Jason Dufner: The everyman PGA champion
At first glance Jason Dufner doesn’t strike you as a typical Economics graduate. Or someone who has read everything on, and watched every video, of Ben Hogan.
Growing up he would hit airflow balls. He would mimic John Daly when he wanted to be long and reckless, for smooth and rhythmic Freddie Couples and, for the mechanical side of the game, Nick Faldo.
The one that always worked the best though was Jason Dufner’s. The Floridian (he moved there when he was 14) was always going to be a golfer. Even if it meant he wasn’t going to be the coolest kid in high school.
“Golfers don’t get laid too much at school,” as he explained to America’s leading radio ‘shock jock’, Howard Stern, shortly after his PGA success. Unlike one or two of his peers, Dufner is smart, very smart.
He’s also normal. On Twitter he is a sharer without a hint of self-promotion. He has the everyman touch, be it the belly or the mop of hair (that has just been shorn) or the ambling walk with little sense of purpose.
He also has the inner confidence to laugh at himself. When his good friend Keegan Bradley began the whole ‘Dufnering’ phenomenon (a picture of the player slumped and expressionless on the floor while visiting a youth centre), he took it all in good heart. But there was far more to his thinking than just being laid back.
In an interview he said: “I just went with the flow. You can’t hide from who you are.
“But I’ll tell you something – and I hope kids who get teased at school are reading this – when somebody says or does something that bothers you, don’t let them know it. Keep your cards close to your chest. Roll with it, and sooner rather than later it’ll stop.”
Likewise, on the course he is a thinker. After rounds he will replay every shot over an hour and a half to see where he could make improvements.
When he won for the second time, at the Byron Nelson in 2012, he was gently mocked for his lack of emotion when holing a 25-footer.
The reason for his lack of excitement was that he had already visualised the putt dropping while walking up to the green. The idea had come from a book Dufner had read on the mental techniques of Russian weightlifters.
Back in 2008 Dufner was outside the top 500 and struggling with his game. This was when he teamed up with legendary teacher Chuck Cook.
In the 90s Cook coached Payne Stewart, Tom Kite and Corey Pavin to US Open victories, previously he had worked with Harvey Penick and was lucky enough to spend time with Hogan.
When Stewart died in a plane crash in 1999, life on the range wasn’t the same for Cook and he began turning down players. Then along came Dufner, who had been coached by one of Cook’s master teachers, Layne Savoie, now moving to a new role in Arkansas.
And so began a pairing which has brought a renaissance for both men. Cook now also coaches, among others, Luke Donald and Keegan Bradley. Cook had just putting the finishing touches to Donald’s preparations at Royal Aberdeen when we spoke with the Texan.
“I had known Duf for a while and Layne asked me to help him. He had got into some bad habits with his swing and short game so we started working primarily on his swing; he was very shut and upright and, consequently, to not hit it left, he would drive his legs out from underneath him and get the club behind him and hit pushes and hooks.
“We got the clubface more open, which also got him more rounded and that got him a little more flat-footed at impact. And that’s how we started.”
In 2009 Dufner finished 11th in the FedEx Cup standings, the following year he was two shots outside the PGA Championship’s play-off at Whistling Straits. In 2011, again he saved his best for the year’s final Major.
With four holes to play he held a five-shot lead in Atlanta but then went backwards as his nearest challenger Bradley advanced.
The pair met in a play-off, which Bradley won by a shot. Dufner was now 38th in the world and had properly arrived. The most noticeable part of Dufner’s armoury to the casual observer was the waggle. Less obvious, but more important, was the ball striking.
“He has always had the waggle and that’s a good thing, it helps to keep him loose and relaxed. It’s not to try and imitate the swing or takeaway.
“When he’s on there is probably nobody who controls the ball as well as he does.” By the time of Oak Hill last year Dufner was a two-time winner and a Ryder Cup player – he left Medinah a loser but with three wins from four outings.
There had been relatively little to shout about other than a share of fourth in the US Open – but the Donald Ross design immediately suited his eye.
“He was swinging well. We have two jobs as teachers; one, to make them swing well and, two, to work on the shots that they need for that week.
“He really liked the course and that helps him get inspired, he knew it was a ball striker’s course and that helped his confidence.”
Dufner opened with a 68 and then had a putt for a first 62 in Major history. It came up short but was still the week’s best effort. Supposedly Cook’s final words to Dufner on the morning of the final round – as he trailed Jim Furyk by a shot – was to ‘ball strike the heck out of them’.
“It might have been a little bit more profane than that but yes! He likes that and I wanted to put him in that positive mood and he felt like he could win with that.”
Dufner hit nine approaches inside 15 feet, three stiff, and his 68 gave him a two-shot win. All of these skills obviously don’t just happen, they are the result of hard work on and off the course and even, you might be surprised to hear, in the gym.
“He is a lot different than his public persona. He has that beer belly but he works out a lot, he travels with a trainer.
“He’s a great guy, extremely generous to his friends, funny and very smart. He has the economics major and he studies a lot, worldwide things not just golf, and is very different to how people perceive him.”