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REARDON: The Real Dufnering

Dan Reardon
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Jason Dufner of the United States hits his tee shot on the first hole during the final round of the 95th PGA Championship at Oak Hill Country Club on August 11, 2013 in Rochester, New York.  (Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images)

Jason Dufner of the United States hits his tee shot on the first hole during the final round of the 95th PGA Championship at Oak Hill Country Club on August 11, 2013 in Rochester, New York. (Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images)

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When you stake out a position before the outcome is known, misguided speculation can be excused. The future is always a guess. When you stake out a position after the fact and miss the mark, you can only hope people will forget. Let me remind you of a mistake in judgment I made two years ago in Atlanta.

To refresh your memory, it was in Atlanta that Jason Dufner flashed and splashed at the PGA Championship. For 68 holes he played brilliant golf and led the PGA Championship by five strokes as he stood on the 15th tee on Sunday. From there he washed his tee shot and went on to bogey three consecutive holes and lose in a playoff to Keegan Bradley.

In analyzing his collapse I rationalized that Dufner’s fold was not so much a “choke” as a return to form for a player who before that time had never shown himself to be major championship material. I wrote, “I suspect Jason Dufner has bogeyed three of the last four holes on Sunday a number of times. He just picked the wrong Sunday and the wrong moment to let us all see it this time.”

I will admit that the package that we now know to be the real Jason Dufner influenced my missed diagnosis. His shaggy hair curling up from beneath his cap; his peccadillo waggle before every shot; his ‘Botox-like’ expressionless look regardless of the shot at the time was a stark contrast to the winner that year, Keegan Bradley.

Bradley had the Hall of Fame aunt, success on the PGA Tour, his own quirky but intense mannerisms and enough youth to sparkle in comparison to Dufner’s matte finish.

Last year Dufner proved me, and others wrong as he collected two wins beginning with his PGA Tour maiden at New Orleans. Even then I will admit some reservations until the Ryder Cup in Chicago. Only then, being able to observe first hand how he handled pressure in a huge American collapse did I realize that Dufner possessed perhaps one of the most valuable traits you can have as an athlete – realism.

While 2012 validated what he had believed was true of him as a player, it didn’t change his view of the sort of player he was. A disciple of Ben Hogan was content to be grey in a sport where Sunday red is the statement.

I will confess again when 2013 began I looked to see if Dufner would build on his break out year a season ago and doubts drifted in. For the first five months of the year he showed no signs of playing at the new level of the year prior. Through May he didn’t post a single top ten. Even when he finally performed at Merion, his final day 67 and T4 got lost in the fade of Phil Mickelson.

He missed the cut at Travelers, was steady, but not spectacular, at Muirfield and his second T4 at Firestone was again muted by Tiger Woods dominant week.

After a two under opener at the PGA at Oak Hill, Dufner did his best Tiger Woods impersonation from the week prior by blitzing the field with a seven under 63 on Friday. The player, who to that point in the year had been known mostly by a cell phone photo, was back in the same seat he had at Atlanta.

I asked him on Saturday what was he doing better that week at Oak Hill than he had failed to do through the first half of the year. His realism kicked in with his response. “You know, I’ve struggled; I obviously haven’t had the finishes I want. But if you look a little bit deeper into it statistically‑wise, I’m hitting the ball just about as good as I was last year. My short game is a little bit worse and my putting is a little bit worse; those two things, you’re throwing away a shot or two a day, those add up to four or eight shots a week and that’s a lot of shots to give these guys.”

Earlier in the week he told me with the exception of the final four holes at Atlanta Athletic Club, his ball striking for that week was the best he had ever had and the difference, even on the record equaling 63 at Oak Hill, was his scoring was superior.

We have learned in the after glow of his win Jason Dufner sees his sport differently than the Sports Center crowd. He isn’t about to read into his win anything more than he has always believed. He believes his game is made for events where going low is the exception and two putt greens will keep him in the hunt. He hopes that managing the pressure on the greens Sunday at Oak Hill will lead to greater confidence and scoring going forward. But Jason Dufner, sitting next to his Wannamaker Trophy on Sunday evening, let the world know that his trip to the major champions ranks is not a door swung open to a 36 year old who in his entire golfing career from youth on has seen him in the number one position only eight times in twenty plus years.

“Yeah, it’s definitely going to change my life, but I’m determined that it’s not going to change me,” he said. There’s a lot of things that are going to come up tournament‑wise, different tournaments I can play in, different opportunities that are going to come my way, and I’m going to have to deal with that. I’ve got a great circle around me from a management team to my caddie to my wife to my coach that I’m looking for them to keep me in check to make sure that it doesn’t change me.
It’s going to be a difficult task. You hear a lot of guys, about the demands of winning a major championship and what that brings. But I’ll have to take it step‑by‑step and day-by-day and go with it. We’ll find out in the next couple weeks, the next couple months how that’s going to go.
I’m determined to not let it change me and just maybe the surroundings that I’m in.”

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