CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Under a hot May sun, the three players atop the Wells Fargo Championship leaderboard explained various versions of the same story.
“It's been tough. Golf's a tough game. It's a lonely game, it's a frustrating game. There's been times where I felt maybe these changes weren't right,” Jason Dufner admitted on Friday at Quail Hollow Club.
Dufner would be the most high profile of Friday’s threesome of unlikely front-runners. The five-time PGA Tour winner began a precipitous free-fall beginning late 2017.
Since his last victory at the ’17 Memorial, Dufner has posted just one top-10 finish in a stroke-play event (T-5, 2018 Players) and has missed more weekends this season than he’s played. He's also fallen from eighth in the Official World Golf Ranking, where he sat in August 2013, to 230th.
But his second-round 63 at Quail Hollow is his lowest card on Tour since he posted the same score on Day 2 at the ’13 PGA Championship, which he won, and he enters the weekend with a one-stroke lead. For the 42-year-old, his path back to competitive relevance has taken on something of a wrecking ball quality.
Players deal with slumps through a variety of different ways, but Dufner chose to burn down the metaphorical house. This week at Quail Hollow he’s playing with his fourth different caddie and is using his “fourth or fifth” different putter, driver, golf ball and wedge. He split with longtime swing coach Chuck Cook and settled on putting whisperer Phil Kenyon.
If things don’t work out for Dufner, it won’t be for a lack of trying.
“I can do better,” said Dufner in an almost defiant tone. “By no means do I think that this is the end of me playing good golf. It may have looked like that to some people from the outside for the last 12 months or so, but I feel like I've got a lot of good golf left in me and I'm working hard at it.”
If Dufner’s quest is to reunite with his former greatness, Joel Dahmen and Max Homa are attempting to introduce themselves to the concept. If Dahmen and Homa aren’t household names just yet, it’s because outside of their own homes, few would be able to pick them out of a lineup. The pair have combined for just two top-10 finishes this season in 33 collective starts.
In his third full season on Tour, Dahmen is better known for his delightfully honest personality and a social media game that puts most of his professional frat brothers to shame.
What’s been missing, however, is consistency. Although he’s enjoyed an occasional “cup of coffee” on leaderboards in his Tour career, he conceded that he’s never really been able to put himself in position to win on the weekend.
“I mean, there's four steps, Thursday through Sunday. Step one, I seem to have figured that out every now and then. Today was step two, so figured out this one,” said Dahmen, whose second-round 66 left him tied for second place with Homa, and one stroke off the lead held by Dufner. “The weekend's a whole other animal. There's so much golf left. You know, I could go out and lay an egg and no one hears from me again. Yeah, step two is great. Hopefully there's more to come.”
That’s a long way from the same rookie who missed five of his first seven cuts in 2017 and has never finished better than 80th on the season-ending FedExCup points list. But what Dahmen may lack in accomplishments he makes up for with a quirky kind of confidence.
“It can only get so nerve-racking and your hands can only shake so much,” he reasoned. “I'll be nervous, but I'm looking forward to it and that's why you play.”
But perhaps the week’s most compelling reclamation project is Homa. The quick-witted 28-year-old is also playing his third full season in the big leagues, but his quest for consistency has taken him to the depths of competitive uncertainty. In 2017, his sophomore season on Tour, he didn’t make a cut until June and cashed just two checks in 17 starts.
“I think I made more money in the pro-ams on Monday than I did in the tournaments,” he laughed on Friday after shooting an 8-under 63. “It was bad, so there’s obviously a lot of scar tissue.”
In fact, he made just $18,000 that season. To put that in context, he could make more than that this week alone with a tie for 55th or better, and so far this season he’s made 20-times that amount ($373,000).
Homa said he found something in the spring beginning at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am where he tied for 10th place. Since then, he’s only missed the cut in one stroke-play event and is now in the unique position to keep his Tour card for the first time in his career.
“When I played very, very bad two years ago I just kept thinking about that word [relentless],” said Homa, who has “relentless” tattooed on his right arm. “I knew I was going to be back out here and I was going to make myself get back out here.”
Progress comes in all shapes and sizes, and although all three far-fetched front-runners came to their competitive crossroads through vastly different circumstances, they’re all searching for the same thing – redemption.