Imagine that the season's second-leading money winner is playing the U.S. Open. Now imagine that he's also third in the FedEx Cup race. Now imagine that at the U.S. Open, at the Olympic Club, he ties for fourth. Got it? Now guess how many interview requests that player fielded that week. Ten? Twenty? Too many to count? In fact, Jason Dufner says, he drew exactly zero. Zippo. Zilch. Dufner knows he's a new arrival at the elite level, and he gets that his laconic demeanor won't soon make him a pitchman for Red Bull. And, sure, he lives off the beaten path in Auburn, Ala., where he and his new bride, Amanda, are building a home on 50 acres near the Auburn University campus where Dufner walked on to the golf team. But still -- nada? After losing playoffs in 2011 in Phoenix and at the PGA Championship, Dufner registered two early wins in 2012, securing at age 35 his first berth in the Ryder Cup. It's been a big year, which is nice, given that his endorsement deals expire at the end of it. On a steamy afternoon at AU Golf Club, Dufner discussed getting the cold shoulder at Olympic, how Vijay Singh inspired him, and why the Duf might not be on Tour for long.
Are you really as laid back as you appear?
I don't let too many things bother me. I do a good job of keeping ahead of things. When I get flustered or not confident is when surprises happen.
You've said you're very anti-clutter.
Yeah, I'm a no-go on clutter. I like to be organized at home. Everything has its place -- my travel bag has to be on this side of the chair at all times, everything on the desk has to be in the same place.
How much do you suppose your calm aura will help you in your first Ryder Cup?
I may be overwhelmed at points, but once I get on the course, I'm hoping my experiences carry over. I've played in pretty much every big tournament you can play in, except for the Ryder Cup.
Have any veterans told you what to expect?
Nope, I haven't had any conversations with anybody. I think it would be hard to get that across; it's something you probably have to experience. It'll be neat for me because it's been a while since I've been on any type of team. And when I was on a team in college I was probably too immature and didn't know how special it was. Amanda's excited about it because she's been told that not only is it a bonding experience for the players but a lot of the wives also become closer. The formal ceremonies and dinners -- that's not really our cup of tea, but I've heard there's a good deal of that going on.
You've said that you're fascinated by excellence, and the fine line that separates who makes it and who doesn't. What's been the difference for you?
Just being really consistent in how I practice, how I prepare, every week. I always want to feel like I'm working on the things I've worked on with Chuck [Cook, Dufner's instructor]. Sometimes I might work for a couple hours, sometimes I might only work for 30 minutes. Like one goal might be keeping my left arm tight to my body as I come through on my downswing. If I feel like after 30 minutes that was really good, and that was my goal for the day, then I'm done for the day.
Why the breakout in 2011 and '12?
It's been gradual. I looked at a lot of different areas, not just the golf, but also mentally, physically, all different areas, and I tried to make all those parts equal a great whole. I've made sure that fundamentally I am sound, and know where the ball is going. Once I started having good results and good finishes, I gained confidence. Since I won, I always feel like I'm going to play well.
Do you feel you should have won more?
There's a lot of luck that goes into winning on Tour. I played better at the U.S. Open, where I finished fourth, than in New Orleans, where I won.
You spoke with Lee Trevino before this year's U.S. Open at the Olympic Club.
Yeah, Chuck Cook has a lot of connections in the Dallas area, and one of his good friends in Dallas is Mr. Trevino. I got to sit down and pick his brain a little bit. He said you need to work on shaping shots both ways, and that you don't get flat lies at Olympic, so I hit tons of balls off uneven lies on the range at Auburn.
You don't look like a gym rat. Would you be at a disadvantage if you faced a more svelte player like Dustin Johnson late in a hot tournament?
That's hard to measure. I think I'm in pretty good golf shape; I feel really good through 72 holes no matter what elements we're playing in. After about three weeks is when I start to get a little fatigued from playing tournament-level golf, so I try to make my schedule with that in mind.
Any plans to quit the fried mozzarella sticks?
No, unfortunately I really like eating, and a lot of the foods that I like involve not-healthy choices.
What's your birthday meal?
I like heavy Italian food, so if I could get some stuffed shells with some ricotta and cheese -- I'm a big dairy guy -- that would be a big treat. Fried chicken is always good. I'm a pretty big cheeseburger guy -- I always like to find new variations on cheeseburgers. I try to keep a balance. I've gone through spells where I eat pretty well, but I have spells where I don't think about the consequences.
What about your tobacco habit? Are you still a Copenhagen man?
Yeah. I don't drink alcohol hardly at all, though, so that's not part of my life, really. And I try to get in the gym four or five times a week.
You've said that being an underdog fuels you, but with two wins, aren't you now a favorite?
You can use different things that happen to you, or what people say or don't say, to motivate you. It's just little things, like being first on the money list and first on the [FedEx Cup] points list, and not getting any interview requests at the U.S. Open. That's motivating material right there. You know, that made me feel like an underdog; I didn't feel like I was getting any respect that week.
Not one interview?
Not even on Sunday, when I finished fourth, two shots out of the lead. I was playing with [amateur] Beau Hossler.
So the quietest fourth-place finish ever. Perhaps that's what Auburn alum Bo Jackson means when he says you need to smile more.
Probably. You know, sell it a bit. I don't feel like I'm media unfriendly, but I am who I am. It might be boring to you, it might not be this grand story I can tell, but I'm not going to come up with a bunch of B.S. for everyone. I'm really close to Amanda, I work really hard at golf -- I don't have this extravagant story. I didn't work in a chemical plant and fight orangutans like Boo Weekley, or these [other] people that the media gravitates toward. I don't have a superstar draw like Tiger Woods.
Do you think the Tour is sometimes just a bunch of B.S.?
[Laughs] You're going to make me answer that? Let me put it to you this way: Golf is really, really boring. It's very self-explanatory. You can go out and watch me do it. Well, what happened on this hole? Well, I hit the fairway, hit the green, and then I hit the putt. That's not exciting, so you've got to start looking for other things to draw your base in, you know what I mean?
There's a lot of white space.
Exactly. There's a lot of stuff to fill. Have you ever listened to golf on the radio? You can fall asleep in three seconds.
You're trying to do a bit more media.
I am. And I feel like the media has to come around, as well. Maybe this is the kiss of death, but I feel like this isn't an accident. I feel like I'm going to play well for a while now. I've been planning on playing this way for 10 years.
At least you're big here in Auburn.
If I went through town today there would be 20 or 30 people who would talk to me.
After losing the 2011 PGA Championship to Keegan Bradley, you received a motivational text from your Auburn buddy Charles Barkley, right?
Oh, yeah. He said he was proud of me and the whole Auburn family had someone to root for, and that is was a great experience, that there would be other tournaments to win. A lot of people got in touch and were worried about me.
Do you text with Bo Jackson, too?
A little bit, yeah. Bo's always texted me when I've had good finishes. The alumni are pretty tight; you go out to play in San Francisco and you've got 15 or 20 people following you at the U.S. Open in the middle of California. It's pretty neat.
You're an avid reader. What are you reading at the moment?
I just picked up An American Life, by James Dodson -- another biography on Ben Hogan. It's one of the few books that I haven't read on him. It's good that there are these books to tell his story a bit more, because he probably didn't do the best job of telling his own story when he was playing.
What's been your favorite non-golf book?
I can't remember the name of it, but there's a small paperback book that deals with how you train mentally and get better at training your mind. There were field tests on groups that train mentally and physically with the Russian weight-lifting team. It gives you a lot of techniques you can use mentally, like visualization. It's almost like watching yourself play on television. I visualized my pre-shot routine, my ball flight, the whole picture of what was going to happen before I did it. The more detailed [your visualization], the higher your success rate of execution.
If you had to save three items from your burning home . . .
My iPhone, because my friends say I'm always on it, checking stocks -- I have about 20 stocks and funds that I like to follw -- or texting friends or reading about sports. I'll have to bring the 2012 [Dodge] Challenger I just built with some people in Texas. And I've got a signed picture of Ben Hogan that my wife got for me for a wedding present.
As a kid you were a standard-bearer at the Honda Classic. What was that like?
I grew up around that golf tournament, from the ninth grade or so all through high school, at Weston Hills. I also worked on the driving range some so I could steal the golf balls. I watched a lot of the pros play.
That was your first experience with Vijay Singh.
Yeah, he always stood out to me, because he was the guy that worked the hardest.
It seems like you took that to heart as a pure walk-on at Auburn.
How mnay people from Fiji are world famous at what they do? You start thinking about how you from there to where he is now. I used to follow Vijay in his practice rounds at Firestone Country Club -- I'd be up in Ohio to see my grandparents and my dad, and I'd go over to the tournament -- and he'd notice that I'd watched all 18 holes.
And now you're pals. How much do you and Vijay play for during practice rounds?
Oh, I don't know, you might lose $400 or $500 if you have a really bad day. It's usually payable in one or two paper notes. There are five or six guys I play with; for us, when you play tournament practice rounds, it can get pretty boring out there. I play a lot with Charley Hoffman, Ryuji Imada, D.J. Trahan. I think competition is good.
How long do you want to be out on Tour?
I've been telling people I want to stop around 40. It depends on how well I do.
Just five more years? You were going broke when playing the mini-tours and living in South Florida. Why would you chuck it all away when you took so long to get to this level?
Because it's really hard. You sacrifice a lot to be a great player and there's more to life than golf tournaments. The travel is terrible. I'm not going to be one of those parents whose family travels with them all the time. I think that with my bond with Amanda and some other family members, it's going to be very hard for me to say, "Hey, I'm heading out on the road. See you in two weeks."
But Vijay was just getting started at 40.
That's true. We'll have to see. I love the competition. If I could have five more years like this one and last year, I would be able to comfortably walk away.