'The Squeeze' shows Dufner won't change after PGA win


PITTSFORD, N.Y. – The lasting image of the 95th PGA Championship won’t be a majestic approach shot that scared the hole, or a divinely inspired putt that dropped in, but the champion ambling off the final green in his familiar gait, bottom lip stuffed with chewing tobacco as he embraced his comely wife, punctuating the moment with a playful yet clandestine squeeze of her rear end.

Whenever a player wins a major championship for the first time – and there have been plenty of ‘em lately, with a dozen newbies in the last four years – it is inevitable that he’s asked a question which yields a predictable answer: “How will this change you?” Inevitable because it’s a good question in theory, predictable because the player never allows that he will change.

If evidence exists that Jason Dufner will remain the same ol’ Jason Dufner he was before hoisting the Wanamaker Trophy, it lives in that squeeze. It’s as if the squeeze was his subconscious way of announcing to all of those cameras and microphones following his every maneuver in the seconds after winning a major that he wasn’t going to start doing anything differently.

If we need further evidence, we can ask those closest to him.

Amanda Dufner, his wife: “I don’t think this will change [our lives] at all.”

Roland Thatcher, his roommate and teammate at Auburn University: “I’m not sure this will change him much. A major puts him at another level, but settling down in Auburn keeps life pretty simple. I’m not sure that winning a major would raise his profile any more than it already is.”

Ben Walter, his manager at IMG Golf: “He had only won two PGA Tour events, but had become a pretty attractive commodity because the rest of the population identified with him. We wanted to highlight those attributes – he’s calm, cool, collected, yet funny.”

Or we can ask Dufner himself.

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In a statement that should serve as a tribute to his awareness in the moment, he didn’t offer the perfunctory answer of so many before him. “It’s definitely going to change my life,” he explained, “but I’m determined that it’s not going to change me.”

Dufner remains an intriguing case study in how to grow a personal brand. Between the ropes, he appears to have all the personality of a 6-iron, but he and Walter have worked to showcase a different side of him away from the game.

Much of that has come through Twitter, where he’s been known to expound on everything from college football to reality television. It’s been an invaluable tool for creating additional fan support.

“It’s huge,” Walter said. “I would call it his emotional outlet; it has some pathos to it, too. He can really open himself up.”

It even helped his name become an action verb – or inaction verb, as the case may be. Without social media, the phenomenon of Dufnering – born when photos were taken of its namesake sitting on his hands in a classroom, armed with a dazed look on his face – never would have become an Internet meme.

He’s also shown that farcical side in commercials, including one for Comcast in which his round of golf is so slow that he’s grown a beard by the conclusion of the 30-second spot.

“We humanized him, brought him to life,” Walter continued. “Those spots were able to do that. This will reinforce that. Now I think he moves into the upper echelon of players who have significant and recognizable brand names in the golf space. They key is to get him to move beyond the golf space.

“You’ve got to balance it, too. You don’t want to overexpose him, but you hope it all meets in a crescendo, like where it has right now.”

Therein lies the tricky part for any first-time major champion. How much can I handle? When does it become too much? How do I keep from becoming overexposed? These are questions Dufner will ask himself in coming days and weeks, but the offers are already rolling in. He’s been asked to appear on “The Late Show with David Letterman” and will undoubtedly have more commercials coming to a screen near you.

At least he understands the situation, those profound words serving as a warning cry. Owning a major championship will change his life, but it won’t change him.

More evidence of that rained down from the trees this week. Dufner and his wife recently bought a home in Auburn, Ala., where they had planned to plant some oak trees. Throughout the tournament, they each collected acorns from Oak Hill Country Club, hoping to sprout some trees that will forever contain memories of his victory.

For the rest of us, that lasting memory will be of Dufner ambling off the final green and giving Amanda that squeeze. He wasn’t thinking it at the time, but a move like that can humanize a guy, can help build his brand and enhance his likeability going forward.

As Walter said with a smile afterward, “It fits perfectly. He’s the everyday guy. Who doesn’t do that to their wife every now and then?”