Dufner, Bradley cross paths again at the Tour Championship

September 24, 2011

ATLANTA — Golf’s clichés will never die, because they are so damn true. “Never up, never in.” It is a fact of golf life: A putt that doesn’t reach the hole cannot go in. “Every shot makes somebody happy.” Also true. Careers — lives — can turn on a single shot. If that tee shot Fred Couples hit on 12 at Augusta in 1992 had not stayed up on the bank, would he be the Presidents Cup champion this week? Maybe not. If Chez Reavie knocks that third-shot wedge on the 72nd hole at Boston a few weeks ago, makes his routine par 5 and wins Week II of the FedEx Cup, would Webb Simpson be quite the darling of the PGA Tour he is now? Maybe not.

If Jason Dufner found the green instead of the water on the par-3 15th hole in the final round of the PGA Championship last month at the Atlanta Athletic Club, would there be all this talk about Keegan Bradley making Fred Couple’s Presidents Cup team? Maybe not.

But Fred stayed dry and Chez missed with the wedge and Jason’s 5-wood came up short and so Friday’s final pairing at the Tour Championship, at East Lake, was delicious: Bradley and Dufner, this time playing 18 holes together, instead of the three they played in their playoff.

There couldn’t be two more different players. Bradley is long and lean and jumpy, a New Englander and a skier, with a putter taller than some LPGA players. Dufner is the most laconic man in golf, with a putter that’s not even 34 inches, a Southerner and a baseball player. Bradley is super-athletic and he reminds me a little of Steve Jones, the ’96 U.S. Open Champion, and he’s really fun to watch, intense and alive. But the guy I can’t stop watching is Dufner. In the age of over-stimulation, this guy looks like he has exactly one thing on his mind and it happens to be the most important thing in the world, or his world, anyway: hitting a golf ball as close to its intended resting place as possible. You have to admire such devotion.

So he ambled along yesterday, side-by-side with a man who is now linked to Francis Ouimet and Ben Curtis as the only three players to win majors in their first majors. No matter what he does for the rest of his life, Bradley, like his aunt Pat before him, has a permanent place in the lore of the game. And Dufner is his footnote.

Dufner’s not OK with that. He’s not not OK with it. He would say, “It is what it is,” but Dufner doesn’t speak in clichés. On Friday, when his round was over, he talked about the role fate plays in the game and its aftermath.

“Those examples, every golfer has them,” Dufner said. He had shot a second-round, even-par 70 and stood four shots back of the leader, Adam Scott. His playing partner, Bradley, had shot 71 and stood three shots back. “Everyone can say, ‘What if I had done this, what if I had done that.’ I had it for about a day after the PGA, and then I let it go.” Easier said than done.

Dufner’s no kid. He’s 34 and he’s logged a bunch of years on both the Nationwide Tour and the big show. No one would confuse him for a natural, not by the impossibly high standards of the PGA Tour. Bradley is a natural. Dufner is a grinder, which is why Vijay Singh has taken a liking to him. They first met on the back of the range at TPC Sawgrass, not during Players week, and have been playing practice rounds together for years. “I think Vijay’s second on the all-time money list,” Dufner said, correctly. “You look at where he came from and how hard he’s worked to get where he is, there’s a lot to learn from him.”

Dufner’s not especially long and he’s not a gifted putter but here he is, playing this week with a chance to win $11.4 million. Pretty damn cool, the way this hard work thing can pay off even if you don’t hoist the Wanamaker Trophy on a muggy day in August. Someday, maybe, he will. Dufner’s not dreaming about that. He’s not the dreamer type. He’ll keep plugging along.

One of the things he does well is think his way around a golf course intelligently, which left him particularly annoyed when he hit 3-wood instead of driver off the tee on the spectacular, totally reachable par-5 15th hole on Thursday. He thought driver would bring bunkers into play but 3-wood left him miles from the green. He walked down the fairway with his 3-wood in hand, knowing he’d need it again. After he played his second shot he lodged some chew under his lip and made the long climb up to the 15th green.

Dufner went to Auburn and people yell “Tiger!” to him all the way around. He’s way into the Auburn thing, but if the rebel yells mean anything to him you’d never know by looking at him. He’s a study in tunnel vision. As for the other Tiger, Dufner said, with a measure of pride, that he was paired with Tiger in the third round of the 2009 Australia Masters, Tiger’s last win. Dufner wasn’t in awe. He watched how Tiger went about his business, learning “from one of the greatest golfers of all time,” just like he learns from watching Singh. All three of them are grinders, if you get right down to it. At the end of the day on Friday, on the tail end of a long season, Dufner was the only player on East Lake’s practice putting green, working it out with his stubby, fat-gripped putter.

He has the most peculiar waggle in golf. With the driver, he takes eight or nine or more big, long waggles, puts the clubhead down when he’s good and ready and lets it go. On Friday, a teaching pro from the Atlanta Athletic Club, Mark Robinson, was following the duo that played such captivating golf at his course a month or so ago. Robinson said that the waggle was a perfect illustration of what Ben Hogan preached, rehearsing the pronation of the arms. If you don’t know that whole thing, run to your amazon.com account and order the Hogan classic “Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf,” which ran first as a series in Sports Illustrated. In any event, Robinson, watching from afar and admiringly, saw Hogan in Dufner’s action.

I asked Dufner about the waggle yesterday. Everybody does. “I have no idea how many times I do it and I don’t know why I do it,” he said. Hogan is not a model for him. “Maybe it comes from playing baseball, where you’re never static.”

I don’t know what Dufner knows about Hogan, but Hogan was ruthlessly efficient, in his language, in his swing and in his life, and he would have admired what Dufner did after his round and before heading to the practice green in his spiked (real spikes) shoes.

He and Bradley signed autographs, side-by-side. The crowds on Friday were pathetically anemic, but there was a decent throng waiting for this pair. Some people had flags from the PGA Championship and they were looking for the winner and his runner-up to sign them. Dufner obliged everybody. but passed on one hat and not because it bore the emblem of Georgia Tech. Dufner gave the hat a nano-second glance and told its owner, “Got it already.” Efficient.

Before he headed off, I asked Dufner if he had a Faldo-Norman moment with Bradley when it was all over. (’96 Masters, 18th green, Sunday. Check it out, kids. One of the best moments in modern golf.) Dufner said Bradley said some nice things to him, but he couldn’t remember the exact words. “He appreciated the fact that I was a good loser.”

One swing and the whole thing is different. But that’s golf. Every shot makes somebody happy.