Jason Dufner loss at 2011 PGA showed him he could win

Jason Dufner loves to discover what makes successful people tick.

Loss at 2011 PGA showed Dufner he could win

Jason Dufner's playoff loss at the 2011 PGA Championship stung, but it also confirmed to Dufner that he was ready to win. Two victories later, he's ready for another run at the PGA.

By Brian Wacker, PGATOUR.COM

Scottish author and reformer Samuel Smiles said we learn wisdom from failure much more than success, and that we often discover what we will do by finding out what we will not do.

Enter Jason Dufner and the 2011 PGA Championship: Five shots up, three holes to play. Then, disaster. He hit his tee shot into the water on the par-3 15th, made bogey, hit his approach shot into a bunker on the 16th, made bogey, three-putted the par-3 17th, made bogey. The lead, gone, and in a three-hole playoff so too his chances of winning for the first time in his career.

In a speech Smiles gave in 1845 to the Mutual Improvement Society, which would later become the origin of his most famous book, "Self-Help," Smiles said, in part, every human has a great mission to perform, noble faculties to cultivate and a vast destiny to accomplish. 

“I would not have any one here think that, because I have mentioned individuals who have raised themselves by self-education from poverty to social eminence, and even wealth, these are the chief marks to be aimed at,” Smiles said. “That would be a great fallacy. Knowledge is of itself one of the highest enjoyments.”

It’s the knowledge that drives Dufner and has helped him become not only one of the best ball-strikers in the game but one of the best in the game, period. Like Smiles, Dufner’s trade was mostly self-taught, without the benefit of formal lessons until after he graduated from Auburn in 2000.

Don’t be fooled by the languid pace at which Dufner moves or speaks, or the ever present lack of expression from one shot to the next. He’s no dummy. Underneath the mop top, lower lip packed with wintergreen Copenhagen and that saunter is a curiosity in everything from Ben Hogan to Abraham Lincoln because among Dufner’s interests -- aside from his beloved Tigers football -- is discovering what makes successful people tick.

“I don’t feel as physically talented as everyone else, so I try to be as knowledgeable as possible,” Dufner said.

These days, his stats dictate it could be the other way around. Dufner ranks in the top 10 in greens hit, birdie average, scoring average and total driving, which combines distance with accuracy.

So does his highly repeatable swing. “One of the characteristics that makes him such a good ball-striker is his arms are always in front of him throughout his whole swing,” Dufner’s coach Chuck Cook says. “The club never gets behind him, so he never hits an awful shot. His lower body is real quiet and there’s not a lot in his golf swing that can go wrong. He doesn’t have to rely on timing like a lot of guys.”

In terms of timing, it has just taken the 35-year-old a while to get here.

Growing up in Cleveland and then Washington, D.C., and Fort Lauderdale, Dufner didn’t play golf seriously until he was 15 years old. He worked the range at The Honda Classic as a teenager and got to know Vijay Singh, John Daly, Nick Faldo and Fred Couples, among others.

With zero interest from college recruiters, he walked on at Auburn, where he went on to win three times and was an honorable mention All-American in 1997.

His pro career, however, got off to an inauspicious start. It took Dufner four years to reach the PGA TOUR. Once he did, his stay was short-lived. He missed 16 cuts in 28 starts and had just one top 10 before losing his card. For the economics major, the numbers weren’t adding up.

“That was a low point for me,” Dufner said. “I was wondering where my career was going and I didn’t really know what I was doing.”

The struggle motivated Dufner, though, and by 2007 he worked his way back to the TOUR. Two years later, he hooked up with Cook, who got Dufner to be less upright with his swing and got him to move his swing around his body.

Dufner qualified for the TOUR Championship by Coca-Cola that year and in doing so got into a lot of tournaments the following season that he otherwise wouldn’t have been eligible for. “That had him thinking he could compete at that level,” Cook said. “When you don’t qualify for those events, you feel like a second-class citizen on TOUR.”

A third-place finish to Tiger Woods in Australia at the end of that year also gave Dufner a huge boost in confidence. “He wasn’t worried about Tiger,” Cook remembers. “He said he thought he could beat him.”

Two years later, Dufner almost did beat everyone at Atlanta Athletic Club. It was the first time he seriously contended in a major championship and as much as the loss stung, Dufner saw the light behind the dark cloud of the final-round collapse.

What he learned that August afternoon was that he could compete on a level he always dreamed he could but perhaps few on the outside saw coming. “It reaffirmed everything I had been working on,” Dufner said.

So has his play. Dufner has won twice this season, one of which was a playoff victory over Ernie Els in New Orleans. A few weeks later, Dufner canned a 25-foot birdie putt on the final hole to win the HP Byron Nelson Championship by a stroke.

Dufner also led a number of tournaments at various points, including at Doral, Tampa, Bay Hill and Augusta National. He also likes his chances at the Ocean Course on Kiawah Island, site of this year’s PGA Championship. “Pete Dye course, Bermudagrass,” Dufner says with a sly confidence. 

“His outlook after the PGA was a big reason why he’s had such a big year this year,” Cook said. “It pushed him. You could see it coming.”

The opening line of Smiles’ book, which had sold over a quarter of a million copies by the time he died in 1904, reads, “Heaven helps those who help themselves.” Dufner has done just that. 

“In golf, you either have to be real smart or real dumb,” Cook said. “The in between is what gets you in trouble.”

If that’s the case, Dufner should be just fine.