Defending champion finds titles elusive

• But Jason Dufner looks inward in year after PGA victory

By Karen Crouse / New York Times News Service

Published Aug 6, 2014 at 12:02AM

AKRON, Ohio — Enlisted to make a celebrity appearance during a gala charity announcement on the eve of last week’s Bridgestone Invitational, Jason Dufner appeared to have put the most trying part behind him when he stepped away from the microphone after delivering a brief speech.

All that remained for him to do was hit a few putts with two former hospital patients, one in college and the other in grade school.

“I’m going to pass,” he said.

Known for his dry sense of humor, Dufner was not kidding. His reign as the PGA Championship titleholder has helped relieve his social anxiety, giving him a voice he has enjoyed exercising. But on the greens, his angst has worsened.

Asked why he did not want to putt during the ceremony, Dufner said, “I don’t really want to get beat by a kid.”

Winning has a way of framing rough edges in a downy light, so Dufner’s two-stroke victory last year over Jim Furyk at Oak Hill Country Club in Pittsford, New York, is remembered for his exceptional iron play and not for his shaky putting: the tap-in putt for a second-round 63 that Dufner nearly missed; the 2-footer for par in the third round that rolled around the cup and dropped in; or the 1-footer in the final round that curled in.

At the start of last weekend’s Bridgestone Invitational, Dufner ranked 170th on the PGA Tour in strokes gained putting. Two years ago, when he won his first two tour titles, he ranked 80th. In 2013 he was tied for 142nd.

In the first five months of 2013, Dufner did not record a top-10 finish, which few followers remember because of how well he played in the next five months. In June, Dufner tied for fourth at the U.S. Open, in August he tied for fourth at the Bridgestone and won the PGA Championship, and in September he twice tied for ninth, in a FedEx Cup playoff event and at the Tour Championship.

“Had an average year last year till that major,” Dufner said, referring to the PGA Championship. “Maybe it will be the same this year.”

He comes into this week’s event at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Kentucky, under different — and difficult — circumstances. He is nursing two bulging disks in his neck, which Dufner said he had been struggling with since the week of the Masters, where he missed the cut. After finally receiving a diagnosis two weeks ago, Dufner said he was treating the inflammation with steroid shots in the hope of avoiding surgery.

“So I’m kind of dealing with that and trying to get healthy,” he said.

It has been a trial. The night after Dufner’s first round at the 2014 U.S. Open, he did not sleep at all because of the discomfort. The next day, he chased his opening 72 with a 74 to miss the cut. (He also tied for 51st at the British Open.)

“I can’t tell you the last day I put in a practice,” he said.

Dufner, 37, described trying to compete against the best in the world under such circumstances as challenging and impossible.

He added, “Lack of sleep, lack of range of motion, lack of strength; there’s a lot of different issues when you’re dealing with your neck.”

Dufner’s roots are in Cleveland, but his refuge is Auburn, Alabama, where he and his wife, Amanda, own 50 acres. At Oak Hill last year, Amanda Dufner collected acorns off the ground as she walked outside the ropes. By the week’s end, she had collected more than four dozen, which the Dufners cultivated in planters upon returning home.

Dufner regards Auburn University, where he played on the golf team and earned an economics degree in 2000, as the planter and those he met there as the gardeners who cultivated his gifts as a student and an athlete.

As a freshman, Dufner competed in golf as a nonscholarship player. His rise from walk-on to major winner is a story he returns to campus regularly to share with athletes from various sports. Dufner is a staunch supporter of the golf team and also has a great affinity for the football team, whose coach, Gus Malzahn, he regards as a kindred spirit.

Dufner got to know the 48-year-old Malzahn, who was a high school coach in his 30s, after he became Auburn’s offensive coordinator in 2009. Like Dufner, Malzahn is a soft-spoken, hardworking man who seeks innovation and improvement over attention and acclaim.

Dufner is fascinated by the team dynamic, which makes football so different from golf, a much more solitary pursuit.

“You don’t have any teammates to support you, to encourage you, you’re out there on your own,” Dufner said, adding, “I probably learn more from them, to be honest.”