In pain, Dufner grinding to earn Ryder Cup berth

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – This is not how Jason Dufner wanted to defend his PGA Championship title. His neck is a mess and, in turn, so is his game. He has a couple of bulging disks between the C4 and C6 vertebrae that are hitting nerves and causing pain. In recent tournaments he has felt tingling and numbness in his left hand. Arthritis also is an issue.

“It’s no fun playing hurt,” a frustrated Dufner said Wednesday on PGA eve at Valhalla Golf Club. “The more I play and practice, the more it flares up. … To not feel like you can be competitive, that’s discouraging. I know I’m not swinging the way I would like to swing and I’m limited in what I can do.”

So he’s taking things day to day. Considering his condition and the fact he has missed two cuts and finished no better than 51st in his past four tournaments, he doesn’t expect much this week. But he’s here because he’s the defending champion and trying to make the Ryder Cup team. (He ranks ninth in points, and those in the top 10 through Sunday will qualify.)

“I need to suck it up and make some points and try and get healthy,” he said. “I think I could be healthy by the time the Ryder Cup rolls around (Sept. 26-28).”

Maybe. Dufner, 37, also said multiple times Wednesday that he probably won’t get well until he takes 6-8 weeks off for rest and rehabilitation. So he has two R&R plans – one if he makes the team, one if he doesn’t. He even said he might skip the FedEx Cup playoffs in order to get ready for the Ryder Cup.

“(U.S. captain Tom) Watson may feel uncomfortable, but I wouldn’t feel uncomfortable taking the playoffs off if I needed to (to get healthy for the Ryder),” Dufner said. “There’s been many times where I’ve take a 4- or 5-week absence from tournament play and come in and felt comfortable with my game.”

Dufner figures if he were to skip the first two playoff events, he probably wouldn’t qualify for the last two. Another scenario is that if he makes the team but then doesn’t feel ready as the matches near, he would bow out for the sake of America’s chances of winning back the cup.

The Dufner injury is just another blow for the United States’ bid. Dustin Johnson, an automatic qualifier, will miss the matches because he has taken an extended leave from competition for personal problems. And Tiger Woods hasn’t regained form after a March 31 microdiscectomy that dealt with his own spinal issues.

Dufner said his neck basically has gotten progressively worse since April. It improved in May, when he finished second at Colonial, but then has worsened since the U.S. Open.

He received an epidural July 28 and was told to rest 7-10 days. That hasn’t happened. He played the WGC-Bridgestone in Akron and then came here. But he continues to regularly take a DosePak and anti-inflammatory medication and receive treatment from a back therapist.

Dufner said he has suffered from lack of mobility when swinging. His shoulder turn has been restricted. He says he has felt fatigue as well.

“Mentally it’s just frustrating to not really do what you know you’re capable of,” he said.

But there’s a silver lining in his story, he reckons.

“It’s kind of a blessing,” Dufner said. “I need to take a serious look at my health and maybe make a better effort to be in better shape, because if you don’t have your health out here, as you see with a pretty prominent player (Woods) and myself, it’s pretty hard to be competitive.

“So I look forward to being really healthy for next season and getting through this season.”

If he works out and gets the right treatment and improves his spine and posture, that doesn’t mean his famous slouched Dufnering will vanish.

“I’ll always be Dufnering,” he said with usual straight face.

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