Furyk steps up as Oak Hill dons its gloves

Jim Furyk during the third round of the 2013 PGA Championship at Oak Hill.

Jim Furyk during the third round of the 2013 PGA Championship at Oak Hill.

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Oak Hill’s vaunted East Course got up off the canvas Saturday after two docile days and decided to punch back, finally flexing its brawn and might. So on a tough afternoon when the greens began to dry and the winds began to swirl and the atmosphere transitioned into full major mode, it was no real surprise to see who stepped through to take on the course – one of the PGA Tour’s own resident brawlers, Jim Furyk.

Furyk doesn’t hit it the longest, wedge it the closest or putt it the best. Shoot, we all know he has a convoluted, loopy, homemade swing that for most, only a mother could love. (Though in Furyk’s case, his father Mike, is quite fine with it. He’s been his lifelong teacher.) You might even consider Jim Furyk an underdog – if only he would.

He doesn’t lack for confidence in himself, and he doesn’t lack for grit and tenacity. He knows chasing a second major championship to go along with a U.S. Open he won a decade ago has at times been a pursuit that has left him beaten, battered and scarred. The latest episode was last summer’s U.S. Open at Olympic Club, when Furyk seemed to be in complete control on the back nine before stumbling to a round of 73 and a T-4 finish.

Play this game long enough, and you’ll accumulate some bad memories, but you'll be be lucky to have plenty of good ones, too. Furyk, a devout Pittsburgh Steelers fan (he was looking forward to watching a preseason game on the DVR after enjoying dinner with his wife Saturday night), used a football analogy to describe a mindset that allows him to handle setbacks and bounce back strongly.

“You kind of have to have, if you will, a cornerback mentality,” Furyk said after a third-round 68 pushed him to 9-under 201, one shot better than his former Ryder Cup teammate, Jason Dufner (71). “You’re going to get beat up in this game a little bit. You have to forget about it, but I think you also have to figure out what you could have done better.

“I’ve talked about it countless times over what I could have done at the stretch of the U.S. Open or Ryder Cup (where last autumn he lost to Sergio Garcia in Sunday singles) or at Akron (where a double-bogey at the 72nd hole handed away the 2012 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational) better to change those situations. They are gone. I’ve made peace with that. Hopefully what I do is draw from that experience.”

Furyk’s friends often tell him he appears to be angry on the golf course, so he’s made an effort to lighten up a little bit this week. He hasn’t allowed himself to get rattled, which proved significant Saturday, when he jumped out to a very poor start. He fatted his approach at the opening hole (eventually getting up and down for par) and followed that with bogeys on the next two holes. Not an ideal start to the day. He even double-crossed a tee shot at the par-3 third, pulling his ball woefully left en route to giving away a shot to par.

But soon he would find a rhythm, and started hitting fairways and greens, playing intelligent, thought-out shots, and began moving in a positive direction on a day when only two players (Furyk and Henrik Stenson) in the final 10 groups were able to post a score of par or better. Furyk showed some fight at the end, making birdie from 244 yards out at the arduous, 504-yard 17th and pouring in a 15-footer from off the green to save par after popping up a tee shot at the 472-yard closer.

“He looked like the Jim Furyk of old,” said Matt Kuchar, who played alongside him and shot 76.

The Jim Furyk of old? Now that's a classic, dependable model. Sure, there are a lot of miles on the odometer, but Furyk has 16 PGA Tour wins, more than $54 million in career earnings and has been part of every U.S. Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup team since 1997. A victory Sunday and he's on the Hall of Fame's threshold. Having only one top-five finish this season (T-3, Texas Open) and having not won since the 2010 Tour Championship, he’s on the outside looking in to make this October’s Presidents Cup team, ranking 16th in the points table. That’s not foremost on his mind, though again, winning the PGA certainly would remedy the situation and extend his impressive streak. So certainly much is at stake over 18 holes.

Furyk will have plenty of talented folks on his tail Sunday at Oak Hill. Dufner is striking it well, having hit nearly 80 percent of his greens (43/54) this week. Stenson, two shots back, could be hotter over the last month than anybody in the field. Adam Scott (four shots back) finally has figured out how to contend at the big tournaments. And youngsters Jonas Blixt and Rory McIlroy (remember him?) are poised to pounce should Furyk and the others fall back.

History shows us things can get volatile in the final round of the PGA. In the last five years, only Rory McIlroy (2012) was able to convert a 54-hole lead into victory; he led by three and won by eight at Kiawah Island.

Furyk knows not everybody will be believing in him to get the job done. He understands that. Win or lose, he sees Sunday at Oak Hill as a fantastic opportunity. And the one guy who needs to believe in Jim Furyk does.

“In order to make it at this level or be successful for 20 years on the PGA Tour, you’d better believe in yourself, because there’s going to be some times when, you know, you feel lonely and you feel like you’re the only one out there,” Furyk said. “You always have to believe in yourself. That’s probably one of my strengths.”

Come Sunday at Oak Hill, that's not a bad bullet to have in his holster.

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