Until last year’s PGA Championship, Jason Dufner’s followers might have been primarily fellow Auburn alumni or his old neighbors in Cleveland and South Florida.
But after he blew a 5-shot lead with four holes to play at Atlanta Athletic Club and lost in a playoff to Keegan Bradley, Dufner started to get recognized all over the South. As his good performances continued, that circle widened.
Now ranked eighth in the world going into his first appearance in this week’s $8.5 million World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational, Dufner is becoming a popular everyman with a cool demeanor and a hot game. He can no longer surreptitiously negotiate airports or restaurants.
“It can be a little overwhelming if you’re not used to it, so me and Amanda are adjusting to it a little bit,” Dufner said in May at the Byron Nelson Classic, referring to his new bride.
“Amanda made a comment, usually when you’re not playing good they’re saying, ‘Oh, this guy is terrible,’ and now they were like, ‘Oh, he’s just having a bad day.’ I like the fact that people know and respect my golf game and want to root for me.”
That’s for good reason. Dufner, 35, has been on a meteoric rise the past two years.
In the span of 22 days this spring, he won twice. He picked up his first PGA Tour victory April 29 with a playoff triumph over Ernie Els in the Zurich Classic. On May 20, he captured the Byron Nelson Championship, draining a 25-foot putt on the 72nd hole to win by 1 shot. A week later, he finished second in the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial. He followed that with a tie for fourth at the U.S. Open.
After the Zurich Classic, Dufner sandwiched in his wedding to the former Amanda Boyd, getting married just blocks from their home in Auburn, Ala. They honeymooned at the Players Championship as he quipped, “Hey, they got an island green.”
After his triumph at the Byron Nelson, Dufner seemed to realize how magical his 2012 ride has been.
“You probably couldn’t dream it any better,” he said on May 20. “Amanda and I are lucky to be in the position we’re in and to have each other and enjoy what’s going on around us right now.”
Going into Thursday’s first round at Firestone Country Club, Dufner stands second on the PGA Tour money list, about $500,000 behind Tiger Woods, and third in the FedExCup points race. He’s earned more than $4 million this year and more than $7 million in the past two seasons. He’s made 15 consecutive cuts, second on the tour to Matt Kuchar’s 22. In his past seven majors, Dufner has been in the top 10 after 36 holes five times, including a week ago at the British Open.
Not bad for a guy who didn’t get serious about the game until he was 15.
Dufner moved away from Cleveland at age 11, three years after his parents divorced. According to GolfWorld, his mother, Barbara, got a job as general manager of the Athletic Club at Weston Hills in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., which hosted the Honda Classic from 1992-95. Dufner met several pro athletes there, including Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino, and they served as mentors.
But if Dufner’s Twitter account is any indication, some of his heart remains in Northeast Ohio.
On June 24, he posted that he’d just played golf with two Browns rookies from Oklahoma State, quarterback Brandon Weeden and receiver Josh Cooper, and was “happy to have these guys in Browns uniforms.” That seemed to coincide with his participation in a Ronald McDonald House pro-am in Cleveland, which he tweeted he was attending.
On June 28, he was dismayed by the Cavs’ choice of Dion Waiters in the NBA Draft, tweeting: “Wit the 4th pick the Cavs select the worst possible option i cannot believe what is going on. Make the move and trade up to get MKG u clowns!”
Unlike many fans in the Buckeye State, Dufner rooted for LeBron James and the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals. In several posts on June 21 he tweeted: “Gonna watch bron bron get his game on and get that trophy! I don’t get the hate? Lebron stays out of trouble off the court. Can’t disagree the ‘decision’ thing blew up in his (face). But that was like forever ago.”
Perhaps Dufner learned to cope with disappointment growing up in Cleveland. But as tough as the 2011 PGA loss was, Dufner took confidence from it and used it as motivation for 2012.
“Coming from where I came from, to be in this position, it’s a dream come true,” Dufner said that day in Atlanta. “I could never have imagined playing in major championships, playing with Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods; that’s a milestone to me itself. I’m not going to let this define my career. I have a lot of things ahead of me. I have a lot of time to play golf and hopefully I’ll have more time to win majors and use what happened today as a positive.”
Dufner will get another chance at the PGA Aug. 9-12 at the Ocean Course on Kiawah Island, S.C. He’s third in the U.S. Ryder Cup standings, so he should fulfill his goal of playing in the matches at Medinah in September.
Dufner admitted in New Orleans that getting his first tour victory was a relief. After the final round at the Zurich Classic, Els praised Dufner’s game and the way he keeps his emotions from boiling to the surface.
“Kind of reminds me of myself back in the day,” Els said on April 29. “He's a wonderful guy. I’ve played a lot of golf with Jason. He came close to winning a major last year against Keegan and been close quite a few times.
“He’s got a wonderful golf swing and I think this will help him a lot. I think he’ll win quite a few others. If he keeps that shield up … that’s a pretty good defensive mechanism he’s got there.”
Now when he hears praise like that from his peers, Dufner might be able to accept it. That didn’t seem the case when he left the 2011 PGA and headed back to Auburn, where the Tigers coaches had invited him to the football complex.
“I walked into one of the auditoriums and the whole team was in there, and they gave me a standing ovation,” Dufner said on Aug. 16. “I don’t know a lot of those guys personally, as far as the players go. To hear them talk, ‘Oh, I was watching.’ You wouldn’t expect a 320-pound defensive lineman to be watching golf on Sunday.
“For the coaches to take time out of their meetings and practice on Sunday, saying ‘We were checking text messages, watching when we could,’ that was a pretty neat experience for me.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.