Two years ago, with the PGA Championship at steamy Atlanta Athletic Club, Jason Dufner, then 34, hit fairways with drives that looked as if they’d been shot from a Tommy Gun. His iron play was Hoganesque. Dufner held a five-shot lead on the 15th hole, only to see it slip away as Keegan Bradley stormed back to win the Wanamaker Trophy in a playoff.
This season’s PGA Championship, the season’s last major, is especially significant for Dufner, 36. Sure, he won the Zurich Classic and the HP Byron Nelson, his lone Tour victories, last year, and was a rock for the U.S. Ryder Cup team at Medinah. But the man with perhaps the best waggle in golf is 0-for-2013. As the PGA began Thursday near Rochester, he is not assured of a spot on the Presidents Cup team.
Dufner started the PGA Championship ranked 13th on the Presidents Cup points list. The top 10 players after the Deutsche Bank Championship ends on Labor Day make the team, plus two picks by captain Fred Couples. Dufner trails No. 10 Zach Johnson, No. 11 Dustin Johnson and No. 12 Bubba Watson in the quest for the 12-man team. Billy Horschel, Kevin Streelman, Jim Furyk, Nick Watney and Rickie Fowler are Nos. 14-18, respectively. Plenty of points are in play for the next few weeks, but there’s little time to waste. A strong showing at Oak Hill would seem to be critical for guys who want to be at Muirfield Village in Dublin, Ohio, for the Oct. 3-6 matches against the Internationals.
“You know where you’re at and you know that you’ve got to play good to be a part of the team,” Dufner said Thursday after posting a 2-under 68 at Oak Hill. “But when you are playing, you don’t really think about it. I mean, you’re just trying to keep putting one foot in front of the other, plod along, and hopefully have some good finishes so you can play on that team.”
Dufner didn’t start his day at Oak Hill looking like a player who would enjoy a good finish this week. After slurping down an energy gel packet on the 10th tee (his first hole) at 7:45 a.m., Dufner hit his opening drive into a precarious lie above the bunker on the left side of the fairway. He left his approach just short of the putting surface, but his chip scooted across the green, from where he two-putted bogey.
He quickly recovered, hitting a hybrid club to within 10 feet on the 234-yard par-3 11th but missed the birdie putt. He missed another birdie putt on 12 and then, walking down the fairway after powering a drive on the par-5 13th, Dufner’s caddie, Kevin Baile, reached into his bag and tossed his boss a tin of chewing tobacco.
“Did you see how much dip Dufner just lipped?” an incredulous fan nursing a Genesee asked a friend.
It was 8:15 a.m.
Dufner went on to birdie the 592-yard hole to get back to even par. Another birdie on 16 got him under par, but he failed to save par from a bunker at the 17th. As if to show disdain for not getting up-and-down, he opened his mouth just off the green and let the tobacco fall to the ground, like a dog releasing a bone.
He missed a 6-foot par putt at the 18th to turn 1 over. But what should give Couples reason to take note is what Dufner did after squandering those two shots.
With no change to his omnipresent poker face, Dufner clearly channeled some inner heat into better play.
“I made a nice par save on 2, and that kind of got me going a little bit,” he said. “I started to hit some better shots and make a few putts, so it was a nice day.”
Dufner ran off consecutive birdies on Nos. 5, 6 and 7 to get to 2 under before a par-saving pitch to within tap-in distance on the last hole sealed his 68.
“It was pretty easy for us out here today,” Dufner said. “The conditions kinda got soft on the greens out there. It made it scoreable, so if you hit it in the fairway you could be aggressive.”
Jim Furyk’s opening-round 65 set the early pace as Dufner ate lunch with his wife, Amanda, in the clubhouse.
“Now it’s just a lot of rest,” Dufner said, swallowing the last bite of a peanut butter cookie. “I like playing early-late (Thursday-Friday) because you get a lot of time between rounds, and it gives you time to recover.”
For the man behind the eponymous “Dufnering” craze, recovery can be serious business.