During more than five hours on the course, Dufner never lost his focus. What kept him going was not only his dedication to the players but also a sense of unfinished business. His memories of Auburn are bittersweet. His teams included Tour player Roland Thatcher and a trio of future Nationwide grinders, but those Tigers never won an SEC championship and failed to finish better than 10th at the NCAAs. (This year's squad, despite Dufner's guidance, would place 15th and fail to qualify for the match-play portion of the tournament.)
"We underachieved greatly," he says. "We were so competitive with each other. We wanted to beat each other so bad. That's all we cared about. We didn't have a team concept."
So counseling these Tigers is a way of making peace with the lost opportunities of his youth. "I wish when I was in college I'd had someone helping me out," Dufner says, a tad wistfully. "There's so much to learn in this game."
In 2008, Dufner's personal and professional life began to change for the better. Mutual friends set him up with Amanda on a blind date. That year he also hooked up with instructor Chuck Cook, a no-nonsense Texan. Cook vividly recalls their first meeting. "He had bleached blond hair and an earring," Cook says. "He's definitely an iconoclast."
Cook asked Dufner about his goals. "He said to make enough money so he could watch college football all fall," Cook recalls. "I've worked with Payne Stewart, Tom Kite, Corey Pavin. Their answers were kind of different. I mean, I had to laugh because it was so honest. That's who Jason was then. That's not who he is now."
Back then Dufner had a shut clubface and a variety of compensating moves. Throughout 2008 he and Cook refashioned a simple, rhythmic, repeatable action. It wasn't always easy—Dufner recalls taking 17 penalty strokes at that year's Mayakoba Classic. He finished 184th on the money list but never lost hope. "I've always understood it's a progression," he says.
By 2009, Dufner felt as if he finally owned his swing, and he spiked to 33rd on the money list, which gave him job security for the first time. That allowed him to spend the next season addressing shortcomings with his wedges. His focus for '11 was to improve his putting. He had a tendency to aim right and try to hook his putts into the hole. Early in the week of the PGA Championship he finally committed to weakening his right hand and lining up square. For 68 holes he played the best golf of his career, forging a five-shot lead. His new putting technique let him down on the final holes of regulation and in a playoff loss to Keegan Bradley, but that week was the turning point of Dufner's career. "He wasn't down at all afterward," says his caddie, Kevin Baile. "He had proved to himself that he could contend anywhere."
The Dufners' splashy wedding in Auburn—400 guests, a 12-piece band, fireworks—belies the low-key way they live. He is a man of simple pleasures. His waistline is Exhibit A. "My big problem is I love eating bad stuff," he says. "A lot of guys feel bad about it, but I don't. I'm very happy to have a dinner of fried mozzarella sticks, a dozen chicken wings and three Cokes. And then dessert."
One of the couple's rituals after returning from a tournament is to stay up late unpacking. They open the mail, pay the bills, sort the dirty clothes and tally up their travel expenses. On the Sunday night of Jason's victory in New Orleans, they celebrated by doing these chores until 3:30 a.m.
"I don't like clutter," he says. It's been obvious all season there's none in his swing, or his mind. Dufner is third in total driving, seventh in greens in regulation, fourth in birdies and, most important, tops in money ($3.8 million) and FedEx Cup points. He hits so many greens that a point of emphasis for 2012 was to improve his lag putting, and he is now fifth on Tour in putting from more than 25 feet. Two bombs have defined his victories: a 43-footer to save par on the 70th hole in New Orleans and a walk-off 25-footer for birdie at the 72nd hole in Dallas. The U.S. Open looms as the next step in his development, and he's relishing the opportunity. "If I play good golf, I can win that tournament," he says evenly. "I'm not intimidated by the U.S. Open."