AUGUSTA, Ga. -- He peaks for the majors, his college coach says he has a brilliant golfing mind, and he trades texts with Charles Barkley.
Tiger Woods? Nope. Jason Dufner. The wagglin’ 2011 PGA Championship runner-up carded a three-under-par 69 in the first round of the Masters at Augusta National, and he trails leader Lee Westwood by two strokes.
“He’s got the ability to play in the present as good as any golfer I’ve ever had,” said Auburn Director of Golf Mike Griffin, who was Dufner’s college coach and followed him Thursday. “He can forget the bad stuff really easily.”
Case in point: Dufner missed a short par putt on the par-4 11th hole, and air-mailed the green on the par-3 12th. His round looked to be in danger. No problem. He splashed his next shot out of the back bunker to within 18 inches for an easy par, and then birdied 13. He made a par out of the sand on 17, as well.
“I’m not too nervous about it,” said Dufner, who began preparing for his second Masters with nine holes at Augusta National last Wednesday, giving him a week of practice before the first round. “Maybe Sunday it’ll be different.”
Thursday was a blah day for the favorites, including Rory McIlroy (71), Tiger Woods (72) and Phil Mickelson (74), who got so much attention in the lead-up to this Masters. Almost no one talked about Dufner, despite the fact that he did better than any of those three in the last major, the PGA at Atlanta Athletic Club last August, when he lost in a sudden-death playoff to Keegan Bradley.
Dufner’s casual saunter, unremarkable fashion sense and low-key persona keep him under the radar, but the secret is getting out. He traded texts during the NCAA championship game Monday with fellow Auburn Tiger Barkley -- Dufner is a huge Auburn sports fan -- and often plays a Tuesday money game with Vijay Singh on tournament weeks.
Charley Hoffman and Pat Perez are among the guests who have RSVP’d to Dufner’s wedding to Amanda Boyd, which will be in Auburn on May 5. (She’s an Alabama graduate; opposites attract.) Ryuji Imada is a maybe. There’s an effortless cool about Dufner, who grew up in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. A standard-bearer at the Honda Classic, he used to watch Singh beat balls on the range, a fascination that led to their friendship years later.
Griffin, Dufner’s old coach, says the two golfers share a similar work ethic.
“You have scholarship players, you have invited walk-ons, and you have pure walk-ons,” Griffin said. “He was a pure walk-on. I said, ‘Duff, how come I didn’t know about you?’ He said, ‘Coach, I wrote you.’ Sure enough, I went back through a stack of about 400 letters and his was in there.”
Buoyed by what Griffin calls a “sneaky work ethic,” Dufner, who didn’t start playing golf until he was 15, made Auburn’s traveling team by spring semester of his freshman year. He was a three-time All-SEC selection and also made All-American. He’s won at every level, including twice on the Nationwide tour. At 35, he’s still looking for his first Tour win -- he also lost a playoff to Mark Wilson in Phoenix last year -- but given his gradual progression, it may not be long.
He’s had a steeper learning curve at Augusta National. Scuffling along in the second round of his first Masters two years ago, Dufner birdied four of his last five holes to make the cut, and eventually finished 30th. Now he’s tied for fourth.
“I’m feeling more comfortable in Tour events,” Dufner said as a storm blew in shortly after he signed his card. “I’m feeling more comfortable in majors.”
His physique and walk recall Raymond Floyd; Dufner’s waggle is all his own. Although hardly an imposing physical specimen, he’s plenty long. Kevin Chappell, a younger player with Popeye forearms, hit 4-iron into the uphill, 445-yard, par-4 first hole. Dufner had a 6-iron in, and made birdie.
Lesser men might be thrown by an impending wedding or the towering Georgia pines and immense consequences at Augusta National. Not Duff. Not yet.
“He’s gotten comfortable at every level,” Griffin said. “What he wants to do now is win a tournament, and I think once he does, he’ll do very well.”