LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England — Jason Dufner was in one of the final pairings of the Open Championship's second round, giving him the excellent fortune of touring the closing holes of Royal Lytham & St Annes in a silvery twilight. The crowd was mostly gone, the heavy air dead-calm. Dufner already plays with an admirable serenity, but even he seemed moved by the pastoral peacefulness.
"It was a nice feeling out there," he said. "There's a lot of history in this event. It's an event I'd like to play well in."
He's halfway there, having fired a bogeyless 66 in the second round to move into a tie for fifth place. A burst of four birdies in five holes in the middle of the round was enough to convert the tribe of die-hards who were following his playing partner, Scotsman Martin Laird. They serenaded Dufner in brogues thicker than Lytham rough: "C'mooon, Jay-suhn!"
This year Dufner has turned into one of the PGA Tour's most consistent performers, and once again he's on the verge of elevating himself in a major way. For the fourth straight major championship Dufner heads into the weekend in the top 10, and he's no longer just happy to be there. "I'm getting comfortable in this position," he says. "You learn to handle the pressure and understand how your body is going to react. I think you have to fail a few times to experience it a few times and learn from it. I've done that now."
Dufner's strong play in the majors coincides with a greater emphasis on preparing for them, as he's begun to arrive up to a week in advance of the first round. He skipped this year's John Deere — which he has played in the past — to study Lytham in greater detail. Playing practice rounds in a variety of different winds has helped this preeminent ballstriker discover a new trust.
"I had six or seven days over here to hit shots and kind of get a feel for the style of golf that you need to play over here," says Dufner. "It's really difficult to play in the wind over here, because there's no trees that kind of block it. In the States, if you get 20 miles an hour it might only play like 10 because you have trees blocking it in certain areas. Over here, 20 miles an hour feels like 40 in the States.
"So you've got to really control your golf ball, try to work it in the winds, give yourself an allowance if you're going with the wind, pick different lines that you may not be used to. It's really hard to aim left of a target and hit a draw, because that's what it calls for [if] the wind [is] screaming to the right. We're so target-orientated that we're going to go right at the target most of the time. Those are little adjustments that you've got to pick up while you're over here."
During the second round Dufner hit 10 fairways and 13 greens, always missing in the right places. "He controlled his ball beautifully," said Laird. "He made it look easy out there."
The 36-hole leader at this year's Masters, Dufner knows that the hard part is just beginning. He remains intensely devoted to hitting one shot at a time; had any of his putts that singed the cup on the final few holes dropped, he would have been paired with Tiger Woods in the penultimate group on Saturday.
"Didn't know that," Dufner said after the round, with characteristic laconic cool. "That's fine, I'm just gonna keep going about my business."
Playing late in the day on Saturday figures to be more stressful than Dufner's stroll around the linksland on Friday evening. Sunday, with 30-mile-per-hour winds in the forecast, could be wilder still. Don't expect The Duf to get rattled, though. He has organized his life to be clutter-free — after his breakthrough win in Memphis earlier this year, he stayed up until 3:30 in the morning, unpacking and chronicling his expenses from the trip. So what's his gameplan for these next two rounds, which could change his golfing life forever?
"You just take it as it is," he says.