Hawk's Nest: Getting personal with Dufner


PITTSFORD, N.Y. – There are two golfers remaining. Both are standing at the curve in the 18th fairway, about to fire at a green wrapped in dense layers of humanity. Fans are everywhere. Photographers are stacked at the base of the bleachers, awaiting that must-have moment. PGA of America officials have gathered in droves, eager to crown their latest champion.

It is a glorious summer evening in upstate New York, and our game could not seem healthier. The sun has dropped to an angle that casts a lemony glow on the scene, coating the moment in aesthetic splendor. I remember standing in this same spot almost 18 years ago, watching the United States lose the final hole over and over in Ryder Cup singles, tipping the final outcome to the Europeans.

Amid the heroes and goats that afternoon, I basically had the area behind the 18th green to myself. Pro golf is played in a bigger world now, louder and a lot more visible. Sometimes, you come to a place like Rochester and the growth hits you all at once.

TRUTH BE TOLD, Jason Dufner wasn’t having nearly the year he had in 2012 before winning Sunday. Two victories and a solo second last year, plus a T-4 at the U.S. Open and four other top-10s, led him to a second-place finish in the final FedEx Cup standings.

In ’13, Dufner’s first top-10 didn’t come until the U.S. Open, where he finished T-4 again. He did the same at Firestone last week, but a win like this takes him to another level entirely. While sitting through his post-victory news conference, I was struck by how much more relaxed the guy seems than when he first started making noise on the PGA Tour a couple of years ago.

We’re talking about a significant transformation. Dufner’s first five seasons in the big leagues were about as non-descript as five years can get. He hung around Vijay Singh a lot, partially because both had an alliance with Cleveland Golf, and seemed to be taking lessons from Singh in terms of winning friends and influencing people.

Let’s just say Duf could be pretty gruff. There wasn’t much reason to talk to him, however, so it’s nice to see that his evolution as a player has brought out the likeable side of his offbeat personality. For instance, you don’t hear many winners make fun of somebody’s shirt, as Dufner did in his media center interview, or admit his unemotional demeanor might stem from the notion that he considers golf rather boring.

“Usually, I’m struggling with the putter, so there’s not too much to get excited about with that [anyway],” he quipped.

I’ll admit to having zero interest in the whole Dufnering craze driven by Twitter this spring. Dufner did address it briefly, saying, “got some notoriety for something that was probably trying to hurt me a little bit, [but] ran with it and it helped me a lot.” He quickly changed the subject, leaving me with the sense that he still wasn’t crazy about the whole thing, but if it helped the guy come out of his shell and get comfortable in a universe where adoration runs rampant, pro golf is better because of it.

Players who don’t take themselves too seriously – if you ask me, we can’t get enough of them.

A SEPARATE PIECE I wrote Sunday evening on Tiger Woods will be posted Monday evening, but it doesn’t include highlights of a text conversation I had with former Woods swing coach Hank Haney, who was traveling overseas and didn’t get back to me until early Monday morning. For all the criticism Haney has received over his take on Tiger’s struggles in recent years, any positive comments he makes are often left on the cutting-room floor.

“Still the best, but clearly isn’t what he once was,” Haney wrote, adding, “next year’s [major venues] are great for him. He could win two majors and still make a run at Jack.”

No doubt. The 2014 U.S. Open will be held at Pinehurst No. 2, a course on which Tiger contended in 1999 and 2005. A 4-foot miss for par on the 71st hole ended Eldrick’s bid in ’99 – if he makes that putt and Payne Stewart doesn’t hole the 15-footer at the buzzer, we’ve got a three-man playoff the next day between those two guys and Phil Mickelson.

Next year’s British Open is at Royal Liverpool, site of a vintage TW performance in 2006 that carried him to his third claret jug. It was the week Woods hit his driver just once (late in the first round) and led the field in fairways hit. And the PGA heads back to Valhalla, where Tiger held off Bob May amid massive drama to claim his third consecutive major title back in 2000.

Much has been written this summer about Woods’ poor performances on courses he’s not familiar with – or hasn’t won on before – as opposed to places where he has won. It’s always easy to hyperbolize, but 2014 looms as a gigantic year in terms of Red Shirt realistically catching Nicklaus.

“With those courses next year, he has to do something,” Haney summarized. “Can he stay motivated without success in [the last] five years?”

NOT THAT YOU don’t have the dates on your calendar circled with a pink Sharpie, but the Presidents Cup is a mere six weeks away, and that Dufner-Jim Furyk duel at Oak Hill messed with the U.S. standings a little bit. Dufner obviously made the biggest leap, moving from 13th to sixth, meaning he’s pretty close to locking up a spot on the team.

On the outside looking in? You start with Bubba Watson (14th) and Webb Simpson, who fell from eighth to 12th despite a T-25 Sunday. Watson-Simpson formed a formidable partnership at the 2011 Presidents Cup in Australia, winning three matches as the first group out and setting the tone for what would become a comfortable U.S. victory.

Bubba just hasn’t gotten it done in 2013 – a pair of top-fives since the West Coast swing, one of which was a late blown lead in Hartford – and Simpson hasn’t done much more than his partner. If you’re U.S. skipper Fred Couples, you’ve got to think long and hard about using a captain’s pick on Billy Horschel, who is 15th but has piled up virtually all of his points this season.

Young, eager, demonstrative. Given what happened to the Yanks last fall at Medinah, some fresh, fist-pumping blood wouldn’t be the worst idea a captain has come up with. “Golf is very much a gentlemen’s game,” Horschel says. “I’d let the other guys [on the International team] know, ‘Hey, we’re friends, but don’t take my emotions the wrong way.’ ”

Couples gets two picks; Dustin Johnson and Furyk currently hold the other spots between 11th and 15th. There’s no need to go further down the list – Freddie’s not the kind of guy who will go deep and toss a pick to someone on a hunch.

Not that he couldn’t. You look at Nick Price’s International squad and it’s hard not to cringe – I’m counting a grand total of three PGA/European tour victories in 2013, among the top 10 qualifiers, only one of which occurred at a premium-field event (Adam Scott at the Masters). What’s more, Louis Oosthuizen, one of Price’s top players, was the only guy among the top 100 in the world ranking to miss the PGA, citing myriad injuries.

Neck problems, back problems, hip problems. I’m no doctor, but it appears to me Price has serious roster problems.