Watch American Jason Dufner walk off a green and you’d do well to work out if he had made an eagle, a par or a double bogey. Such is his level-headed, unflustered demeanour, he’s quickly become known for his laid-back approach to his profession. In his own words: “It’s just golf.”
TG meets Dufner in the lobby of the Saadiyat St Regis hotel – the players’ base for the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship. He meanders in dragging his heels following a five-hour slog in the pro-am and slumps in a chair, his head almost level with his waist. For a first impression, you’d be forgiven for thinking the 35-year-old is suitably disinterested in professional golf. But having spent some time in his company, this couldn’t be further than the truth.
He’s relaxed, yes, but has a dedicated work ethic. He’s also likeable, has a great, slightly dry, sense of humour and understands that being a top Tour pro doesn’t just extend to playing 18 holes a day – there are off-course commitments that come with it (an attitude
other tour pros could learn from) that he takes in his stride to spread the ever-growing Dufner brand around the world.
In comparison to the likes of Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods, Dufner was a late bloomer. Growing up in Ohio, Washington DC and then South Florida, Dufner was a basketball and baseball player who didn’t get serious about golf until age 15. Self-taught, he says he was a “pretty average” high school player who attracted limited interest from college recruiters. He studied economics during a prolific period at Auburn University, winning three times, but only found his way on to the PGA Tour nine years later.
An avid reader, Dufner has read biographies of everyone from Arnold Palmer to Abraham Lincoln, trying to understand, in his words, “how successful people are wired.” While his counterparts smash ball after ball on the range, a significant part of Dufner’s preparation is sitting quietly and replaying rounds in his head. He often imagines a different outcome for a particular shot, using methods cribbed from a book about the visualization techniques of Russian weightlifters.
Don’t be fooled by Dufner’s blasé approach. He’s a shrewd man and an even smarter golfer. He realises where his strengths and weaknesses lie and how to play to those strengths on the course. That’s why his heroes growing up were the likes of David Toms, Bob Estes and Scott Verplank, successful pros who weren’t physically gifted.
“They learned to maximize what they had,” Dufner says. “I don’t think
I have as much talent as a lot of other guys do. To succeed I have to do a lot of different things. I need to be stronger mentally. I have to prepare harder and smarter. I have to maximize my equipment. I have to do things other guys don’t. You have to be honest with yourself, which isn’t easy.”
By his own admission, Dufner hasn’t taken to the fitness revolution in the pro game. This hasn’t affected his ability to perform at the highest level.
“My big problem is I love eating bad stuff,” he says. “A lot of guys feel bad about it, but I don’t. I’m very happy to have a dinner of fried mozzarella sticks, a dozen chicken wings and three Cokes. And then dessert.”
Dufner’s progression in his golf career has been steady. After a brief unsuccessful spell on the PGA Tour in 2007, Dufner returned in 2009 via Q-School and has never looked back. He finished fifth at the 2010 US PGA Championship, then lost in a play-off to Mark Wilson at the Waste Management Phoenix Open early in 2011. His most famous near-miss came in August later that year at the US PGA Championship in Atlanta. Dufner had a five-shot lead with four holes to play but a series of dropped shots and a birdie blitz from compatriot Keegan Bradley meant he was forced into a three-hole aggregate play-off he lost. He three-putted the 17th green both in regulation play and in the play-off. He admits if he could have one shot back in his career, it would be that putt on the 71st hole.
“I really didn’t realise how fast that putt was. People have told me on television: “How did you not see how fast that putt was? Everybody was blowing it way by the hole.” But I didn’t have the luxury of watching people do that. After blowing both of those putts way past I wish I could have that one back.”
With two play-off defeats in quick succession, Dufner was quickly becoming labelled a nearly man. So when the maiden win finally came at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans there was a huge sense of relief. How did he celebrate? In an understated way typical of Dufner’s persona: doing house chores until 3.30am with his new bride Amanda, whom he met on a blind date set up by mutual friends. They unpack, open the mail, pay the bills, sort the dirty clothes and tally up their travel expenses. “I don’t like clutter,” he says.
With the monkey off his back, the floodgates opened. Two events later, he notched up his second Tour win at the HP Byron Nelson Championship.
“It’s really hard to win on either of these major tours, there’s so many great golfers out there. A lot of times you can play good golf and not win a tournament. That’s one of the big things, being confident and patient with your game, taking advantages of some opportunities and some breaks and getting those victories. Last season was nice, picking up those two wins and some other good finishes and I’m looking forward to building on that.”
Many European golf fans won’t have been all too familiar with the ‘Duf’ until the Ryder Cup at Medinah, where he was joint-top point scorer for his team winning three out of his four matches. His only loss that week was more than excusable, coming at the hands of six finishing birdies from an unstoppable Ian Poulter and Rory McIlroy in the
Saturday afternoon fourballs. For Dufner, his memories are bittersweet.
“Obviously it was my first time at that event; it was pretty exciting. I feel individually I played pretty well, gave a good effort to get some points for the team. On the other end, for us to not win stings. I don’t think I’ll ever get over it. I’m holding onto the pain. That gives me motivation for this year’s US Presidents Cup team... and hopefully playing in Scotland in 2014.”
Unbelievably, Dufner even showcased a couple of fist pumps during Ryder Cup week, a sight just as rare as a USA victory. “It’s hard not to in that environment. Usually when I’m out playing, there’s only maybe 20 or 25 people watching me, and one of those is my wife. When the holes are packed with people, the atmosphere is unbelievable. I’ve never experienced anything like it. So it kind of takes over and the moment kind of gets inside your body. A couple of fist pumps here and there were probably much needed after all of the calm demeanour I’ve had over the years.”
These days Dufner is big time, loitering around the top 10 in the world rankings. The reason for this is two-fold. His near miss at the 2011 US PGA gave him the knowledge he could compete at the top; and he’s made significant improvements in his scrambling ability, the area of the game that was holding him back.
“Even then I felt like I had a good enough game to win out there, capturing some events. I played some pretty good golf after that as well, would have liked to have won some events when I had a chance. The main thing is it gives you a lot of confidence. With my short game I improved my technique a little bit, practised a bit more. Got more of an understanding on what makes the golf ball do what around the greens, learning how to read lies when you’re in the rough and bunkers. Just a lot of different things. And obviously if you want to be good at scrambling good putting helps, so it’s been a combination of working on those two factors.”
With an upgraded short game combined with a steady long game, one thing is for sure. Jason Dufner is here to stay, so remember the name.