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Dufner, 35, leads PGA Tour in earnings and FedEx Cup points

By Jeff Shain, The Orlando Sentinel –

ORLANDO, Fla. — Pay enough attention to Jason Dufner on the golf course and one can’t help but notice that expression.

Or, more specifically, that lack of expression.

His sleepy countenance doesn’t waver, whether he’s made an ace or closing in on an 80. It was there through the first 68 holes of last year’s PGA Championship, even as he inched out to a five-shot lead. Nor did it change as the cushion withered away, losing a playoff to Keegan Bradley.

Even as maybe the hottest golfer on the planet, winning twice in his past three starts, Dufner still oozes nonchalance.

“He just gets out there, sees a line and hits it. It’s awesome,” said Zach Johnson, the only man keeping Dufner from being 3 for 3 entering this week’s U.S. Open at Olympic Club.

Dufner, 35, leads the PGA Tour in both earnings ($3.8 million) and FedEx Cup points. He ranks among the top 5 in ballstriking, scoring average and birdies per round. Nearly one in every four holes produces a birdie or eagle.

Just don’t expect the onetime South Florida progeny to pump his fist about it.

Dufner can break a smile, and has photos from last month’s wedding to prove it. He even managed a mini-pump when his 25-foot birdie at No. 18 won the Byron Nelson Championship a week later.

“Sometimes I wish I was a little more excited out there and maybe show a little more emotion,” he said, “but it’s just not really in my nature.”

Some athletes won’t give up a weathered high school T-shirt worn underneath a jersey. Some won’t change eating habits or routes to the stadium when things are going well. Dufner is one of those rare birds who steadfastly won’t change his expression.

The guy is Sphinx in golf spikes. Star Trek’s Spock with a driver and a waggle. If Dufner were to miss the British Open cut, the Buckingham Palace guards could let him stand in as vacation relief.

“I admire his demeanor. I wish I had it,” said ESPN analyst Paul Azinger, a 12-time PGA Tour winner and former U.S. Ryder Cup captain.

Maybe it’s a ruboff from the stoic Ben Hogan, whom Dufner lists as his golfing hero. Like Hogan, Dufner is a late bloomer who spent years digging his game out of the dirt.

He took up the game at 15 and played three years at St. Thomas Aquinas High but wasn’t good enough to attract a college scholarship. He walked on at Auburn, won three tournaments there and started the climb through the minitours and Nationwide Tour.

Dufner didn’t earn his PGA Tour card until 2004, dropped down again for a couple of years and didn’t stick on the main stage until 2008. It was around that time that he met Chuck Cook, the Austin, Texas-based instructor who helped bring consistency to his game.

“I think I was in the mid-600s in the world (rankings) at the time,” Dufner said. “He’s really helped me understand the golf swing — what works for me, what doesn’t work for me, where my misses come from, what causes them.”

The changes weren’t immediate — Dufner recalls taking 17 penalty strokes at the 2008 Mayakoba Classic — but within two years he’d risen to 33rd on the money list.

It took another couple of years for Dufner to start showing up on leaderboards. The 2011 PGA was his first time in the huge spotlight, squandering his lead in part with three consecutive bogeys.

Though some golfers never recover from major heartbreak, Dufner insisted it wouldn’t be the defining moment of his career. It wasn’t.

Dufner held the lead at some point in all three Florida Swing events he played this spring, and again after two rounds of the Masters. The breakthrough came two weeks later in New Orleans, beating Ernie Els in a playoff for his first PGA Tour win.

Then came the wedding. And another win at Byron Nelson. He was in position for a third straight at Colonial, until a late triple bogey settled his duel with Johnson.

“What Dufner has done is obviously very impressive,” Johnson said. “It looks to me like he is just letting it happen, and that’s pretty dangerous.”

It is at the U.S. Open, where birdies typically are few and resilience is rewarded.

“Par is always a good score there,” said ESPN’s Curtis Strange, twice an Open champion. “So the key is just not to get too high or too low. That describes (Dufner) in a nutshell.”

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