MJ Daffue keeps the dream alive at the U.S. Open
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Written by Kevin Prise @PGATOURKevin
BROOKLINE, Mass. – The U.S. Open is the most democratic of championships, leaving plenty of space in its field for the dreamers who try to qualify. It also has a reputation as the most difficult major, known for its long rough and firm greens.
MJ Daffue saw both sides of the U.S. Open’s identity Friday. The 33-year-old who’s spent most of his career on the mini-tours spent most of the day atop the U.S. Open leaderboard, ahead of players like Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas, Collin Morikawa and Scottie Scheffler. That was before Daffue’s difficult finish, when several trips to the penal sand traps that dot The Country Club’s landscape led to a back-nine 40.
Still, Daffue signed for a second-round 72 and sits 1 under par at the halfway point. This year’s U.S. Open – at one of the USGA’s five founding clubs – is proving to be a traditional test, so anyone in red numbers is still in contention, and that includes Daffue, who has battled depression and near-bankruptcy to reach this moment.
Daffue is the sort of relatively anonymous player that the U.S. Open prides itself on giving an opportunity to. So, who is he?
He’s a 33-year-old South African who once sold wine for the label owned by a two-time U.S. Open winner, Retief Goosen, as he chased Monday qualifiers and mini-tour events before securing guaranteed starts on the Korn Ferry Tour for this season. Several times, Daffue nearly depleted his bank account to fund entry fees and travel. He’s battled bouts of depression brought on by bipolar disorder, which he has learned to manage more effectively through better understanding its effects.
He has dealt with severe loss, his future mother-in-law suddenly passing away in 2013 after a tragic accident where she tripped on a curb and was struck by a car.
After so many nightmares, Friday was a dream for Daffue. He captured the golf world’s imagination as he built a three-stroke lead midway through his second round at The Country Club outside Boston. Even after his difficult finish, he was just two back of clubhouse leaders Scheffler and Nick Hardy after the morning wave.
Daffue is ranked 296th in the world, has played just 13 PGA TOUR events and has never won an event that’s recognized in the Official World Golf Ranking, but he isn’t sure he sees himself as an underdog. His strong play on the Korn Ferry Tour this season – he has three top-three finishes – means he’s already clinched his PGA TOUR card for next season, so perhaps Friday was just a sneak preview of the better days to come.
He’ll gladly embrace the underdog label, though, and the fan support that comes with it, especially on the course that produced Francis Ouimet’s surprise victory more than a century ago. Daffue says he’ll embrace the narrative, in the same way he strives to embrace the inevitable ups and downs of one’s life, whether good or bad.
“Leading the U.S. Open, not a lot of people can say it,” Daffue said. “It was awesome. It hasn’t really sunk in yet, but as a kid … I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it.
“Saying you led the U.S. Open, it’s an unbelievable feeling. … Glad to entertain some people while I was out there.”
A dose of that entertainment came on the par-5 14th hole. After pulling his tee shot well left of the fairway, Daffue found his ball on the carpet of a hospitality tent. Rather than taking relief, he deemed it best to play the ball as it lay. From 287 yards, his cleanly struck 4-wood settled in the left rough, 20 yards from the hole. He proceeded to make bogey, but the score will take a backseat to a lighthearted moment from a memorable morning.
“I had an option to drop it, but it would’ve been in the thick rough,” explained Daffue. “I don’t think from there I would have been able to get it on the second fairway, and I didn’t want to hit a 7-iron to a blind target. But I had a 4-wood in the bag, and the lie on it is so good on the hospitality.
“It’s got a little bit of spring in it, so even if you hit a little bit behind it, the club will bounce, and it will actually bounce into the ball.”
Daffue’s connection with Goosen spans beyond wine sales. Daffue’s dad knew Goosen’s brother, which led to an 11-year-old Daffue playing a round of golf with Goosen in January 2001, just five months before Goosen captured his first major title at Southern Hills.
“My dad gave me a call. ‘Listen, I’m going to come get you from school, and we’re going to play a round of golf,’” Daffue remembers. “I was like, ‘What in the world?’ I still remember it as if it happened right now, standing behind him on the first tee. He shot 64 that day.”
The two remain close to this day; both live in the United States (Daffue in Houston, Goosen in Orlando) and they’ll get together to chat wine, grilling, boating and sometimes golf.
“One time I asked him, I said, ‘Hey, how do you do so well under pressure in U.S. Opens?’” Daffue said. “He said, ‘I’ve just done it a few times.’ It makes a lot of sense, actually. The more you do it, the more you get used to it.”
As Daffue ascended the leaderboard Friday morning at Brookline, Goosen was following along.
“He’s done a lot of Monday qualifiers and has always been under financial stress,” Goosen said via text Friday. “So one thing he can handle is pressure. This week can change it all.”
Entering the season, Daffue wasn’t sure he would attempt U.S. Open qualifying. As he was pursuing his first PGA TOUR card, he didn’t want to skip a Korn Ferry Tour event, even for a major, and lose the opportunity to earn valuable points. Daffue clinched his TOUR card in May, however, which gave him the freedom to attempt Final Qualifying. He shot 7 under for 36 holes in Springfield, Ohio, to punch his ticket to Brookline.
In recent years, Daffue has worked to transition his preferred shot shape from a low cut to a high draw, modeling the likes of his good friend Andrew Landry, who also spent a few years without Korn Ferry Tour status before making a surprise appearance on a U.S. Open leaderboard. Landry was a PGA TOUR rookie and ranked outside the top 600 in the world when he played in the final group of the 2016 U.S. Open. Landry shot a final-round 78 and finished 15th but has gone on to become a two-time TOUR winner.
Daffue’s U.S. Open story is far from its conclusion.
“Underdog stories, I don’t know. Am I an underdog?” Daffue laughed at the podium early Friday afternoon. “You know, we’ll see this weekend.
“I don’t think my goal is to win this week. My goal is just to be the best I can be, and if the best I can be and the best I can play is good enough for that, then I’ve achieved what I wanted to achieve.”
He has overcome much to reach this point. What’s another two days at Brookline?
Kevin Prise is an associate editor for PGATOUR.COM. He is on a lifelong quest to break 80 on a course that exceeds 6,000 yards and to see the Buffalo Bills win a Super Bowl. Follow Kevin Prise on Twitter.