French mystery: 'Shy' Dubuisson quietly climbs rankings
Editor's note: This feature first ran in Golfweek magazine that hit doorsteps on Feb. 21, 2014. If you'd like to subscribe, click here.
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Bienvenue aux États-Unis Victor Dubuisson. Le tee vous appartient. Jouez bien.
He has arrived with a lofty world ranking, a desire to prove himself worthy and a shroud of mystery as if he were from a Gérard de Villiers story. But if there is wonderment about him, he doesn’t comprehend.
“I am,” said Victor Dubuisson, “just a simple person.”
Perhaps, but in extending a welcome to the United States, with a nod that the tee is his and may he play well, let the record show that he was 134th in the world a year ago and now he is 30th. He had never won at this level, then in Turkey he overtook a field that included Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson. A week later in Dubai he nearly chased down Stenson at the European finale.
In France, rugby, football, basketball and tennis dominate a nation’s fancy, not golf. With all due respect, all this does generate curiosities as to just who is this Victor Dubuisson and how did he become prime time so suddenly?
“Maybe,” he said, “they will get to know me better, if I do well here.”
So far, so reasonably well in his debut in America, where the greens have caught his attention. But while the West Coast swing has thrown a lot of newness at Dubuisson (pronounced dew-BWEE-sohn), he tied for 59th at the Farmers Insurance Open, tied for 13th at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am and tied for 40th at the Northern Trust Open.
It ushered him into his first WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, where the picture takes better focus. Only two younger players sit ahead of the Frenchman in the world order: Jordan Spieth, 20, at 13th, and Hideki Matsuyama, 21, at 22nd.
Not yet 24, Dubuisson has moved quickly. But from where? And how?
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Against a backdrop of the French Riviera, Dubuisson grew up in Cannes. His uncle, Hervé Dubuisson, is considered France’s greatest basketball player, but it was golf that appealed to Victor. His grandfather introduced him to the game, and Stéphane Damiano was the club professional at Royal Mougins who nurtured the young boy’s skills.
Victor Dubuisson speaks softly, guardedly. “I am quiet. I am shy. I am not a show-up guy.” Of a decision that helped shape his life, to choose golf over school at age 10: “I was very young, and it was difficult to do both.”
No matter how that decision is viewed – as with his choice to live in Andorra, a tax haven that borders France and Spain – it hits at the heart of Dubuisson’s personality.
He is determined, perhaps unconventional, but clearly he moves in a fashion that satisfies his spirit.
“I learned to play, and I played golf every day,” he said.
“I’m very individualistic. I don’t mind to be alone for five, six weeks. Golf is a sport where you’re alone. I just like to play for myself.”
At 15, he played in the 2005 French Open, and the successes ensued. The 2006 French Amateur. The 2008 Mexican Amateur. His 2009 European Amateur win solidified his ranking as the top amateur in the world.
In 2010, he played for the final time as an amateur, at the Open Championship in St. Andrews, and later that fall he made it through European Q-School.
Steady progress dots the resume – 106th in the Race To Dubai in 2011, 52nd a year later, sixth last year; three top 10s, then four, then seven, including that stunning victory at the Turkish Airlines Open and a third in the DP World Tour Championship. The sound you heard were doors opening, to the Masters, some PGA Tour stops and the WGCs.
But this first trip to America is business, not pleasure.
“I don’t really look around,” he said. “I just focus on my golf. That’s it.”
So new to the marquee lineup is Dubuisson that many of his European colleagues are still in the dark. “He can play. I know that,” Ian Poulter said. “He deservedly is going to stay around. But I know no more than that.”
Nicolas Colsaerts said people misinterpret Dubuisson’s shyness for being standoffish. Stories of the Frenchman being unprepared for, or even missing, a meeting with a sponsor or showing Wednesday for a tournament without having played a practice round don’t faze the Belgian, himself a unique character.
“Usually when people are standing out, they are like that,” Colsaerts said. “But he’s cool.”
At Torrey Pines, a French sports journalist conceded that it is a difficult thing to be an athlete in France.
“We love to criticize,” he said. “The richer you are, the better you are, the more handsome you are – the more we criticize.”
So Dubuisson chooses a quiet life in Andorra, up in the Pyrenees Mountains, where he enjoys being alone. It has led to suggestions that he does not work at his game, but he shakes his head.
“I played golf every day since I was 8,” he said. “I practiced every day. So now, when I don’t have tournaments, I take some time off.”
Some European Tour regulars said Dubuisson is getting better, that although he’s aloof and unique, his talent is unquestioned and he’d be welcomed into the Ryder Cup circle come September. “He’s got himself in a nice position, if he plays half decent,” Poulter said, “and that will be a fantastic experience that will only make him a better player.”
As is his style, Dubuisson – presently second on the Euro points list – speaks softly about a possible trip to Gleneagles this September. “If I play well the rest of the year I will make the team, but I don’t want this to be the target, to put pressure on myself.”
Pascal Grizot, who led the winning bid for Paris to host the 2018 Ryder Cup, doesn’t shy away from the topic of Dubuisson, the highest-ranked Frenchman ever, and golf’s greatest team spectacle. “I hope he does play in the Ryder Cup. It will help the development of French golf.”
The one-time captain of the French national team, Grizot knows Dubuisson well, and when he was able to play with him at Pebble Beach, he smiled for three days. “I saw during the three days some shots that only a few players are able to make,” Grizot said.
In two trips around Pebble, Dubuisson shot 67-69, matching Dustin Johnson at 8 under for the best scores at the iconic layout. Clearly intense, Dubuisson can be hard on himself and appear on the verge of collapsing, but he composes quickly.
At Pebble, his coach of six months, Benoît Ducoulombier, demonstrated a fatherly patience and firm hand that brings out the best in Dubuisson. “He changed my way to play, my way to organize myself around the course, off the course,” Dubuisson said.
“He is a wonderful talent. He makes me proud,” said Jean-Pierre Rives, a living legend in French rugby. Now retired, Rives splits his time between Paris and San Francisco, so he came to the Monterey Peninsula to watch Dubuisson at Pebble Beach. He brought with him his 9-year-old son, Jaspar, who walked every hole in a cold rain holding a sign that read, “Allez, Victor.”
Go, indeed, because Dubuisson that day shot 67, by two the best score at Pebble. His arrival onto the world stage had taken another step, even if it was devoid of spotlights and came late in the day, with few people watching.
He was seemingly alone, which is all right with Dubuisson.