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Tara Sullivan

MJ Daffue’s US Open journey has taken him from qualifier to leaderboard

MJ Daffue has a different kind of strength and is motivated to share his experience overcoming depression.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

BROOKLINE — To most of the golf world, what MJ Daffue was about to attempt looked nothing short of reckless. No pro golfer wants to take a penalty, but hitting an errant shot off the deck of a temporary hospitality tent just to avoid one?

That’s some Tin Cup level of risk-taking.

But since most of the golf world knew little to nothing about MJ Daffue — including the fact that his South African last name is pronounced “Duffy” — before he crashed the US Open leaderboard here at The Country Club, let it be known that the 33-year-old 10-year pro knew exactly what he was doing. Not out of some misguided level of cockiness, but rather a well-placed level of confidence. Daffue had actually hit this shot before. Many, many times.

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“It was definitely an awkward situation, but I can’t tell you the amount of times that MJ has stood in our hitting facility hitting it off a mat, starting it on a line with that 4-wood,” said his caddie, Jonathan Dismuke.

“We were talking up there and he goes, ‘The lie is perfect, and I’ve got a perfect angle. It’s just like hitting off the mat in the building,’ and I said, ‘Well hell, if you’re man enough to stand up there and hit it, let’s go.’ ”

Daffue proceeded to let go with the shot of the Open (so far, anyway), a screaming line drive that split the trees to his left and the fence to his right, sailed over fans along the way, and landed just on the fringe of the 14th green.

Dismuke, also Daffue’s swing coach, loved it. He is pulling double duty on the bag here, but it’s in his day job as the coach at the University of Houston where he really built his connection to Daffue, a journeyman who just earned his PGA Tour card on May 22.

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In taking on Daffue as a volunteer assistant coach a few years back, Dismuke laid a path to recovery for a man struggling with depression, opening up a road not so much to rebuild a golf swing (though that was on the agenda, too) but to repair a heart broken by tragedy, restore a soul weighed down by depression.

For Daffue to be one of the best stories of these first two days, for him to turn a win at the qualifier last Monday in Ohio into such an unexpected trip up the leaderboard — he was a tournament-best 6 under when he took the turn onto the back nine Friday — speaks to a golf journey of determination, grind, and grit.

For him to still be smiling after shooting 5 over on the back nine — including a bogey on that 14th hole and a frustrating double bogey on 18 — that left him at 1 under heading into the weekend? That speaks to a life journey forged by a different kind of strength, to the motivation Daffue now has to share his experience overcoming depression.

From the tragic moment in 2013 when his mother-in-law Jill Badeaux succumbed to injuries caused when she tripped and fell on a street corner and was hit by a speeding car to the years-long struggle to support his wife Kamie, and eventually, their now 21-month-old son Oliver, Daffue felt lost.

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His path forward was rooted in service, in finding ways to make it less about himself and more about helping others, about volunteering as a coach with Dismuke at Houston or maybe paying for someone’s tank at the local gas station near his Kingwood, Texas, home, about knowing that the energy you put out in the world can do so much to determine the energy within.

“Obviously what I’ve gone through and the stuff I go through now, it’s not easy topics to talk about,” he said. “But the simple thing is there are ways to deal with it. When you bring a smile to other people’s faces, it actually makes you feel better about yourself.

“For me, it’s about getting out of a dark hole. In golf, too — when you make birdies, it fixes a lot of things. I’ve been playing better. But even if I wasn’t playing good, reaching out to people and talking, being open about it, it’s important. We all struggle with something.

“I think that’s why I can appreciate things now, because I know what it feels like to be at the bottom. I’m not saying I’m at the top, but this is not the bottom, so it’s very good.”

It was an up-and-down Friday in Brookline for MJ Daffue.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

As he moves forward in a rapidly improving golf life, that is a message to share. With a platform comes responsibility, and Daffue has never been in a better place to handle them both.

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“Definitely,” he said. “I think the reason we’re hearing it more in sports is because we have a voice. We’re able to make it public a little easier, and so for me, I want to be part of that conversation.

“I feel like it should be something we talk about more often, because mental struggle is just part of life. It happens every day. If you go out and try to do something small, adding value to someone else’s life every day, that’s how we all push each other up.”

The challenge of the weekend ahead will push Daffue either up or down a leaderboard he barely could have imagined joining only a few weeks ago, when he was contemplating whether he should even try to qualify for the Open if it meant giving up a Korn Ferry tournament and its vital points toward the Tour card.

He ended his own debate when he passed the 900-point fail-safe threshold with a third-place finish at the AdventHealth Championship. He earned his place on Tour, and with it, the freedom to go out and enjoy every minute of it.

“If you’d told me before yesterday I would be 1 under par in the top 15 after finishing my round today, I would have said yes,” he said. “So taking everything out of the equation, just being happy where I am and still in it with two really good rounds.

“Not a lot of people get to lead the US Open by three shots. I just told myself, ‘Enjoy it. You’ve done a lot of work. It’s finally paying off.’

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“We’ll try our best the next two rounds, but whatever happens this week, you know, I’ve already done a lot of things here, and in the process I was able to entertain some people today, too. It’s been good.”


Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.