Dufner stays low key before PGA Championship

Jason Dufner begins his PGA Championship title defense at Valhalla in 2014 the same way he began his winning run: understated and unassuming.

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His work day was done. But as Jason Dufner slipped his backpack over his shoulders and meandered past the Royal Liverpool clubhouse, he was steps away from the putting green and a joyous thought occurred to him: You can work at night during summer months in this part of the world.

Praise latitude. He slipped off the backpack, found his golf bag, retrieved his putter and three golf balls, and did what frames his personality.

He quietly went to work.

The third round of the Open Championship had not gone well, the latest bump in a scratchy 2013-14 season that has kept Dufner searching for answers. He is not where he would like to be with his game, the results are not what he expects them to be, but he has never been a deep thinker, and now isn’t the time to start. Ask him where he stands with his game right now compared with where he was a year ago when he went into Oak Hill Country Club in Pittsford, N. Y., and captured the PGA Championship and Dufner hardly reflects.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t think about stuff like that. You know, last year was last year.”

But he seems to be swinging it well, he was told.

“I always swing it pretty good, to be honest with you. I hit a lot of greens. But for me to be competitive, that’s the stuff I have to do.”

A year ago, after Dufner had played beautifully over the last nine holes to hold off Jim Furyk and win his first major, there were suggestions that he may find it difficult to remain low-key and out of the spotlight, that demands on his time could be unsettling. Dufner shrugged. He figured that his life would change, but he was sure he wouldn’t.

And just how has that gone?

“I think it’s pretty consistent, just dealing with media and fans, expectations and sponsors. As far as changing me and what I expect out of my game? No change.”

No change?

How refreshing in a world of contrived marketing endeavors that someone is comfortable enough in his own skin to let his hair down and stand tall – though in Dufner’s case, the hair is in every which direction and it’s more of a slouch. But, hey, you get the point. Dufner has a world ranking and a bank account that can bring him to Ruth’s Chris whenever he wants, but he’s more likely to choose Krystal cheeseburgers or find a place that serves great chicken.

Waterfront abodes could fit into his budget, but he prefers his Auburn, Ala., address, more comfortable in the shadows of his alma mater than the glitz of Palm Beach.

Few players with such a world-class game walk as quietly and as satisfied away from the spotlight as Dufner, and much of that is owed to his personality. He’s certainly an introvert and would rather grind away on the range or putting green than offer sound bites, in-depth interviews or clever quips.

You might think you know the witty side to him. You probably laughed heartily at “Dufnering.” And you might have seen photos of his beautiful wife, Amanda, and the hysterical one in which he removed his hat and his ruffled hair was caught acting up. But how do you reconcile knowing that much about him with Dufner being so quiet on a personal front?

Welcome to the world of social media.

“I tell him all the time, ‘We made you on social media. We helped invent you on Twitter,’ ” Keegan Bradley said.

Dufner can’t really argue with that, much as he loves the back-and-forth with Bradley. He shrugs, but agrees that much of the world knows him more through his tweets than from any sit-down interviews or lengthy TV hits.

“Probably, that’s true,” Dufner said. “That’s probably one good thing about today’s society and social media. You can connect with your fans on a different level.”

Would he be so popular and so well known were it not for social media?

Dufner laughed – softly, of course, for that is his nature. “I don’t know. That’s a good question. I don’t think about stuff like that.”

Mostly, Dufner thinks about restoring his golf game to the standards he had established in 2012 when he ranked second in ballstriking, third in the all-around category, third in scoring and eighth in greens in regulation. He thinks about last year when he was 17th in scoring average, 23rd in ballstriking and 26th in greens in regulation .

Not that he’s off the radar, mind you, because he has been top 10 in four of his 15 tournaments and was a putt away from beating Adam Scott in the Colonial . But Dufner concedes that he hasn’t maintained consistency this year (he missed the cut at the Masters and U. S. Open), and being ranked 171st in strokes gained-putting is a big reason why .

But to appreciate the 37-year-old Dufner, one must remember that there was a time when players didn’t walk onto the PGA Tour at 21 or 22, win majors and nail down top spots in the world ranking. He remains a throwback to the days when players gained experience and learned on the way up. Consider some of the names ahead of him in the world order, and how very few of them traveled as Dufner traveled.

Where many of them seemingly were millionaires before they had to shave, Dufner played in 123 Web.com Tour events (for perspective, consider that Bubba Watson , Zach Johnson and Matt Kuchar – just to name three – played in 120 combined ), and didn’t finish in the PGA Tour’s top 125 until he was 32.

That is why it shouldn’t be a surprise that Dufner didn’t just disappear after letting the 2011 PGA Championship slip away. Instead, he learned from the heartbreaking experience and won twice in 2012 . And he celebrated the two-year anniversary of the Atlanta Athletic Club disappointment by winning the Wanamaker Trophy at Oak Hill.

To watch Dufner bury fears that 2011 would scar him is to understand why his title defense of the PGA Championship should be taken seriously.

“Jason,” his former Auburn coach Mike Griffin once said, “can draw a line in the sand, and what’s behind him is behind him.

He moves away from it very quickly.” Having arrived at the starting line with less pure natural talent than most of his competitors at the world-class level, Dufner hasn’t been stopped from achieving as much, if not more, than most of them. That he continues to juggle his low-profile life against his high-profile social-media persona is a remarkable PGA Tour storyline.

Just don’t ask Dufner to discuss it. He likely hasn’t given it much thought.

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