DUBLIN, Ohio – Even a barrage of eagles isn’t enough to break Jason Dufner’s poker face.
Dufner remains the PGA Tour’s most notable flat-liner, offering the same deadpan expression when he misses a cut and when he wins a major. Like a duck on a pond, he keeps his effort below the surface and guards everything else with care.
That trend has continued at the Memorial, where Dufner (66-67--133) is back on the leaderboard after months of injury and turmoil.
The closing stretch at Muirfield Village is as daunting as it gets, but Dufner carved it up during his second round. After a birdie on No. 14, he eagled the par-5 15th and followed with an ace on No. 16, holing a 6-iron from 208 yards. It was his fourth eagle of the week, already one off the all-time mark for a tournament.
His post-round reaction? Dufner-esque.
“I hit it pretty good,” Dufner said of his hole-in-one, “and it looked pretty good from my vantage point.”
Dufner did not speak with reporters after his opening-round 66, and instead offered statements to a Tour media official. On Friday multiple national media members attempted to ask questions, but Dufner gave answers only to select local media outlets.
While an eagle-ace combo would be a highlight of many careers, Dufner appeared largely unaffected. In fact, he seemed like a man weary from running an emotional gamut over the last year.
Dufner withdrew from his title defense at the PGA Championship in August because of bulging discs in his neck, and the injury abruptly ended his season and cost him a spot on the Ryder Cup team. He said last summer that an end to his career could be near, and after the injury he made it clear that golf was taking a back seat to his overall health.
“I’m not really concerned about when I play again, to be honest with you,” Dufner said at Valhalla.
He returned in Australia after more than two months off, but he didn’t tee it up again in the U.S. until January. At that point, he was a man transformed – the bushy hair on display at Oak Hill was neatly trimmed, and he had shed nearly 30 pounds.
While his appearance changed, the results did not return. Dufner has slipped to No. 68 in the world ranking after starting the year at No. 38. He was 16th exactly one year ago.
Injuries, though, have not been Dufner’s only off-course battle. Over the years, he openly shared moments of his marriage on various social media platforms and his relationship garnered headlines in March when he and wife Amanda filed for divorce.
While the precise source of his regression is difficult to pinpoint, the fact remains that Dufner has been struggling. He went 11 straight starts this year without a top-15 finish before finally breaking through last week with an eighth-place tie at the AT&T Byron Nelson Championship.
Dufner shot 65-64-66 over the final three rounds in Dallas and has brought that momentum with him to his home state.
“Last week was a pretty good week. I felt pretty good about my game coming in here,” he said. “The practicing has been good, casual rounds, pro-am has been good. Usually that begets some good play out here in tournament rounds, so I’m excited.”
Jim Furyk played the first two rounds alongside Dufner, and the veteran knows what it’s like to deal with both a long-term injury and the frustrations that can arise when the results don’t immediately return.
“You think you’re just going to come back, and three weeks later you’ll be ready to go, but it just takes some time,” Furyk said. “His game looks like it’s really coming around, and it’s just hard for us to be patient. We all want it now.”
Always a tough emotional read, Dufner has done little to open up this week despite his on-course success.
His play, though, has him in contention for his first win since his major breakthrough nearly two years ago. Dufner trails David Lingmerth by a shot, a position that Furyk suggested could be even better based on his tee-to-green performance.
“I’ll say right now, he put a ball-striking clinic on these last two days,” Furyk said. “The fact that he’s only 11 under, he did make some putts but it could be whatever. He’s missed a bunch of 4- and 5-footers, and he could easily be well under par, more than what he is.”
The poker face appears unlikely to change anytime soon, but so too does Dufner’s spot on the leaderboard. And who knows, perhaps a victory that could signal the end of a difficult journey back to the top might be enough to warrant a smile.