The newest star of American golf was standing on the 18th green at the HP Byron Nelson Championship on Sunday, facing a 25-foot, right-to-left downhiller for a spot on Davis Love III's Ryder Cup team. Jason Dufner does not get amped about much—Auburn football, a party with good libations—but he knew what was at stake as he lined up his slick, meandering birdie putt.
Looking on from a perch to the right of the green was a trio of highly interested observers: the former Amanda Boyd, Dufner's bride of two weeks (even with that degree from rival Alabama); Peggy Nelson, the widow of the tournament namesake; and Dicky Pride, another 'Bama alum who, thanks to a fabulous par save at the 72nd hole, was tied for the lead with Dufner.
After tornadoes tore through Alabama last year, Pride organized a charity pro-am in his native Tuscaloosa, eliciting help from his friends in professional golf. “[Jason] said, 'I'm coming, I'm bringing a team and how can I help,' ” Pride recalled on Sunday. “He was the first guy. For a guy who doesn't say much, that says a lot about him.”
Dufner says that he doesn't read putts as much as he visualizes where he wants his ball to go, and when he released his putter, the result was a no-doubter. The putt dropped, and the 35-year-old Dufner, winless in his first 163 Tour starts before breaking through at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans last month, suddenly had his second victory in three starts and had vaulted to third in the U.S. Ryder Cup standings.
“I hope it gets Davis Love's attention,” Dufner said. “Being a Ryder Cup year, that would be special to have on your résumé and play in, even if it's only for one time. That was one of my main goals.”
With the Ryder Cup only four months away, Dufner should have no worries about making the team. The top eight point-getters are guaranteed a spot, and it would take Dufner-like streaks from a handful of players for him to lose his spot. So now he can focus on another goal: winning a major. Dufner nearly pulled that off last year at the PGA Championship before three late bogeys dropped him into a playoff with Keegan Bradley. While Bradley won the championship at Atlanta Athletic Club, Dufner gained a following of devotees who loved his preshot waggle and laid-back demeanor.
“There wasn't much disappointment from last year—maybe for a little bit after the PGA—but [I] played well there,” Dufner says. “[It was my] first time in a major to have a chance to win. I think it really propelled me this off-season. I played well in some events, and I was thinking coming into this year that I could play some really good golf. It's time to win some events out here. So I think everything that happened last year has propelled me into playing well this year.”
Dufner was early into his second round at the Nelson last Friday as the man with whom he shares a career arc was walking off the course. Bradley had just played 18 holes of steamy wind-blown golf on a day so hot that even the armadillos were looking for shade. Now he had options galore at the TPC Four Seasons Resort at Las Colinas. The glimmering, saltwater lap pool was calling for a dip. The spa offered several enticements, including the Old Fashioned Cowboy Soak, which includes a 25-minute hydrotherapy bath, a 50-minute massage (Swedish or deep tissue) and a glass of chilled Shiner Bock. Bradley instead opted for choice C—the hotel's 6,000-square-foot Sports Club.
For the next 90 minutes Bradley worked up another sweat, moving from the stationary bike to the treadmill to golf-specific exercises focusing on the area between his chest and his pelvis. He then headed over to the club's basketball half-court and began stroking jumpers.
If this seemed excessive after five hours of trudging through a Texas furnace, you don't know Bradley. After two victories in his rookie season last year—at the Nelson and the PGA—Bradley, despite the stories hailing his achievements and pedigree, did not believe he had arrived. Outsiders loved the bouncy gait, the 300-yard drives and recollections of his World Golf Hall of Fame aunt, Pat.
But Bradley saw an incomplete athlete. In March he endeavored to fix that. He walked into the Jupiter, Fla., office of golf biomechanics coach Joey Diovisalvi and told him that while he rated himself a 9 or a 10 in golf, he was a 0 in strength and conditioning. Diovisalvi recalls Bradley's telling him something else: “Every time I think about the fact that I'm not Number 1 in the world, I want to tear my head off.”
When Bradley arrived at the Nelson last year, he didn't even stay at the Four Seasons, which towers over the 18th hole of the TPC. The rookie bunked at a Hampton Inn. Sure, he had tied for seventh at the Hope and for ninth at the Valero Texas Open, but he had also missed the cut in six of his first 15 starts. He was already grinding to keep his Tour card. Bradley remembers standing along the rope line at the Nelson and signing autographs for fans who would then ask, “Who are you?”
This year his picture adorned the cover of the tournament program, and he's mentioned on a short list of the best U.S. players. Keegs, 25, is a good bet to join Dufner on the Ryder Cup team. (Look for Kooch, Rickie and Bubba to make it as well.) A distant 203rd in the 2011 World Ranking heading into the Nelson, Bradley is now the 23rd-ranked player on the planet. And he would make an admirable defense of his Nelson title, flirting with the lead on the weekend before finishing 24th, nine shots behind Dufner.
That Bradley was even in the field last year was an upset. “I was going to play Colonial and skip this tournament,” he says. “It was done. I had made my decision. My caddie [Steve (Pepsi) Hale] said, 'I think you should play the Nelson and skip Colonial; the Nelson [course] fits your game better.' He had never said anything like that to me in my career. Thank God he persuaded me to do it.”
Playing the TPC for the first time, Bradley battled through the wind, taking down Texan Ryan Palmer on the first hole of a sudden-death playoff.
Bradley failed to qualify for the U.S. Open or the British Open, but his victory got him a spot in the steamy PGA Championship. Playing in his first major he shared the 36-hole lead after a second-round 64 and was a shot back heading into Sunday. He tripled the 15th hole to fall five back, but found the resolve to grind out two birdies and a par and catch Dufner. Then Keegs promptly won the three-hole playoff.
Those close to him say that the resolve was already there. “It's been pretty crazy to see what a win like [the Nelson] can do for your career,” says Jon Curran, Bradley's friend and teammate on the Hopkinton (Mass.) High golf team and a mini-tour player. “What happened in a three-month period is insane. For some people, usually something that quick doesn't last, but he hasn't become complacent. He's still going in the right direction.”
Bradley finished in the top 25 in his first four starts of 2012 and in February provided one of the indelible images of the season: answering Phil Mickelson's birdie on the 72nd hole at the Northern Trust Open with one of his own to get into a playoff with Mickelson and eventual winner Bill Haas.
Bradley played inspired golf at Riviera but also with a heavy heart. The tournament over, he boarded a red-eye to Boston to serve as a pallbearer the next day at the funeral of Curran's father, Peter, who died of melanoma.
If you don't get tripped up by Bradley's politeness and smile, you can see the embers of a fiery, hypercompetitive New Englander smoldering below the surface. Bradley was born in Woodstock, Vt., and he was fitted with skis almost as early as he was diapers. He moved to Hopkinton for his senior year of high school, and he and Curran became fast friends, passionate about golf and all things New England.
“We had this ongoing bet through the course of the season where every stroke under par was like five or 10 bucks,” Curran says.
The matches were almost always tight. “It was a bet we could have without someone getting beat up,” Curran says. “He hit it long back then, but we were competitors. We weren't ogling over each other's games. We wanted to beat each other's asses.”
They loved their hearty New England heritage too, the golf played under gray skies, the accents as thick as clam chowder. “We hated the people who would escape New England and go down to the Leadbetter Academy and go to high school in Florida,” Curran says. “You play the cards you're dealt. Everybody down South has that mentality that the weather today is nice and tomorrow will be too. Back home [in New England], if you had a nice day, you were getting it done because you didn't know when the next good one was coming.”
After college—Bradley at St. John's, Curran at Vanderbilt—they finally gave in and joined the professional golf parade and moved to Jupiter, bringing their Puritan pride to the Sunshine State.
“Keegan is cautiously shy,” Diovisalvi says. “He fits in with everybody. He's the nicest guy, but he doesn't go out at night. He calls me and says, 'What do I eat? What's the right prescription to get my food to sustain my rounds?'
“I heard that passion a long time ago,” adds Diovisalvi, who worked with Vijay Singh on his ride to No. 1. “I really believe that there are very few individuals who can focus on a goal and set the bar that high. Keegan has the ability to focus.”
And so the New Englander does, often playing in the red and white of St. John's and eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on multigrain bread, almonds, raisins, peanuts, trail mix and two Clif Bars. Bradley says he has never felt more comfortable or fit.
It's Saturday now, and Bradley is on another leader board at the Nelson. His round over, he hugs Peggy Nelson, who is seated beneath an umbrella near the 18th green. He signs autographs for fans who don't have to ask his name. What a difference a year makes.
And what a difference a month makes. How much better can it get for Dufner, the 14th-ranked player in the world? Before the Ryder Cup he'll have three chances to pick off a major at courses (Olympic, Lytham and Kiawah) that should favor one of the game's best ball strikers and wind players.
“I love the setup of the U.S. Open,” said Dufner, whose best finish in five Open appearances is 33rd, at Pebble Beach in 2010. “I think it suits my style of golf, and I think I could play well.”
These days, Dufner can take his game pretty much anywhere. At the Zurich he put on a putting display, missing only three times on 67 attempts from inside 10 feet and holing all 61 of his putts from inside seven feet. At the Nelson it was all about ball striking. He led the field in greens in regulation and was second in fairways hit. He led the field with 19 birdies, the last and most important set up by a piped 314-yard drive at the watery 18th. Water? What water? “The tee shot's not too big of a deal for me,” Dufner said. “That bunker [down the right side] is a pretty good aiming point.” And Duf being Duf, he didn't so much as blink on Sunday when playing partner J.J. Henry holed a wedge at the 174-yard 5th. Duf's answer? He holed a six-footer for birdie.
“I feel really comfortable on the golf course,” Dufner said. “I feel as if I'm in control of my game. I getting better emotionally, dealing with the pressure of trying to win.”
The U.S. Open looms, but Dufner wouldn't go so far as to pronounce himself as one of the players to beat. He has never played Olympic, and he knows how fickle the game can be, how a player can win one week and miss the cut the next. “I'll let other people decide if I'm one of the favorites,” he said. “I don't think there's really any favorite, because it's golf.”
That isn't his style anyway. Duf may be the hottest player in the game, but he hasn't lost his cool. He's so good, there's no reason to brag.