The Duf abides. Bogeys don't seem to bother him, nor birdies excite him. His is the saunter of a man without a care in the world; his languid waggles are as transfixing as a hypnotist's watch. With his much-discussed love of college football and an ever-present pinch of wintergreen Copenhagen stuffed beneath his lower lip, the Duf inspires numerous shouted tributes from the masses, but nothing ever cracks his deadpan expression. Jason Dufner, 35, may swing the club like Ben Hogan, but he carries himself like the Dude, the laid-back antihero of The Big Lebowski. With two victories and a second in his last four starts, Dufner is the hottest golfer on the planet, and his precise ball striking has made him a favorite for next week's U.S. Open. "I'm not too worried about any of that," he says of the cresting expectations. "It's just golf." The Duf abides.
But don't be fooled by Dufner's laconic demeanor—it's not an accident that he is tearing up the PGA Tour. Some players are sneaky long. The Duf is sneaky smart. He is analytical and meticulous in his preparation, forever searching for an edge. A voracious reader, he has consumed biographies of everyone from Arnold Palmer to Abraham Lincoln, trying to understand, in his words, "how successful people are wired." While his colleagues mindlessly bash range balls, a significant part of Dufner's preparation is sitting quietly and replaying rounds in his head. He often imagines a different outcome for a particular shot, using methods cribbed from a book about the visualization techniques of Russian weightlifters. While playing a tournament in Dallas a few weeks ago, he sought out two-time U.S. Open champ Lee Trevino for advice. They spent a lot of time talking about equipment modifications that might be helpful for an Open setup at Olympic Club. Dufner promptly called Titleist and asked for a new three-metal with less loft.
Dufner, who has a degree in economics, does not traffic in hyperbole. He prefers disarming honesty, and he's not blowing smoke when he says, "I don't think I have as much talent as a lot of other guys do." This underdog mentality has led to a specific career path. "To succeed I have to do a lot of different things," Dufner says. "I need to be stronger mentally. I have to prepare harder and smarter. I have to maximize my equipment. I have to do things other guys don't. You have to be honest with yourself, which is not easy."
Growing up in Ohio, Washington, D.C., and then South Florida, Dufner was a basketball and baseball player who didn't get serious about golf until age 15. Self-taught, he says he was a "pretty average" high school player who attracted zero interest from college recruiters. He was a walk-on at Auburn, and nine years passed before he stuck on the PGA Tour. "Some guys are motivated by fear of failure, some by money, some by the need for success," Dufner says. "I've always felt like an underdog, and that keeps me going." The Duf reveres Hogan, but his list of golf heroes also includes David Toms, Scott Verplank, Bob Estes and Jeff Maggert—successful Tour pros who don't overwhelm with awesome physical gifts.
"They've learned to maximize what they have," Dufner says. He is proud to have followed in their footsteps.
Dufner spends a lot of time on the Internet tracking Auburn football recruiting. He pays particular attention to the youngest players on the roster, kids who are about the same age Dufner was when he found his calling. Speaking of more than just football, the Duf says, "I'm fascinated by the question of who makes it and who doesn't. Who plateaus and who reaches his potential. Most of the time it has nothing to do with physical ability. It's usually mental. It's about desire, focus, work ethic. All the things you can't see."
Twenty-nine days after winning his first career tournament, 23 days after marrying the former Amanda Boyd, eight days after winning his second tournament and 20 hours after finishing second in Fort Worth, Dufner was strolling around Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles, already working a chaw. (The night before, in an act of unspeakable romance, he had sent his bride home on a private jet and hopped a commercial flight for himself.) In 2002, Dufner moved back to Auburn because, he says, "I was going broke living in South Florida playing the mini-tours." The small-town vibe and close-knit golf community suits him. He often practices with the Auburn team and frequently exchanges texts with the players. His allegiance to the kids took him to L.A.—the Tigers were playing their first practice round on the day before the NCAA championships were to begin, and Dufner wanted to impart the wisdom he had accrued playing the Tour event at Riviera.
Competing for Auburn was crucial to Dufner's development; it's where he learned that he had what it takes to be a big-time player, the breakthrough coming when he won two tournaments as a sophomore. By then he had already discovered his path to success. "He definitely worked harder than anybody else on the team," says former teammate Scott Weatherly. "He didn't make a big deal about it, but he was always putting in the hours."
As he toured Riviera in running shoes, Dufner often employed the royal we, as in, "We can't get at that pin." He carried no yardage book, relying only on his eyes and his memories. The 4th hole is a long par-3 fronted by a gaping bunker, leaving only the left side of the green visible. Dufner instructed the Tigers to play a draw at a tree that appeared to be 20 yards to the right of the putting surface.
"You kidding?" one of the players asked.