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.)
Hole No. 1, Par 4, 446 yards: A relatively gentle opener, this steady dogleg left provides a chance for bold players to cut the corner over trees on the left with a high draw or a shot carrying 280 yards played into the prevailing light breeze. The wind here is not, however, a major factor, averaging 7 mph out of the northwest in mid-August and barely enough to offset even partially the traditionally steamy heat. The approach shot here, ideally played left to right, is characteristic of Valhalla in that you can’t work the ball onto the putting surface from a flight path that is outside of the fill pad. In other words, you can’t use the side slopes to get enough bounce to hold the surface. The approach has to be played on a tight line from within the outer edge of the green’s periphery. It’s a course designed strictly for aerial golf.
Hole No. 2, Par 4, 500 yards: For championship play, this members’ par 5 is set up as a gut-wrenching par 4. The drive plays to a Barbie-doll waist of a fairway pinched to 22 yards across, with sand right and a steep falloff to the creek on the left. It’s 280 yards to the bunker, 305 yards to clear, and with the watery slope looming left it won’t be unusual to see players lay up short off the tee here and leave themselves a second shot from 230 yards out. The green, well defended up front and canted diagonally, offers less depth in the target zone than most par 4s at Valhalla. It’s a hole that players, even of this caliber, will approach very defensively.
Hole No. 3, Par 3, 205 yards: It’s impressive how basic and solid Nicklaus can design holes when he’s not trying to trick folks up with gimmicky green “quadrants.” There’s an elegant flow to this hole, especially as viewed from the slightly elevated platform tee across the creek at the base of the wooded hill. A very deep bunker flanks the entire right side and tends to draw golfers away to the left – where the green tilts ever so slightly away from the line of play. The point here is that players have to commit to a middle iron that starts off closer to the right edge than their instincts would prefer.
Hole No. 4, 372 yards: Now we’re out on the vastly open, naturally level flood plain, where Nicklaus and Co. had to work really hard to create all of the contour. The fourth hole is strictly lay-up off the tee, as there’s no incentive or potential reward for a bold drive. The fairway is interrupted 310 yards out, where it spills out into rough, heavily broken ground. Even the far corner of the fairway landing area is heavily protected by bunkers. So it’s a long iron off the tee or some sort of fairway metal/rescue for the guys. The play is to a distinctly contoured green with a plateau right and quick punchbowl fall-off to the left. This is a definite birdie opportunity.
Hole No. 5, Par 4, 463 yards: Now it’s hold-on-for-dear-life-time again, thanks to a relentless dogleg right with very steep bunkers flanking both sides of a tight driving lane. From there, It’s a short- or middle-iron to a putting surface that slides right but kicks the ball back out left if it comes in just a little too far on that high side. If there’s any wind, it works against cutting the hole short off the tee. The one obvious no-no here is coming up short and right on the drive.
Hole No. 6: Par 4, 495 yards: This is the most awkward hole on the course – virtually a compendium of how not to design a par 4. Let’s see: reverse-camber dogleg right to a fairway tilting to the left; a forced layup off the tee since the fairway ends at 300 yards and tumbles off into a steep, watery ravine; trees on the right side that block out a view of the second fairway on the far side. The hole is a nightmare for average golfers – for whom the angle of the tee shot gets progressively worse as the hole gets shorter. Even for these guys in the PGA Championship it’s a knee-knocker of a hole because they’re all facing an approach in of 210-240 yards. Players who miss the fairway on the right off the tee will have no option but to pitch out short of the ravine, leaving themselves two bills in. There’s some relief and bailout short and right of the green, but hit it left and the ball will disappear down a steep embankment.
Hole No. 7: Par 5, 597 yards: The hardest thing in modern course design is to build a par 5 with a viable second fairway option. Here’s an example: a massive par 5, played from a deep launch pad, with two options staring you in the face. There’s a long emerald road down the right side – a seemingly rational path studded with sand on the left side of the tee-shot landing area and on the right side protecting the second-shot zone. And then there’s this little island of repose, virtually dead flat, rimmed only by rough, 1 acre in size and offering a considerably shorter helicopter pad of a fairway for someone who drives the ball 300 yards and straight. To say this island of a second fairway leaves you somewhat isolated is no exaggeration, especially if you miss it. But it is tempting, especially for a player who can then fly his second shot 250 yards over the odd combination of marsh and exposed rock that protects the flyway into this putting surface. The right side is certainly more mundane, but it does pinch down options such that a third shot in following a layup is very awkward because it poses threats both short (sand) and the length of the left side (water). Let’s just say this will be an exciting hole to watch, given the rather startling range of options and the likely gamut of scores, from 3 through 8.
Hole No. 8, 174 yards: Thank goodness for this prosaic interlude, a straightforward little hole played from platform to platform, with lots of shape and contour to the putting surface. The well-sectioned green demands precision on a hole where the trajectory of the short iron will be influenced (somewhat) by the prevailing downbreeze from the left.
Hole No. 10, Par 5, 590 yards: If you ever want to find out how good these guys are, just set up shop to the left of the 10th green and watch them stop shots on a fall-away putting surface. The hole plays shorter than its scorecard yardage, thanks to firm ground and a light breeze helping over the left shoulder. Players who avoid a huge bunker on the right side off the tee (307 yards to reach, 337 yards to pass) can challenge the twisting, double-dogleg ground (right to-left; then left to right) of this second shot. The trick is a green set down below, protected up front by a very steep bunker, shallow in the approach line and tilting back and to the right. There’s a small lane left for a run-up shot. The odds are tougher for a bold second shot flying to the green and holding it. Somehow, a few will manage.
Hole No. 11, Par 3, 210 yards: This hole looks like it was scooped out and settled here – not entirely naturally, so that its modern look feels a bit manufactured. Whatever. These guys won’t care and TV won’t notice. A middle-iron shot heads to a green set diagonally from front right to back left, suspended over a very deep bunker left. The more demanding recovery is actually from behind, where a small bunker leaves a very tough downhill shot from up top.
Hole No. 12, Par 4, 467 yards: I’m all for hole names, but not when they’re lifted from Charlton Heston films. You figure at a club called Valhalla there’d be a hole named “Odin’s Revenge.” Enough said. It’s actually a beautiful par 4, very tough all the way thanks to a narrow driving zone carved left-to-right through a tree-lined chute and leaving a long second shot uphill over a cleaned-out ravine. There’s great spectator viewing from behind this hole. Most players will lay up off the tee rather than risk running through the fairway (310 yards to the edge, downhill) or missing it altogether.
Hole No. 13, Par 4, 350 yards: Here’s more proof, as if it were needed, of my axiom that at any course, the much-vaunted “signature hole” is the least characteristic on the grounds. This memorable short hole is an inventive twist on the now-cliched island green. The bunkerless putting surface here is actually a rock-walled island in a moat, approachable only via an aerial shot after a lay-up tee shot. The hole unfolds from the foot of the clubhouse – dramatic enough – but commits the unpardonable sin of blocking a view of the green from the tee because someone left a dopey stand of trees on the inside left of the dogleg. Why not just clear things out and let golfers gawk – as they do anyway – of the seemingly elusive target? At least one day of the PGA they’ll move the tees up and see if someone is reckless enough to go for it on their drive (attention, John Daly and Bubba Watson). There’s just not enough support in the contour of this 4,000-square foot putting surface to hold a tee shot that’s not perfectly parachuted in – in which case, even from the moved-up tees the smart players will hit middle iron/wedge and play the hole to an average score of about 3.6.
Hole No. 14, Par 3, 217 yards: Good, solid, simple hole to a well-bunkered green canted diagonally. There are three distinct tiers here, each one progressively more difficult to access, with the back one (top right) protected not only by sand but by trees.
Hole No. 15, Par 4, 435 yards: Valhalla has a fine collection of par 4s, and this one starts a great three-hole stretch of them. The drive through a tree-lined chute is one of the tightest at the club and requires a careful right-to-left swing to avoid sand right (294 yards to reach, 313 to carry) and dense woods the entire left side. From there, the short-iron approach is to a green that’s been nudged down towards a rocky creek bed, with the right side of the putting surface hanging over the water. The tendency is to tug the approach shot left, but that brings into a play a bunker pitched back toward the green and a slope that carries the ball toward the water.
Hole No. 16, Par 4, 508 yards: This starts the run of playoff holes from the 2000 PGA when Tiger Woods and Bob May staged their epic showdown. It was here at the 16th green that Tiger did his finger-pointing moon walk of a 20-foot birdie putt – an image that will be oft-repeated this week, and rightly so. This shapely dogleg right plays very narrow thanks to trees looming right and a left-to-right sloping fairway. The green, rebuilt since Woods’ famous birdie putt, is perched and runs off in all directions a la Pinehurst.
Hole No. 17, Par 4, 472 yards: Few holes at Valhalla offer a starker example of the advantages enjoyed by sheer power off the tee. The hole runs steadily uphill and calls for a clear option off the tee: a modest drive to the right, leaving a semi-blind approach of 185 yards, or a dramatic carry of the upswept bunker on the left, 320 yards away, leaving a straightforward, readily visible short-iron shot.
Hole No. 18, Par 5, 542 yards: A great closing hole for a championship (and for member play, for that matter). The green here forms center stage on a vast amphitheater that’s ideal for spectators and players because they can see every inch of the way from tee to green, including the split fairway options on the second shot. A horseshoe green wraps around a deep central bunker and creates two distinct putting areas bridged at the top. The drive is relatively generous yet the fairway is heavily defended wide left (grass, sand and gnarly trouble) and wide right (rocky lagoons the length of the hole). This is one of those ingenious, multi-option holes that makes lots of sense in the field and provides the drama and emotional rush that majors are all about.
“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.