“I remember Tommy Nakajima was just ahead of me,” Dufner recalls.
Today, Nakajima is 58 years old and hasn’t played in a major in over a decade, while Dufner is the PGA champion, having won his first major on Sunday at a course he considers among his top 5 favorites -- and that was long before he hoisted the Wanamaker Trophy.
Dufner wasn’t a bad player, as Cook puts it, when the two hooked up.
“He was just in a bad spot with his swing,” Cook said via cell phone. “He had some bad habits and couldn’t hit it straight or with any distance consistently.”
Over time, Cook chipped away. What did Cook, who had coached Tom Kite and the late Payne Stewart, among others, see in Dufner?
“Several things,” he said. “He had the three keys all top players have of time, talent and technique.”
“He was a big practicer,” Cook said of Dufner, who learned to dig it out of the dirt not from his idol Ben Hogan but by watching Vijay Singh, who was something of a big brother to Dufner after the two met at The Honda Classic years ago. “Duf worked hard. He’s more talented than most people think. He’s a very talented athlete.
“It was neat to have that much stuff to work with and we hit it off. His technique now is the most efficient on TOUR.”
Cook also gave Dufner, once a walk-on at Auburn, the confidence he needed.
Sometimes it was a pat on the back, like at the 2011 PGA Championship, where Dufner played his way into contention for the first time on a big stage before collapsing down the stretch.
Other times it was a kick in the butt, like prior to last month’s Open Championship. Dufner had a bad attitude about his game most of this summer and was struggling. Then he realized he’d be going to a ball-striker’s paradise in Oak Hill.
“He’s really helped me out a lot,” Dufner said Sunday with golf’s largest major trophy perched next to him. “He helped me realize my potential. I’d still be around 650 in the world if I hadn’t met him.”
As much was true even early last week when Cook sorted out some alignment issues Dufner was having. But it was as much about the space between Dufner’s ears as anything.
“I watch a lot of sports,” Dufner said. “One of the reasons I watch is to see how these guys handle pressure, how they respond to situations. A good example this year and last year, being a Cleveland guy, is LeBron James. He really struggled for a couple of times trying to get that championship.
“I think you can learn a lot more from them, and then how they can come back and succeed.”
Dufner has learned well.
QUOTES OF THE WEEK
“It’s tough when you’re chasing history. You'll be the first one to do something. I don’t think I’ve been the first to do anything in my life.” -- Jason Dufner on missing out on a major-record 62 last week, leaving his putt for the magic number nearly 2 feet short.
“It kind of seems that way.” -- Tiger Woods when asked if his 15th career major has been the toughest of them to win.
“If this happened at the middle of this season I wouldn’t be standing here, I’d be headed home,” -- Rory McIlroy, on being outside the projected cut line in the middle of his round Friday before rallying to make the cut.
TWEETS OF THE WEEK
@Keegan_Bradley: The duff daddy is dialed in. -- Bradley showing that aforementioned bro love to Dufner.
@garyplayer: Congratulations on your impressive 1st Major victory in the @PGAChampionship. I guess I need to start “dufnering” now champ… -- Isn’t Dufnering part of Player’s workout routine?
@FootballAU: The Wanamaker Trophy has a new home .. AUBURN, Ala!!!! Congrats to former #Auburn All-American @JasonDufner … 2013 #PGA Champion!! – Toomer’s Corner was rolled shortly after Dufner’s win.
THE BACK NINE: 9 THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW
1. The fuse is getting a little shorter for Tiger Woods with every missed major opportunity. "Having a chance on the back nine on Sunday, I can live with that,” said Woods, who was never in contention at Oak Hill. “It's always frustrating going out there and I'm 3 over today, got to 7, and I'm grinding my tail off coming in just to shoot even par for the day and I'm nowhere in it. That's tough." Part of the problem is still swing-related, which is why he had a post-round session with coach Sean Foley last week, and part of it is not putting himself in position. Only once has Woods lost a major when leading going into Sunday. He’s never come from behind to win one. All of that puts extra pressure on all parts of his game.
2. At the other end of the spectrum, or at least heading in the other direction is Rory McIlroy, who seems to be gaining confidence with every round. He was staring at a missed cut midway through his second round when he suddenly strung together four birdies over his last seven holes. He also left Oak Hill Sunday frustrated that he didn’t take better advantage of his opportunity after starting the day just six shots back. McIlroy got off to a shaky start with an early missed birdie opportunity but rebounded again to shoot even par and tie for eighth. "I'm just disappointed because I felt like if I would have capitalized on the way I played, (the outcome) would have been much better," McIlroy said of his final round. "But it's definitely a step in the right direction. I've got four big weeks coming up and want to finish the PGA TOUR season well, and I have some events in Asia, so I could still salvage a bit of the season."
3. How bad did Keegan Bradley, who has had a special bond with Jason Dufner ever since beating him in a playoff at the PGA Championship two years ago, want to be on hand for Dufner’s victory Sunday? He was on his way to the airport when he turned around and headed back to Oak Hill -- even running a red light to get there. “We just kind of bro-hugged, which I don't know how that goes over,” Dufner said. “He just said, ‘I'm proud of you.’ And I just said, ‘Thanks a lot, it means a lot for you to be here.’ You always carry those scars with you. He always jabbed at me a little bit about having one of these in his house, and thanks for giving it to him and all that stuff. Now I've got one, too.” Bradley wasn’t the only one to congratulate Dufner of course. Texts started pouring in from all over, including ones from Charles Barkley and Bo Jackson.
4. Jim Furyk will get over it. He already looked like he had Sunday night.
5. Stat of the Week I: Jason Dufner’s 63 in the second round at Oak Hill was the 26th in major championship history. He became, however, just the sixth player to match the major championship scoring record and go on to win. The last to do it? Woods at Southern Hills in 2007.
6. Stat of the Week II: 0-for-5, or Jim Furyk’s record the last five times he’s held the 54-hole lead in a tournament. Two of those were majors. But as Furyk said Sunday night, “I feel like I got beat. I didn't beat myself. I felt like I got beat by Jason.”
7. Stat of the Week III: How good has Adam Scott been in the majors this year? Better than just about anybody. Over the four tournaments, he’s a cumulative 2 over with three finishes in the top 5, including a win at Augusta National. Jason Day, who had three finishes in the top 10 in majors, including a second and a third, was also 2 over in the majors. Over the last two years, however, Scott is a combined 6 under.
8. With one week to go until the FedExCup Playoffs, Vijay Singh is in danger of missing them for the first time. The 2008 FedExCup champ is 141st in points after finishing at 10 over last week at Oak Hill. Singh, in the field this week at the Wyndham Championship, has missed six of 18 cuts this season and has just one top 25 all year.
9. While we’re on the topic of the FedExCup, David Toms finished seventh last week at Oak Hill for his first top 10 of the season. The former PGA champ has had at least one top 10 every year since 1996. He has also made just nine of 15 cuts but last week’s performance couldn’t have come at a better time. Toms is now 145th in FedExCup points giving him at least a chance to make it to the Playoffs. He'll tee it up at the Wyndham Championship.
MONDAY BACKSPIN MAILBAG
Do any of the other majors suit Jason Dufner's game? -- Derek Bates
Certainly the PGA seems to with Dufner finishing in the top 5 in three of the last four years there, including Sunday’s win. The other one that jumps out? The U.S. Open, where Dufner has finished fourth each of the last two years, at Merion and The Olympic Club. Given Dufner’s accuracy off the tee – he’s 38th in fairways hit -- and his ball-striking -- he’s 29th in greens in regulation, don’t be surprised if he eventually wins one of those, too.
Where does Jason Dufner’s PGA Championship story rank in heartbreak to redemption in majors history? -- T.G.
Not as high as you might think. That’s not to take anything away from Dufner’s win, rather at this point two years ago it was the first time he had contended in a major and he’d struggled to even keep his card. Keegan Bradley also birdied two of his final three holes to force a playoff that he ultimately won. There just wasn’t that much heartbreak for Dufner.
Do you think this week sparked Rory McIlroy enough to get him back into constant contention? – Jamie E.
Constant contention? No. But he is getting better and starting to show some consistency from round to round. When I asked him if he was close to returning to how he played last year or if it was still a ways off, he didn’t hesitate and said he’s really close. The last 2 ½ days at Oak Hill he played well.
It’s the last week for players to move inside the top 125 in the FedExCup Standings with the FedExCup Playoffs looming. It’s also another week of Donald Ross, albeit a much easier one than we saw at Oak Hill. Sedgefield Country Club can yield some low numbers, so look for a good ball-striker to be near the top of the leaderboard there. Two players I like to play well this year: Tim Clark, who lost to Sergio Garcia in a playoff last year, and Brandt Snedeker, who got his first career victory there.