The Duf abides. Bogeys don’t seem to bother him, nor birdies excite him. His is the saunter of a man without a care in the world; his languid waggles are as transfixing as a hypnotist’s watch. With his much-discussed love of college football and an ever-present pinch of wintergreen Copenhagen stuffed beneath his lower lip, the Duf inspires numerous shouted tributes from the masses, but nothing ever cracks his deadpan expression. Jason Dufner, 35, may swing the club like Ben Hogan, but he carries himself like the Dude, the laid-back antihero of The Big Lebowski. With two victories and a second in his last four starts, Dufner is the hottest golfer on the planet, and his precise ball striking has made him a favorite for next week’s U.S. Open. “I’m not too worried about any of that,” he says of the cresting expectations. “It’s just golf.” The Duf abides.
But don’t be fooled by Dufner’s laconic demeanor—it’s not an accident that he is tearing up the PGA Tour. Some players are sneaky long. The Duf is sneaky smart. He is analytical and meticulous in his preparation, forever searching for an edge. A voracious reader, he has consumed biographies of everyone from Arnold Palmer to Abraham Lincoln, trying to understand, in his words, “how successful people are wired.” While his colleagues mindlessly bash range balls, a significant part of Dufner’s preparation is sitting quietly and replaying rounds in his head. He often imagines a different outcome for a particular shot, using methods cribbed from a book about the visualization techniques of Russian weightlifters. While playing a tournament in Dallas a few weeks ago, he sought out two-time U.S. Open champ Lee Trevino for advice. They spent a lot of time talking about equipment modifications that might be helpful for an Open setup at Olympic Club. Dufner promptly called Titleist and asked for a new three-metal with less loft.
Dufner, who has a degree in economics, does not traffic in hyperbole. He prefers disarming honesty, and he’s not blowing smoke when he says, “I don’t think I have as much talent as a lot of other guys do.” This underdog mentality has led to a specific career path. “To succeed I have to do a lot of different things,” Dufner says. “I need to be stronger mentally. I have to prepare harder and smarter. I have to maximize my equipment. I have to do things other guys don’t. You have to be honest with yourself, which is not easy.”
Growing up in Ohio, Washington, D.C., and then South Florida, Dufner was a basketball and baseball player who didn’t get serious about golf until age 15. Self-taught, he says he was a “pretty average” high school player who attracted zero interest from college recruiters. He was a walk-on at Auburn, and nine years passed before he stuck on the PGA Tour. “Some guys are motivated by fear of failure, some by money, some by the need for success,” Dufner says. “I’ve always felt like an underdog, and that keeps me going.” The Duf reveres Hogan, but his list of golf heroes also includes David Toms, Scott Verplank, Bob Estes and Jeff Maggert—successful Tour pros who don’t overwhelm with awesome physical gifts.
“They’ve learned to maximize what they have,” Dufner says. He is proud to have followed in their footsteps.
Dufner spends a lot of time on the Internet tracking Auburn football recruiting. He pays particular attention to the youngest players on the roster, kids who are about the same age Dufner was when he found his calling. Speaking of more than just football, the Duf says, “I’m fascinated by the question of who makes it and who doesn’t. Who plateaus and who reaches his potential. Most of the time it has nothing to do with physical ability. It’s usually mental. It’s about desire, focus, work ethic. All the things you can’t see.”
Twenty-nine days after winning his first career tournament, 23 days after marrying the former Amanda Boyd, eight days after winning his second tournament and 20 hours after finishing second in Fort Worth, Dufner was strolling around Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles, already working a chaw. (The night before, in an act of unspeakable romance, he had sent his bride home on a private jet and hopped a commercial flight for himself.) In 2002, Dufner moved back to Auburn because, he says, “I was going broke living in South Florida playing the mini-tours.” The small-town vibe and close-knit golf community suits him. He often practices with the Auburn team and frequently exchanges texts with the players. His allegiance to the kids took him to L.A.—the Tigers were playing their first practice round on the day before the NCAA championships were to begin, and Dufner wanted to impart the wisdom he had accrued playing the Tour event at Riviera.
Competing for Auburn was crucial to Dufner’s development; it’s where he learned that he had what it takes to be a big-time player, the breakthrough coming when he won two tournaments as a sophomore. By then he had already discovered his path to success. “He definitely worked harder than anybody else on the team,” says former teammate Scott Weatherly. “He didn’t make a big deal about it, but he was always putting in the hours.”
As he toured Riviera in running shoes, Dufner often employed the royal we, as in, “We can’t get at that pin.” He carried no yardage book, relying only on his eyes and his memories. The 4th hole is a long par-3 fronted by a gaping bunker, leaving only the left side of the green visible. Dufner instructed the Tigers to play a draw at a tree that appeared to be 20 yards to the right of the putting surface.
“You kidding?” one of the players asked.
Up by the sloping green he gave a demonstration of how balls release from the right side. Coach Nick Clinard stood on the back of the green, observing. “You wouldn’t know any of this from the tee,” he said. “We’re lucky and blessed that a player of his stature cares so much. I think a lot of guys love their alma mater, but how many really give their time, which is their most precious commodity?”
The players call him Duf or Dufner, and his trust in their games is absolute; he often strolled down the fairway as shots whizzed directly over his head. “Dufner’s such a regular guy,” says senior Will McCurdy. “He always makes us feel comfortable.”
Maybe so, but the Tigers clearly are in awe of the ninth-ranked player in the world. McCurdy’s mom, Susan Hawkins, was snapping photos as she followed the practice round. “Will told me to take as many as possible with him and Dufner in the same frame,” Susan said. “He’s still a little starstruck.”
Throughout the round Dufner was an upbeat presence, often dispensing compliments. He drew guffaws with his understated commentary on errant shots.
“Thanks for playing.”
A lot of time was spent deconstructing the grabby kikuyu grass that frames the greens. From a collection area left of the 7th green, junior Blayne Barber shouted, “Hey, Dufner, if you’re here and the pin’s there, you don’t think you can land it here?”
“Try it and see what happens.”
Barber bumped a low shot into the fringe, and his ball stopped dead. Dufner didn’t say a word, but he couldn’t contain the smallest of smirks.
Dufner is 11th on the Tour in driving accuracy but a ho-hum 56th in distance, at 291.4 yards a pop. He can give the impression that really long hitters are sometimes not playing a hole properly. This notion informed the conversation on the tee of Riviera’s 8th hole, a 433-yard par-4 with a double fairway separated by a hazard. Dufner gave a master class on the pros and cons of going left versus right, explaining that the decision should largely be dictated by the pin position on a dangerous green. Niclas Carlsson, a tall, free-swinging sophomore, asked if it was possible to carry the hazard.
“No,” was Dufner’s curt reply.
“With this wind? It’s only 306 to cover.”
For the only time all day there was steel in Dufner’s voice.
“Nic, aim down the left side, five yards right of the bunker.”
Carlsson did as he was told.
“The guys will listen to me more than Coach, unfortunately,” Dufner said later, with a laugh. “When I was 19 or 20, I thought I knew everything too. But they respect what I’ve accomplished in this game.”
During more than five hours on the course, Dufner never lost his focus. What kept him going was not only his dedication to the players but also a sense of unfinished business. His memories of Auburn are bittersweet. His teams included Tour player Roland Thatcher and a trio of future Nationwide grinders, but those Tigers never won an SEC championship and failed to finish better than 10th at the NCAAs. (This year’s squad, despite Dufner’s guidance, would place 15th and fail to qualify for the match-play portion of the tournament.)
“We underachieved greatly,” he says. “We were so competitive with each other. We wanted to beat each other so bad. That’s all we cared about. We didn’t have a team concept.”
So counseling these Tigers is a way of making peace with the lost opportunities of his youth. “I wish when I was in college I’d had someone helping me out,” Dufner says, a tad wistfully. “There’s so much to learn in this game.”
In 2008, Dufner’s personal and professional life began to change for the better. Mutual friends set him up with Amanda on a blind date. That year he also hooked up with instructor Chuck Cook, a no-nonsense Texan. Cook vividly recalls their first meeting. “He had bleached blond hair and an earring,” Cook says. “He’s definitely an iconoclast.”
Cook asked Dufner about his goals. “He said to make enough money so he could watch college football all fall,” Cook recalls. “I’ve worked with Payne Stewart, Tom Kite, Corey Pavin. Their answers were kind of different. I mean, I had to laugh because it was so honest. That’s who Jason was then. That’s not who he is now.”
Back then Dufner had a shut clubface and a variety of compensating moves. Throughout 2008 he and Cook refashioned a simple, rhythmic, repeatable action. It wasn’t always easy—Dufner recalls taking 17 penalty strokes at that year’s Mayakoba Classic. He finished 184th on the money list but never lost hope. “I’ve always understood it’s a progression,” he says.
By 2009, Dufner felt as if he finally owned his swing, and he spiked to 33rd on the money list, which gave him job security for the first time. That allowed him to spend the next season addressing shortcomings with his wedges. His focus for ’11 was to improve his putting. He had a tendency to aim right and try to hook his putts into the hole. Early in the week of the PGA Championship he finally committed to weakening his right hand and lining up square. For 68 holes he played the best golf of his career, forging a five-shot lead. His new putting technique let him down on the final holes of regulation and in a playoff loss to Keegan Bradley, but that week was the turning point of Dufner’s career. “He wasn’t down at all afterward,” says his caddie, Kevin Baile. “He had proved to himself that he could contend anywhere.”
The Dufners’ splashy wedding in Auburn—400 guests, a 12-piece band, fireworks—belies the low-key way they live. He is a man of simple pleasures. His waistline is Exhibit A. “My big problem is I love eating bad stuff,” he says. “A lot of guys feel bad about it, but I don’t. I’m very happy to have a dinner of fried mozzarella sticks, a dozen chicken wings and three Cokes. And then dessert.”
One of the couple’s rituals after returning from a tournament is to stay up late unpacking. They open the mail, pay the bills, sort the dirty clothes and tally up their travel expenses. On the Sunday night of Jason’s victory in New Orleans, they celebrated by doing these chores until 3:30 a.m.
“I don’t like clutter,” he says. It’s been obvious all season there’s none in his swing, or his mind. Dufner is third in total driving, seventh in greens in regulation, fourth in birdies and, most important, tops in money ($3.8 million) and FedEx Cup points. He hits so many greens that a point of emphasis for 2012 was to improve his lag putting, and he is now fifth on Tour in putting from more than 25 feet. Two bombs have defined his victories: a 43-footer to save par on the 70th hole in New Orleans and a walk-off 25-footer for birdie at the 72nd hole in Dallas. The U.S. Open looms as the next step in his development, and he’s relishing the opportunity. “If I play good golf, I can win that tournament,” he says evenly. “I’m not intimidated by the U.S. Open.”
Dufner’s peers know how dangerous he will be at Olympic. “He has everything you would want in a U.S. Open game,” says Jim Furyk, the 2003 Open champ. “He just plods along, keeps it in the fairway, makes pars and doesn’t get rattled.”
The last bit may be the most important at what figures to be the most demanding Open since Oakmont in 2007. “To be honest I’ve been a little disappointed in the setup the last couple of years,” Dufner says. “I’d like to see longer, thicker rough. I want it to be as hard as possible. That takes half the field out of it right away because they’ll be bitching about it and already beaten mentally. I don’t care how hard it is, it’s not going to bother me.”
As always, the Duf abides. He is a man of intriguing paradoxes. “I practice analytically but play by feel,” he says. A mellow dude with intense drive to achieve, Dufner sums up his success with a profound simplicity. “You have to know what you do well,” he says. “You have to be who you are and stay true to that.”