Jason Dufner: Standing On The Right Side of His Dream

Jason Dufner finally did it. Twelve years after he turned pro back in 2000, he won his first PGA Tour event, the Zurich Classic of New Orleans. And he did it in a fitting way. After playing on the PGA Tour for five years and eleven tournaments of the sixth, he battled the great Ernie Els right down to the 18th hole and through two playoff holes before it was done.

On the first playoff hole, the par-5 18th with the lake hard by the right side of the green, he knocked his 5-wood on the front right of the green from 238 yards away. But he three-putted from 66 feet to the back left pin. That matched Els’ par. The second time around, he hit his 5-wood from 246 yards to the same spot leaving himself just over 60 feet. But this time his lag putt was a foot and a half and Els couldn’t match his birdie.

Could he have had a more worthy opponent? Els is a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame, winner of 18 PGA Tour events and 46 international events. He has been a fixture in international golf for years and is the winner of three majors: two U.S. Opens and one British Open. He’s been the anchor on the President’s Cup since its founding. Ernie Els is a great player, a great man and an “easy” fan favorite. And Jason Dufner beat him.

Q. Seemed like you took a couple extra seconds standing on that last putt on 18. Was anything running through your head as you were hitting that one-footer?

Yeah. “Don’t miss it, because this is to win” (laughter). I hate to admit that but that will run through your head for a second and you want to make sure that thought is gone and on to stroking a one-footer like you do on Tuesday afternoon at your home course with one hand is what I was thinking about.

You know, that would be, you know — those thoughts go through everybody’s head. How do you deal with it, how do you get out of it, how do you focus on what you need to do?

You do it by doing just what he did. First of all, noticing that the thought was there, “Oh yeah, there’s an off-topic thought.” Second, patiently waiting for the thought to pass so that, third, your mind can focus on what’s required, making nothing more than a mere one-foot putt. That’s what poor I.K. Kim was unable to do at the LPGA’s Kraft Nabisco Championship. It takes experience and she’ll never do that again.

And so now the trophy and the cash are in the possession of Jason Dufner, a man of great patience, a man finally standing on the right side of his dream.

I have been a fan of his ever since I came across him at the 2011 Waste Management Phoenix Open. He got in a playoff there with Mark Wilson and Tommy Gainey and I think the thing that endeared him to me was this final answer in his post-round interview:

Q. As you’re working on accumulating this two years of experience roughly to finally get over the top, what’s your mindset? Are you in it for the long haul? As you get closer and closer and you feel like you can win, how do you sustain yourself?

I think you just keep practicing on things you need to get better at and you keep getting more experience and more in this situation of winning, and I think it happens. I think if you press too hard or think about it too much, I think it becomes an issue. You see a lot of guys out here that are really talented, and media and maybe people in their inner circle are talking about when are you going to win, when are you going to win; that just adds to it.

I’m a pretty low-key guy. I would have loved to have won this tournament today, but it’s not the end of the world. We’re going to go to Pebble Beach next week and I’m going to have a chance to win that golf tournament. It’s just going to add to my confidence and what level of player I feel like I can be.

And he was just as sanguine after his playoff loss to Keegan Bradley in the PGA Championship. Everyone wanted to know how devastated he was after coming so close. And he said in so many words, “Hey, I’m fine. I played great this week and had a great finish in a major. That’s not such a bad outcome.”

It wasn’t that he wasn’t disappointed, it was that he knew that disappointment and brooding would not get him closer to his first win. Remaining calm enough to take in the lessons in his loss would. Clearing his mind so that he could play better the next week would. Eight months later, he was finally right.

It helped that he liked the golf course, the TPC Louisiana:

It’s hard to put my finger on it. I know it’s not a course if you ask me what my favorite golf course is it — it wouldn’t be at the top of the list but I just seem to really play well here. I’m very comfortable with the lines off the tees.

I’m very comfortable with the greens and for whatever reason I picked up course knowledge very quickly on this golf course. I feel very comfortable in almost all spots on the golf course. I kind of know what to expect. I know what shots are needed.

All of this slid quite comfortably into his arsenal and gave him the confidence to just play. In playing the 18th in regulation, he was slightly hamstrung because his drive ended up close to a fairway bunker and he couldn’t take his normal stance. It wasn’t far off, but he had to think about it rather than just making a great swing with a fairway wood. So he aimed left of the green with a mere 3-iron because he knew that short left was a good place to chip from and made par to get in the playoff.

Q. It’s hard to tell with you because you’re so casual in nature. Were you more relieved after you made that final putt or were you fired up on the inside about winning? It didn’t look like you were going to jump in the water.

Probably relieved a little bit. There’s been good bit of pressure — not pressure but just people talking about, you know, “Why aren’t you winning, why can’t you close the deal”, et cetera, et cetera, you know from friends, family, media, even people in my inner circle.

Not in a negative way but, you know, when you’re leading tournaments going into weekends and you’re finishing 24th there’s going to be some questions.

So for me to get that kind of off my back, maybe this will jump start me and, you know, get me to start believing that I can compete out here on a week to week basis and win some of these things.

You know it takes a lot of pressure off me. Obviously lot of different things with exemptions and money lists and FedExCup points and all that. I think it will be a lot — I feel a sense of relief now. Not that the season is over but I’m playing great golf. I got this win and I can kind of just focus on playing great golf now and not worry about winning a golf tournament.

And his other big dream will be realized this weekend. After three years, he and Amanda Boyd will be married in Auburn, Alabama, where he went to school and they now live. He was asked which would make him more nervous, saying “I do” or the one-foot, tap-in birdie putt he had to finally win:

I think that one-foot putt (laughter). Amanda and I have been living together for about three years now. We’re pretty comfortable with each other. There’s not too many surprises going on with our relationship and, you know, she knows how I like things at home and I know how she likes things at home so I’m very comfortable with her.

I’m very lucky to have her. She’s very supportive and been a hundred percent behind me from day one with this golf thing.

So, you know, I don’t have many questions or doubts about that part of my life. That’s for sure. One foot putts, sometimes.

Soon, they’ll be standing together on the right side of that dream too.

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