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.”