McCabe: Dufner's perseverance pays off

Jason Dufner

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It was a random question tossed Geoff Ogilvy’s way more than a year ago: Who is the best player on the PGA Tour no one pays attention to?

“Jason Dufner,” Ogilvy said without a hint of hesitation.

Several months later, Ogilvy appeared to be a foreteller of sorts because what has unfolded has been a string of tournaments that made it difficult not to pay attention to Dufner.

For the wrong reasons, unfortunately.

The man was seemingly cemented to weekly leaderboards, a contender nearly every time you turned around. But a chance for major glory – five strokes ahead with four holes to play – cruelly slipped through his hands at the PGA Championship, the 36-hole lead at the Masters disintegrated in a 75-75 weekend, and while the strong finishes piled up, in Phoenix and Tampa and Orlando, so did a disconcerting tendency: Stellar on Thursday and Fridays, Dufner struggled on Saturdays and Sundays.

(Check out his results since 2001 here)

Hey, it wasn’t like he wasn’t aware of the landscape; fact is, he explored the reasons why and wasn’t shy about what he discovered.

“My putting,” he said earlier this season, when asked why someone so productive had yet to win on the PGA Tour. “It’s got to get a lot better. It’s held me back a little bit.”

Consider it mission accomplished. In a furnace called TPC Louisiana in Avondale, La., the 35-year-old Dufner finally rode a handful of clutch putts over the closing holes into a playoff, then prevailed on the second hole against Ernie Els to capture the Zurich Classic of New Orleans.

Guy who had never won in 163 previous PGA Tour events beats a Hall of Famer with 18 victories and 46 others worldwide? Go figure. Then again, don’t, because it’s golf and besides, here’s a bigger mystery: Who is Jason Dufner and how did he remain so patient for such a long period of time to seemingly come from nowhere to become so good?

Mike Griffin has a good feel for the answer, given that he had a front-row seat to the early days of the unfolding of the Dufner story. As head coach at Auburn, Griffin in the fall of 1996 had his annual walk-on qualifier where “anyone who was enrolled could come out for the team and Jason came in and signed the wall.”

Then the kid from St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., pretty much blitzed the field, opened some eyes, scored better than more heralded members of the Tiger team, and put himself in position to make a strong Auburn varsity team. Yes, Griffin was intrigued.

“Several months after classes had started, I went up to Jason and said, ‘Jason, how come I’ve never heard of you?’ He just looked at me and said, ‘Coach, I wrote you.’ “

Back in his office, Griffin dipped into the pile of letters he always saves, sorted through, and sure enough, there was Dufner’s introduction, and Griffin quickly realized why he hadn’t heard of him.

“He had a few top 20s in AJGA events, some good finishes in local tournaments, but nothing in his credentials separated him. I guess I wouldn’t say he came out of obscurity, but he was just one of the pack.”

Yet for four years, Griffin watched in admiration as Dufner went about his business with a commitment you cannot teach and he will tell you this: “He plays in the present better than anyone I ever had.”

The heartache at Atlanta AC last August when Keegan Bradley took the Wanamaker Trophy out of his hands? The weekend crash in Augusta, Ga., earlier this month when he fell out of a possible green jacket? Griffin acknowledges those disappointments, but said, “Jason can draw a line in the sand and what’s behind him is behind him. He moves away from it very quickly.”

• • •

How Dufner even got his foot into the PGA Tour door speaks volumes for the man’s commitment to his craft. No hand-outs, no slew of tournament exemptions, just an old-fashioned determination.

Having graduated in the spring of 2000, Dufner played the Golden Bear Tour that summer and fall and was going to do likewise in 2001 when he decided to do a Monday qualifier for a Nationwide Tournament in Hershey, Penn.

He finished T-12, which got him into the next week’s tournament in Wichita and when Dufner edged out David Gossett, Todd Rose, and Jeff Gove for that victory, he was at least in the PGA Tour family. For the rest of ‘01 and all of the next two years, Dufner toiled in the minors, then he had a forgettable 2004 season on the PGA Tour. Back on the Nationwide Tour for two seasons, Dufner continued to improve and when he finished eight on the money list in 2006, he earned a return to the PGA Tour.

He’s never looked back, but mostly because that’s his nature. He prefers to keep the focus on now and how that can take him forward.

“He’s gotten better every year,” said Dufner’s swing coach, Chuck Cook, who was a huge part of the late Payne Stewart’s success. Like Stewart, who was famous for his knickers, Dufner is not afraid to stand out from the crowd; as a Nationwide Tour player he fashioned bleached blonde hair and an earring, though now he’s his own man as a quiet, seemingly emotionless PGA Tour presence.

But that’s what the public sees, even some insiders, too, given that Nick Faldo during the final round on CBS had fun with the suggestion that Dufner might actually crack a smile. Ah, but this side of Dufner, even if it’s accepted by the huge majority of observers, isn’t close to being the true man, say those who know him.

“He’s astute, which is why Chuck is a good teacher for him,” said Ben Walter, Dufner’s agent with IMG. “Jason’s like a sponge with the stuff Chuck tells him, and he’s that great combination – he’s confident, yet humble.”

Told that a lot of people watch Dufner with his slow, meandering walk and his stoic expression and probably think there’s not much spark there, Cook laughed.

“There’s a lot to him that people don’t know,” said the longtime swing coach.

For instance, how about the fact that he’s widely regarded as one of the most knowledge within the Titleist family of PGA Tour players when it comes to matching the correct ball, shaft, lie, and loft with your particular swing? Dufner is constantly talking to the fitters and experiments constantly.

“I study it pretty well,” Dufner said. “I think it’s important for me. I’m not the most physically gifted player out here, so for me to be successful, I need to understand some of the physics and the geometry of golf for me to maximize my equipment which will help me maximize my golf.”

Told that people might have a hard time picturing him as this studious sort, Dufner smiled.

“My demeanor doesn’t indicate that analytical side,” he said. “But I think it’s important to have as much knowledge about your game as possible.”

What also helps is having an enormous amount of confidence and determination, aspects to his personality that were fortified those years in the mid-1990s when as a teenager Dufner worked the range during the Honda Classic at Weston Hills Golf & Country Club.

The entire scene made an impression on him.

“I liked playing golf and I liked the challenge of getting better, so when I saw (the players) up close, I thought (the PGA Tour) would be a pretty fun gig. Since then, all I’ve ever thought about is playing golf professionally.”

And one man impressed him most of all back then – Vijay Singh.

“He practiced harder than anyone, so the winter before my rookie year on tour (2004), I saw him practicing at TPC Sawgrass and I told him about myself, my story, and the next year I played a ton of practice rounds with him. He was always real great to me.”

What Dufner may have learned from Singh didn’t exactly push him to the surface in 2004, because he finished 164th on the money list. Nor in 2007 when his return to the PGA Tour saw him finish 140th. But seemingly from the time he closed out Q-School in the winter of 2008 with six birdies over his final 11 holes to finish T-11, Dufner has been such a study in improvement it’s remarkable – 33rd on the money list in ‘09, 80th in 2010, then 21st a year ago. In 84 stroke-play events on the PGA Tour since 2009, Dufner has made 61 cuts. Entering the Zurich, Dufner had piled up 18 top 10s since 2009 (for comparison sakes, Bubba Watson has 16 top 10s over that same period), but a nagging set of numbers told a big part of his 2012 story:

Dufner’s Thursday and Friday scoring average this year was 69.11, his Saturday-Sunday average 71.68, a whopping 2.57 shots higher.

“He’s so confident with every part of his game,” Cook said, “other than his putting. If he misses a putt on Saturday and Sunday, then he starts to doubt himself. But it’s a learning process.”

What has helped the process is Dufner’s ability to shake off the heartache, take the positives, ignore the negatives, and move on. That poor finish at the Atlanta Athletic Club that enabled Bradley to sneak in and take the PGA? Dufner climbed into a car with his fiance, Amanda Boyd, and Walter and started the three-hour ride home to Auburn.

“I was braced for a tough ride, but it wasn’t bad,” she said. “We went to Krystal, got a bunch of cheeseburgers and it was fine.”

Similarly, the poor weekend at Augusta didn’t rip his guts out. Neither had the bad third round at the Arnold Palmer Invitational that cost him a chance at victory, nor the pedestrian finish at the Transitions that denied him a win one week earlier. But it was left to ask Dufner just how resilient one has to be on the PGA Tour.

“That’s how life is,” Dufner said. “You can’t sit there and worry about what could have happened or what should have happened. Life goes on.

“I just have to keep working hard, stay consistent, and one of these tournaments will be mine.”

Give him credit. He was right.

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