SAN FRANCISCO - When it comes to the best players yet to win a major golf championship, Luke Donald and Lee Westwood (based on recent form and world rankings) or Sergio Garcia and Steve Stricker (lifetime achievements) are the names most frequently mentioned.
Jason Dufner is not part of the discussion, but maybe he should be. Nobody is riding a hotter streak than the 35-year-old Dufner, who has two wins and a runner-up finish over his last four starts. He has been knocking on the door at majors recently, too, losing a late lead and then the playoff to Keegan Bradley at last year’s PGA Championship, and sharing the 36-hole lead at this year’s Masters.
If you’re looking for a dark-horse pick when the 112th US Open starts Thursday at the Olympic Club, you could do a lot worse than Dufner, especially after hearing him say how well the course sets up for him and that the US Open is the major he’s most likely to win. It’s a tournament that requires and rewards patience and mental preparation, not to mention pinpoint ball-striking. Dufner, if recent form holds, could be lining himself up for a big week.
“I’ve played a lot of good golf, worked really hard to get to this level, and enjoyed some of the good play and good finishes, so it’s been a lot of fun,’’ Dufner said. “I’ve had a lot of opportunities to play in a lot of good events against some really good players.
“I’ve just been really consistent with my preparation and my practice, I’m committed to the things I’ve been working on, committed to getting better physically, mentally, all those areas. The experiences I’ve gone through have made me a better player, and made me able to be more confident out there when I’m playing.’’
If that’s the case, it’s hard not to think that Dufner’s confidence is at an all-time high. In addition to his strong showings in the past two majors, he finally won on the PGA Tour for the first time, beating Ernie Els in a playoff at New Orleans in late April. He added a second victory at the Byron Nelson Championship, and was second in his most recent start, three weeks ago at Colonial.
The flurry of recent success is reflected in Dufner’s swift rise up the world rankings. He went from 93d to 33d in 2011, and is currently ninth. Not bad for someone who had no college scholarship offers and walked on at Auburn, where he became an All-American.
The uphill climb didn’t end when he graduated in 2000 with an economics degree. Five of his first six years as a professional were spent on the Nationwide Tour (two wins), Dufner not establishing himself as consistent PGA Tour material until 2007.
To those familiar with Dufner only through television, he might not resonate well: relatively emotionless, vanilla, introverted. He stands out, if at all, by the demonstrative waggles of the club before he swings.
Peel away a layer or two, though, and you find that Dufner is driven, skilled, a passionate fan of Auburn athletics, and willing to put in the hours to improve his game. Not surprisingly, he cites Ben Hogan as his hero, and he gravitated toward Vijay Singh for practice sessions and advice earlier in his career. Two players who know that golf’s secrets always lie in the dirt.
After losing to Dufner in the New Orleans playoff, Els said, “I don’t know how long he can keep it up, that wall, but he’s doing a good job so far. Kind of reminds me of myself back in the day.
“I’ve played a lot of golf with Jason and obviously [he] came close to winning a major last year against Keegan and been close quite a few times. I think he’ll win quite a few others.
“If he keeps that shield up, he’s got . . . you know, that’s a pretty good defensive mechanism he’s got there.’’
The insular, focused approach might be the proper mind-set for a US Open. The Olympic Club, with its narrow, canted fairways, multiple doglegs both right and left, and small greens, demands precision and the ability to move the ball in both directions. It’s where Dufner, who ranks second on the PGA Tour in its ball-striking category, feels he has an advantage.
“I think you’re really going to have to control your golf ball, off the tee and into the greens,’’ said Dufner. “I don’t think you’re going to be able to spray it around this golf course. You’re going to have to hit a lot of good shots for the week and really grind out a lot of pars. It’s going to be a pretty tough test.’’
Those are statements made about almost every US Open. Understanding that bogeys (or worse) will be made, and not letting bad breaks or big numbers turn into bigger problems, remain key at any US Open.
“I don’t mind it, it’s only one time a year that we play a golf course that can be this difficult,’’ Dufner said. “Sometimes the fields get a little frustrated with an inability to make birdies out here and the patience you have to have for the week. It’s a bit of a change and an adjustment, but it’s not a bad thing for me.’’
It’s been all good for Dufner, in fact, on and off the course. In addition to winning twice and contending for a few days at Augusta, he married Amanda Boyd - an Alabama graduate, no less - last month.
Winning has forced Dufner out of his shell a bit, but it’s the product of good play and victories. He’s confident it can continue this week, on a course that seems tailor-made for his skill set, in a tournament he feels he can win.
Can Dufner join the major champions’ club?
“I definitely think so,’’ he said. “I was pretty close last year, as close as you can be to being a major champion, so I don’t think it’s something that’s out of the realm of possibility.
“I’m in a better spot mentally now where I feel like when I show up at these tournaments, I have a chance to win, whether it’s a major or a regular tour event. That’s a nice feeling to have.
“I like the US Open setup, I think it favors me a little bit. I feel comfortable.’’