Dufner and Homa prove there is light at the end of the tunnel
May 03, 2019
By Sean Martin, PGATOUR.COM
- Jason Dufner holds the 36-hole lead at the Wells Fargo Championship. (Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The TOUR’s elite often play a starring role at the Wells Fargo Championship. Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day and Rickie Fowler have won here, and Phil Mickelson is a consistent contender at Quail Hollow.
Players of that ilk make the game look deceptively easy. They launch drives that burst the 300-yard barrier, lift long-irons high into the air and sink putts with more curve than the Pacific Coast Highway.
They can make us forget how difficult this game is, especially when your livelihood is on the line.
The leaderboard at the halfway point of this edition of the Wells Fargo Championship is a reminder that golf can humble anyone, even the professionals. There are harder ways to make a buck – this isn’t coal mining -- but that doesn’t mean professional golf is easy.
Just look at 36-hole leader Jason Dufner. He won a major championship and once was an annual attendee of the TOUR Championship. Now he’s struggling to make cuts.
“I’m just thankful to be playing on the weekend,” he said after Friday’s 63. At 11-under 131, he’s one shot ahead of Max Homa, who also shot 63 on Friday, and Joel Dahmen.
Homa is back on TOUR after enduring a season you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. Two years ago, he made just two cuts and was 61-over par in 16 stroke-play starts.
Dahmen, who will join Dufner in Saturday’s final group, is playing his third PGA TOUR season. He served a five-year apprenticeship on the Mackenzie Tour-PGA TOUR Canada before finally graduating to the Web.com Tour. That’s a longer tenure than most players who eventually make it to the PGA TOUR.
Dufner’s day included a chip-in from 35 yards on the first hole and a 40-foot putt for birdie on 17. Those were rare bright spots in a miserable stretch of golf. The 63 was his low round since his victory at the 2013 PGA Championship.
He’s 188th in this season’s FedExCup standings, missing more than half his cuts and finishing in the top 50 just twice. He has just one top-10 in the past two years, a poor stretch that led him to make a myriad of changes.
He’s used four caddies this year. He left his longtime swing coach, Chuck Cook, and started working with putting instructor Phil Kenyon.
“I think I’m on my fourth or fifth putter this year, I’m on my fourth or fifth driver, my fourth or fifth golf ball, fourth or fifth lob wedge,” Dufner said. “I’m trying to find stuff that’s going to work.”
He started seeing positive signs at the RBC Heritage and again at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans. He’s 42 years old and has never played the power game that’s become prevalent on the PGA TOUR, so he knows that he has to make the most of the next few years.
“Being competitive, trying to win tournaments, is where I want to be,” said Dufner, who owns five PGA TOUR titles. “I’ve done everything I ever thought I could do in golf, so I want to take this last window and make the most of it.”
Dufner didn’t start playing golf until he was 15 and was a walk-on at Auburn University. Homa, on the other hand, was one of those players who turned pro with a resume overflowing with impressive accolades.
He won the NCAA Championship in 2013 and played on that year’s Walker Cup team with future PGA TOUR winners Justin Thomas and Michael Kim.
Homa and Thomas both made their first PGA TOUR start as professionals at the 2013 Safeway Open. Thomas finished 72nd. Homa was ninth. They both graduated to the PGA TOUR in 2014 after one season on the Web.com Tour.
But while Thomas became a FedExCup and major champion, Homa lost his way while trying to get better. He finished 163rd in the FedExCup as a rookie. His return to the Web.com Tour lasted just a single season, but his struggles were even worse in his second season on the PGA TOUR.
Homa’s driver was the culprit, especially the occasional “foul ball” that racks up the penalty strokes. Homa earned less than $20,000 that season. He jokes now that he made more money for appearing in the Monday pro-ams. He hit rock bottom in the last event of his PGA TOUR season, shooting 14 over (75-79) to finish last by five shots and miss the cut by 15. He estimates he hit seven provisional balls a week.
Homa isn’t worried about the stray tee shot anymore. His driving has steadily improved, thanks in part to a return to his coach from his college days, Les Johnson. And Homa draws confidence from his amateur accomplishments, which confirm to him that, even though his career took a detour, he can compete on the PGA TOUR.
“Obviously I know Justin is far superior, but I also know that my good golf was somewhat similar,” Homa said.
Dufner has shown he’s capable of winning the game’s biggest titles. Even though it’s been a long time since he’s proved that, he doesn’t think he’s hoisted his last PGA TOUR trophy.
“By no means do I think that this is the end of me playing good golf,” Dufner said. “It may have looked like that to some people … but I feel like I’ve got a lot of good golf left in me.”
Golf can lead players to some dark places. But Dufner and Homa could prove this week that there’s light at the end of the tunnel.