Even when talking about the biggest moment of his career, 2013 PGA champion Jason Dufner is as laid back as ever, as Alex Perry found out
“I don’t think about it too often. Not unless someone brings it up.”
But Jason Dufner will have had his PGA Championship win on his mind a lot in recent weeks.
And not just because it’s the subject of this interview, which took place during Players week, but also because it’s the 10th anniversary of his sole major victory – a week that saw him break Ben Hogan’s course record at Oak Hill before overhauling Jim Furyk to lift the Wanamaker.
“I haven’t been back since I won,” Dufner, who has since withdrawn from this year’s competition, confirms. “I’ve heard there’s been changes to the golf course and it’s a completely different venue than what I remember from 2013.”
Dufner had a solid record heading to Oak Hill a decade ago. He had picked up two PGA Tour titles and had already had a handful of top-five finishes in both the US Open and PGA Championship – including a playoff defeat to rookie Keegan Bradley in 2011.
“The golf courses, a lot of the time, fit my style of play,” he says, explaining why he had most success in those particular majors. For context, he had just one top 20 in each of the Masters and Open Championship.
“The game’s changed – hitting it far has become a skill that wasn’t necessarily a skill 10 years ago. We had some guys who hit it far but nobody was really training to hit it far, so that’s changed a lot about how we approach tournaments.
“But for me, a lot of the success I’ve had in the majors was where there’s not a huge advantage on distance. The longer hitters may have been hitting an iron where I was hitting driver, but the PGA and US Open always seemed to be [played on courses] where guys are hitting approaches from the same position. Oak Hill was certainly one of those.
“I always felt like the US Open would be where I could win majors – and the PGA, at times, has that same style golf course as well.”
The 2011 PGA Championship was an enthralling encounter. On one hand you had Keegan Bradley, playing in his first ever major, and on the other you had Dufner, whose record at the time had as many missed cuts as it did weekends made.
But the pair put on some show, and ended each of the first three rounds within a shot of each other. That continued on day four, until Bradley stumbled to a catastrophic triple-bogey six at the 15th to concede a four-shot lead with three holes to play and surely Dufner’s maiden major title.
“I didn’t know I was exactly four clear, but I knew I was in a good position,” Dufner recalls. “That was really the first time I had been in contention for a major on the back nine. I didn’t have a lot of experience.
“But anything can happen at the end. A lot of it just has to do with being in that position, and trying to be comfortable in an uncomfortable situation. What we do is extremely uncomfortable at times, trying to be the best in the world for any given week, and the amount of expectations that we put on ourselves, as well as from other people, all leads to a lot of uncomfortability.”
Dufner struggled with being in the uncomfortable position and dropped shots at 16 and 17, while Bradley birdied them to pull level. A pair of pars at 18 meant extra holes.
“I had a lead, and now I was in a playoff, so of course I was disappointed,” Dufner explains. “That’s only human nature. But you go back to believing in your process, your habits, and your routines to try and win the tournament.
“Staying in the present is what the best in the world are good at. And when I played my best, I was able to stay in the present, and not focus too much on what happened in the past, or what might happen in the future, but stay locked into the process of hitting good golf shots.”
It was a three-hole playoff – “that really helps because you have a little wiggle room compared to sudden death where any one shot can determine who wins” – played over the 16th, 17th and 18th. Bradley would go on to play the extra holes in one shot better than his rival and lift his first and – to date – only major title.
For Dufner, though, a time to reflect.
“For a long time in my career I was just learning from my mistakes,” he says. “I had a legitimate chance, and the failure really helped me the next time I was in position two years later at Oak Hill.”
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Dufner arrived in New York in 2013 an entirely different player. As well as those two PGA Tour wins, he had made his Ryder Cup debut at Medinah, where he was the USA’s joint top scorer in a week the hosts would otherwise be keen to forget.
More importantly, he was in form. He had recorded his best finishes at each of the other three majors, and came into the PGA off the back of a tied-fourth at the WGC-Invitational.
“I felt good,” he says. “Occasionally you’ve got to come out of nowhere to contend or win a major, but more often than not the guys that are playing well in majors, and winning, have had some recent success.
“I’d been playing some really good golf. I’d broken par every day at Firestone, which is a good test, and I’ve always been a player that if I’m playing well I continue to play well.”
An opening-round 68 at Oak Hill had Dufner feeling even better. Then, on day two, he caught fire. A course-record 63 – matching what was, at the time, the best score ever in a men’s major – and a two-shot lead heading into the weekend.
“We had a lot of rain that week, so the golf course played really soft,” Dufner explains. “That actually helped me a lot because I could hit driver often, which gave me an advantage because I was hitting some shorter clubs in.
“It was just one of those days where things were going well. Sometimes those days are at your home club when you’re playing with your buddies, but it was fortunate for me it was during a major championship.
“I had a chance at a 62, too, which would have been the lowest score in major championship history, but I left the putt short. Still, I was pretty satisfied with taking Mr Hogan’s record and having a lead in a major.”
That lead was lost 24 hours later when Jim Furyk’s 68 saw him overtake Dufner, who played his third round in eight more shots than the day before. But by the time the final pair had reached the turn on Sunday, Dufner was two clear thanks to a trio of birdies and not in the mood to miss out again.
He would play the back-nine in one-over-par, but a fading Furyk couldn’t close the gap and Dufner was a major champion.
“I don’t think it changes much whether you’re taking on a rookie or an experienced player,” he explains. “I try to respect all players on the tour, and the major fields are so deep that anybody can have a good week and play well. The talent level is so high.
“I didn’t know much about Keegan at the time and, to be honest, though I had played on tour for a while, I was still in a rookie mindset in that environment, so I felt like we were pretty equal. Obviously Jim has a lot more experience in those situations and that can be helpful, but by the time I’d gotten to 2013 I felt like I had enough experience and my game was good that I could handle it.”
This article originally appeared in the PGA Championship preview issue of National Club Golfer magazine and has been updated for this version.
What’s in Jason Dufner’s Cobra bag?
Jason Dufner was speaking to NCG as an ambassador for Cobra.
“Cobra has been a great company to me,” he said. “They’ve been very supportive, and I can’t say that I deserve that support. I haven’t played as well as I would like – or maybe they would like – but we’ve continued the partnership and one of the greatest things about Cobra is we give them feedback on what we like, what we don’t like, and what we’d like to see and Cobra takes that to their engineers and they can try to build the best golf equipment there is on tour.
“They’ve really done a nice job with the new Aerojet driver. They’ve used carbon fibre, not only on the top which has been pretty prevalent on tour, but in the bottom so that’s decreased the total weight of the head, so they’ve been able to add some weight to the face to make the club more forgiving, more stable, a little bit faster, and also give you a little bit more variability on what you can do with the centre of gravity on the driver.
“We’ve also got a new line of King irons – there’s a players set, then there’s the MB, and I play the CB set which is a cavity back – so we’ve got options, and that’s all from feedback from the players.
“It’s really helped them have more adjustability from player to player so I’ve been really happy with their stuff. They have a great team of guys out on tour. They have a great set of engineers and they listen to the guys that are playing their stuff and I think you’re starting to see a lot more guys that aren’t under contract play with their stuff. I know Justin Rose won at Pebble with their irons and it just seems like they’ve got more and more guys coming into the truck talking to them about their equipment and seeing if that’s a fit for them, so that can be a great thing for them going forward. I try to help them out as much as I can, and push the product as much as I can, because I know what we play out here drives a little bit in the marketplace.”
Driver: Cobra Aerojet LS
Fairway woods: Cobra Aerojet
Irons: Cobra King CB
Wedges: Cobra King Snakebite