AVONDALE — After coming tantalizingly close to his first PGA Tour victory in the PGA Championship last August, only to watch a five-stroke lead with three holes to play evaporate, Jason Dufner had to wonder if he’d ever win a tournament.
The same thought had to cross his mind Sunday on the back nine of the final round of the Zurich Classic of New Orleans.
After having success with three consecutive top-10 finishes at TPC Louisiana — including a tie for third a year ago — Dufner took a two-stroke lead into the final round of the $6.4 million tournament after sleeping on the 54-hole lead for the third time in his career.
But it certainly wasn’t easy again Sunday.
He fell two strokes behind Ernie Els after just seven holes, caught up, then produced four straight par-saving putts — one of them an amazing 44-footer after his tee shot found the water on No. 16 — and survived a two-hole playoff with Els to notch his first win.
It was anything but another day at the office for the 35-year-old Dufner, whose $1.152 million payday will help pay the bills for his wedding on Saturday to longtime girlfriend Amanda Boyd.
The laid-back Dufner seemed stunned when his tap-in birdie on the second extra hole dropped to the bottom of the cup, perhaps because Els could have won on the 72nd hole as well as the first playoff hole.
“I was probably relieved a little bit,” Dufner said when asked if he was more relieved or excited about finally winning in his 164th career PGA Tour start. “There’s been a good bit of pressure — not pressure, but just people talking about, ‘Why aren’t you winning, you can’t close the deal,’ from friends, family, media, even people in my inner circle.
“It wasn’t in a negative way, but when you’re leading tournaments going into the weekend and you’re finishing 24th, there’s going to be some questions.”
The Auburn University graduate nearly had to deal with it again.
Dufner had a chance to win in regulation on the par-5 18th hole after Els barely missed a 161/2-foot birdie putt, but Dufner, who was playing in the final group behind Els, failed to drain a 101/2-footer.
On the first playoff hole, Els missed a putt of 5 feet, 9 inches that would have given him the win. But Dufner slammed the door on Els with a 1-foot birdie after Els’ birdie attempt from the fringe drifted wide by inches.
Dufner (67-65-67-70) and Els (66-68-68-67) finished tied at 19-under 269 after matching par-for-par down the stretch and were two strokes better than Luke Donald (73-65-66-67) at 271.
Els made eight straight pars after his final birdie of the day at the par-5 No. 11 and Dufner had nine in a row after he birdied the par-4 10th hole.
Until that point, they had combined for 41 birdies and two eagles in the tournament.
After that, however, it was more of a battle of survival.
“There was separation (with the field) there when I got to No. 15, it seemed like, and you can make some birdies between 15 and 18,” Dufner said. “I figured it would be me and Ernie battling it out.”
The shot Dufner talked about was his tee shot that landed in the pond left of the green, which came after he made par-saves of 9 and 4 feet on the two previous holes.
As he surveyed the situation, a large alligator was lurking in the water about 15 feet from the ball. He took a drop and hit his next shot onto the green, but a long way from cup.
He calmly rolled the 44-footer in, then canned another nice 6-foot putt on No. 17 to stay afloat. Dufner said he made a long birdie at No. 16 last year, which gave him some confidence that he could do it again.
“I was actually pretty comfortable with it,” he said. “That’s unexpected, but that’s what I was trying to do. I knew I had to do it. You need a little bit of luck when you’re at that range, but it was nice to go in.
“I felt like my putting kind of got me through, and, generally speaking, that’s what you have to do to win an event.”
Els, who won $691,200, was disappointed in finishing second after playing in New Orleans for the first time since 2002.
“I was a little disappointed in my ball-striking on the back nine,” said Els, the only player in the tournament to shoot in the 60s all four rounds. “I didn’t get as many chances for birdies, and subsequently, I had a lot of putts for pars — which I made.”