Jason Dufner: Affirming His Humanity

Jason Dufner had a great run over the last four weeks. His play was so exceptional, it was almost unbelievable. But not quite: the truth was it was so believable we all thought he’d never have a bad round again. Bad round? He had become so incredibly consistent, we thought he’d never hit a bad shot again.

But like Icarus, he flew too close to the sun, his wax wings melted and he came back to Earth. Actually Icarus fell into the sea and he drowned. Dufner will live to play again; it was only golf. But it didn’t feel like it was only golf while it was happening.

He and the winner, Zach Johnson, traded mistakes all through the final round of the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial. When the broadcast came on, Johnson had already managed a two-shot swing in his favor which put him one shot ahead. But by the turn, Dufner had reversed that, had his original overnight lead back intact and then bogeyed 9 to fall back to even.

And that’s kind of the way it went on the back nine. Johnson’s card looked like an erratic EKG, but Dufner’s was worse because of one thing: a triple bogey on 15. He drove it into a fairway bunker, played it safely out to the right of the hard-left pin, but hit it too hard and tugged it:

I hit a 3 wood off the tee. The fairways were chasing a little bit more today. I’ve been [short of] that bunker with 3 wood, just rolled into it. I had 142 or 3 yards, a little wind in and off the right. I hit a 9 iron probably a little bit further left than I was looking, but still that’s a pretty long 9 iron for me out of the bunker into the wind. Just pitched it on the back, and it barely trickled [over the bank and into] the water, and you are pretty much dead back there. I probably could have made a 6 pretty easily. It turned out to be a 7 [and a 3-shot lead for Johnson] and turned out to be the difference in the tournament.

From there they parred to the house where Johnson won by one shot because he had moved his ball marker for Dufner’s putt and then forgot to replace it: two-shot penalty. A lot was made of that, but it was just an absentminded mistake on Johnson’s part that nobody on or around the green noticed and didn’t make any difference in the outcome. So I would rather focus on what really did matter, the humanity in us all.

Watching Dufner play, it looked like he was rattled a least a little bit by some of the early mistakes. But then he’d sort off bounce off the ropes and appear to be rallying. The broadcasters speculated that he was tired from the month’s excitement, that he had lost his legs leading to erratic shots and subsequently, he was disheartened. The media suggested the same thing, but Dufner said it wasn’t so:

Today, obviously, a little disappointing to play that poorly and not kind of have a chance there at the end. I thought we were looking at another duel kind of coming into 18 with Zach and I because we were both back and forth, kind of struggling, both of us a little bit. But it wasn’t meant to be today and that’s about it.

Jason, did fatigue —

I feel pretty good actually. I felt really good yesterday. I probably felt the best I had all week today. I felt pretty good. I just played really poorly today.

And once again his grounded view of reality and his sense of humor came to the surface when a media person thought he spied the mental turning point in the match:

It looked like on the tee shot on 17, on your follow through, your shot drifted right, and you dropped your club and it, it just sort of looked like you had a moment like you couldn’t believe you had run into this stretch?

No, I could believe it. It was happening.

Why? Because you had been playing so well in that four or five hole stretch, it didn’t seem like anything worked? Could you believe you had run into that kind of luck, or bad luck?

It’s not bad luck. It’s just bad play. I couldn’t get a ball in the fairway all day. I got a 4 iron in my hand and still couldn’t hit one. No shots like that, just frustrated with poor play and poor shots to be honest with you.

But another question opened up a possible reason for the bad play. He agreed that while playing extensively can be mentally draining, being in contention with the attendant higher pressures are really the issue:

How mentally draining is it to contend for two straight weeks like that?

It’s tough. I think it’s a lot harder than if you are finishing 40th each week. You are still playing the same amount of rounds of golf. But I think you get a little bit more in tune and it takes a little more focus mentally to play at that level and to compete in that level.

There was a lot of different flows, or peaks and rises today with the round. It seemed like every time somebody got control, they would make a huge mistake, and you would be back tied with the lead or behind.

All of those things kind of wear on you a little bit. It’s definitely tough to compete at that high level mentally and physically. I definitely have a new appreciation for it over the last couple of months.

Another media person thought he smelled a great storyline where the wide-eyed youngster who so admired Hogan was finally in position to match Hogan’s feat of winning Colonial and the Byron Nelson in the same year. But Dufner helped him to understand what’s actually going on in a Tour pro’s mind when he’s in contention:

Jason, you talked yesterday about your respect and admiration for Mr. Hogan, and you had a chance to equal him today, you had a chance to break a lot of Tiger’s records, or equal a lot of Tiger’s records, I know you try to put that stuff out of your mind, but coming on the back 9 when you were tied, did any of that start to creep in?

I didn’t think about it one bit. I was trying to figure out how to hit a fairway because I couldn’t hit one. It was tough. You get that match play situation, and Zach makes birdie on 11 and I make a bogey from 100 yards. That’s a change of momentum there. The next hole I make birdie, and he makes bogey. We are back tied. It was going back and forth. I wasn’t too worried about Mr. Hogan’s records or what Tiger Woods did three years ago. I was thinking about what Zach and I were doing and how I was going to finish the golf.

Well then, what could have been wrong? How do you explain suddenly not being able to do the most basic thing you were trying to do, hit a fairway?

You mentioned trying to hit fairways, you’ve been hitting the ball so well lately, what was the problem today?

Probably just the combination of the fact that I’ve been hitting a lot of fairways, and it all just evened out. I felt good with my golf swing, I felt like I hit a lot of good golf shots.

I just couldn’t get a ball in the fairway. I took a lot of lines that I took earlier in the week. The ball would just roll through the fairway. Example No. 10. I haven’t been 15 yards from the end of that fairway all week. I hit the same club today, and I am through the fairway.

Maybe the golf course firmed up a little bit, and I didn’t adjust to that a little bit. I didn’t hit too many terribly off-line shots. I would say a high percentage of my balls landed in the fairway off the tee [and then rolled into the rough].

So in the end, what do we do with out soaring expectations when our heroes fall flat on their faces. Should we have restrained ourselves in the first place and cynically known that all things that go up must come down?

I don’t think so. I think one of the reasons that our heroes rise to the occasion is that they sense the possibility we all become excited by.

Can your remember how you felt yesterday as the broadcast came on the air? That sense of wonderment, excitement and the satisfaction that you were going to have a chance to witness it all?

I don’t think we ever want to deny ourselves those giddy feelings, the feelings that make us feel so alive.

But neither do we want to deny our heroes their humanity. Because they will surely fail while trying great things. And we should never want them to stop trying.

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