had to go head-to-head in a playoff, again, before claiming victory in the Zurich Classic, but this time his opponent was not a rookie, but 42-year-old Tour veteran Ernie Els, a player with more tournament wins to his credit than Dufner has years on earth – including three major championship victories.

Dufner hung tough down the stretch in the final holes of regulation play to make it into the playoff against Els, rolling in a 44-foot putt on the 70th hole of the tournament to stay in contention. Els, who is in the midst of a 16-month-long winless streak (his most recent victory came in December, 2010, in the South African Open) blinked first during the playoff when his drive on the second hole of the playoff found a bunker just left of the fairway on the par-5 18th hole. With the possibility of getting on the green, or even decently close, taken out of the equation for Els, the tournament was Dufner’s for the taking. A nerveless second shot to nearly the exact spot on the green he had putted from just a few minutes before put Dufner in enviable position, and after Els failed to roll in a birdie putt from the left fringe, Jason had only to two putt from about 50 feet to secure his first victory – and a $1,152,000 wedding gift for his bride-to-be.

As Jason Dufner wrapped up his victory near the shores of Lake Ponchartrain, 130-odd miles away, near Mobile, Alabama, Stacy Lewis was working hard to put herself in the victory circle, too. Lewis, though a cheerful and good-natured young woman on the surface, has an intense character beneath her sunny demeanor, and was noticeably intent on clinching her validating, “Yes, I do belong here” victory at the Mobile Bay event on Sunday afternoon. The final round appeared to be shaping up as a showdown between Lewis, who led after 54 holes with a score of 202, and Brittany Lincicome, who was two strokes behind Lewis going into the final day of the tournament, but the long-hitting Lincicome, a seven-year veteran of LPGA competition, faded on Sunday, firing a disappointing 72 after two straight rounds of 67. Instead of Lincicome, the challenger who stepped up to put pressure on Stacy Lewis on Sunday afternoon was 17-year-old rookie phenom Lexi Thompson.

Thompson had something to prove in Mobile in 2012 – this time last year she entered the final day of competition tied for the lead with Korean Song-Hee Kim, but a closing round of 78 dropped her to T-19. Five strokes back of Lewis after 54 holes this year and playing in the second-to-last grouping, Thompson scorched the course with a bogey-free 65 to put some final round pressure on Stacy, and was briefly tied with her for the lead after a timely birdie at the 16th hole.

Lewis was growing frustrated in the middle of the final round. Her short iron play and putting fell off slightly for an eight-hole stretch, from 7 to 14, as she floundered in search of birdies to maintain her lead but could do no better than pars. A critical 3-putt bogey at the par-4 15th hole could have put her into a real funk – she was visibly upset with herself after closing out the hole – but a delay while the group ahead worked through their difficulties on the 16th green gave her time to collect herself. She bounced back admirably from the bogey at 15, negating it with a timely birdie at the par-5 16th to regain her one-stroke lead over Lexi Thompson. The closing pair of holes at the Crossings Course, a difficult par-3 and a long par-4, do not afford strong opportunities for a last-minute birdie when a pursuer needs to make up that critical final stroke to force a playoff, and both Lewis and Thompson parred in over the last two holes, cementing Lewis’ one-stroke win.

While Lexi banished the bad memories of last year’s final-round collapse with this year’s closing 65, Stacy Lewis’ hard-fought victory silenced the doubters amongst the press and the public who had begun to whisper that her 2011 Kraft Nabisco win might have been a fluke. She put together a string of four rounds in the 60s – the only player in the tournament to stay out of the 70s – and showed that she had the stuff to stand in the victory circle again.

Golf is a game that can get inside your head, and a lack – or loss – of confidence can be as debilitating as any physical injury. Standing up in front of the press and the fans with a trophy in your hand (and a fat paycheck in your pocket…) is a big confidence-booster, and in this game, somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Stacy Lewis and Jason Dufner both hung on this weekend for big victories that validated their belief in themselves and their abilities – and in this game, knowing that you can win is halfway to the winner’s circle.

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