x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Golfer Jason Dufner remains a man of understatement

The 2011 US PGA Championship runner-up, making his debut at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship this week, is laidback despite the stresses of the game, writes John McAuley.

Jason Dufner, in action during the Deutsche Bank Championship in Norton, Massachusetts, last September, did not pick up golf until he was 15 years old. Jim Rogash / Getty Images
Jason Dufner, in action during the Deutsche Bank Championship in Norton, Massachusetts, last September, did not pick up golf until he was 15 years old. Jim Rogash / Getty Images

Jason Dufner is contemplating his most vivid memory from the most vibrant of Ryder Cups.

A Ryder Cup, remember, in which Europe staged the greatest comeback in the competition's 85-year history, a feat so remarkable it has since been labelled the "Miracle at Medinah".

"A plane wrote in the sky that my wife was hot," Dufner told The National ahead of his debut on Thursday at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship. "Can't say I disagree."

To say Dufner, 35, constitutes one of professional golf's more understated stars represents in itself a glaring understatement. He is so laid back, in fact, that it would not shock to find him this week attempting to putt on the National Course greens while spread horizontally.

Even the golfing gods have tried testing his equable outlook. There was the failure twice to retain his US PGA Tour playing privileges, punctuating eight years of toil on America's mini circuits. There was the denial in 2011 of a first professional victory, Dufner robbed of the title in a play-off at the heavily populated Phoenix Open.

And then there was the Sunday of that calendar's US PGA Championship, the Cleveland-born swinger blowing a five-stroke lead with four holes to play as Keegan Bradley made off with the title.

Still, no tears or tantrums.

Even in the good times – last April he landed a first PGA Tour crown, finally, at his 164th attempt – the deadpan Dufner remained resolute: emotions exorcised, nerves numbed.

That is, until an unequivocally anxious afternoon the following week.

"Most nervous I've been in the past few years has been on my wedding day," Dufner said somewhat surprisingly, when choosing the peak of his considerable ascent through 2012.

"The highlight is an easy one. The marriage to my wife, Amanda", as well as honeymoon celebrations the other side of a victory at the Byron Nelson Championship. "That 22-day stretch is a pretty special one," he said.

The season was a special one, too. Building on a 2011 that provided glimpses of his strengths – accurate driving and crisp iron play – Dufner enjoyed a 36-hole lead at only his second Masters, vanquished Ernie Els at a "life-changing, dream-come-true" Zurich Classic and quickly added the Byron Nelson.

The US Open offered a tied for fourth, while runner-up finishes were gleaned from Colonial and the HSBC Champions, Dufner ending the year ranked No 9 in the world.

A rookie Ryder Cup appearance was consistency's reward, and Dufner, armed last October with his "A" game and that same serene disposition, promptly took three wins from four matches, including singles success against Peter Hanson as his United States colleagues crumbled around him.

All the more, Dufner allowed himself to participate in a spot of hell-raising on that final day in Illinois, most noticeably when his bomb of a putt on 15 forced a vehement fist-pump and compelled an uncharacteristic cry to the crowd. Even the most placid hold no shield to the old standoff with Europe.

"The Ryder Cup is an environment unlike any other," he said. "It's all about embracing the atmosphere and then owning the moment. You need all your confidence and then some to be successful in an environment like that."

Behind the quirks and the quips, though, lies one of golf's more cerebral competitors. As ignorance to the game until he was 15 years old suggests Dufner had other priorities growing up; in 2000 he graduated from Auburn University with a degree in economics.

He was a walk-on in his college golf team, meaning he did not have the talent to attract real investment through scholarship, his studies therefore were never in danger of sacrifice.

The rings in both ears and the bleached highlights in his hair that back then made Dufner stand out have long been banished, although the thirst for education endures. Dufner is an avid reader, whether it be an Abraham Lincoln biography to understand the composition of the prosperous, or a book on Russian weightlifters that helps with visualisation on the fairways.

He is more than just the guy with the weird pre-shot waggle and flatline facade.

"There is a certain level of skill one must have to be successful in this game and all PGA Tour players have that," he said. "Some more so than others, obviously. But what separates the best and creates that gap is that mental capacity.

"And by capacity I refer to confidence and the ability to overcome obstacles: internal obstacles. I have read a ton of books on the psyche and have taken bits and pieces from all that I have read, and created a formula that I believe works for me."

It explains the coolness in the most white-hot of situations.

"I never get up and get done … I guess it's just part of my personality," he said. "I think it's important for all golfers because the game, at some points, can seem unfair. That's why it's important to stay level-headed.

"Sometimes you hit great shots and sometimes you come up short.

"Bottom line: if I know I'm playing good golf, I am confident and not nervous in the moment. It is a moment a competitor should relish and enjoy."

To the outsider, events two years ago at Atlanta Athletic did not seem particularly enjoyable but, in retrospect, produced a moment to relish. It was the making of a man with major intentions.

"The 2011 PGA gave me confidence I could one day win on the PGA Tour and also one day win a major championship," Dufner said. "That experience was so positive for me; by no stretch did I ever think it was negative.

"I have confidence my game will put me in that position again and at that moment, I will hopefully close out a major championship win."

So what of this season? After last week's washout in Hawaii, Dufner begins his campaign in earnest in Abu Dhabi, coaxed to the capital by HSBC's successful sponsorship and an elite field that includes Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods. A first appearance also beckons at the upcoming Qatar Masters.

"I have never been to the Middle East so this is an opportunity to really take my game around the world," said Dufner, in clear indication of his growing confidence. "That's attractive to me."

Although he says, publicly at least, he does not set performance goals, laying down a marker this week, especially against the world's top two players, will have its allure.

"Great talents, and it's great for the game," Dufner said when quizzed on the buzz surrounding the impending McIlroy-Woods tussle. "They are both superstars and help drive the game globally.

"Hopefully I can continue to make a name for myself in 2013 as well."

Given his now obvious abilities, perhaps no longer can Dufner do understated.

jmcauley@thenational.ae

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