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Dufner has an Image Problem

He needs to spark the imagination of the public if he is to be a memorable champion

Posted Aug 13, 2013 by Dermot Gilleece

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When attempting to master a new role, the distinguished actor, Sir Alec Guinness, claimed that the first thing you had to get right was the walk.  In this context, it has to be said that Jason Dufner doesn’t have the walk of a Major champion.  Maybe he’ll acquire it in the wake of a splendid triumph in the PGA Championship, but at the moment, it’s clearly not there.

Dufner walked and behaved around Oak Hill, more like a modest, struggling journeyman than a master of his peers.  And the manner of his breakthrough into golf’s elite, is unlikely to be lodged for long in the memory bank.

Two finishing bogeys took considerable gloss off the splendid golf that had gone before.  And because he seems such a nice guy, you wished he could have left a more durable imprint on the proceedings.  Like another journeyman, Shaun Micheel, managed to do at the same venue in the same championship 10 years ago, when he nearly knocked the flag out of the 72nd hole with a glorious seven-iron approach to seal the title.  Though it remains Micheel’s only victory on the PGA Tour, he is still remembered fondly because of it.

In this context, tournament golf can be a very cruel pursuit.  It wasn’t Dufner’s fault that an established Major champion, Jim Furyk, failed to find the necessary scoring touch to squeeze him down the stretch.  Nor was it his fault that Henrik Stenson’s dreams of becoming the first Swede to win a Major championship, had to be put away for another day.  Nor that the classy Australian, Adam Scott, failed to reproduce the sparkling play which landed him the US Masters title earlier this year.

Yet for all that, it is clear that the newly-crowned champion needs to find something to cement his appeal with the public.  Rank and file golfers don’t want rank and file champions.  They want their heroes to hit dramatic shots and to physically take command of the fairways as Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino once did.  And if they happen to be less imposing of stature, they need to project the steel and determination of a Gary Player or a Tom Watson.

One of the problems about being a tournament professional is that your primary function is to entertain the public.  That’s why the average, American punter paid $85 to get into Oak Hill on Sunday.  Their entertainment, if we’re to call it that, may have taken the negative form of observing the current struggle in the Majors or the once imperious Tiger Woods.  Or simply satisfying their curiosity as to whether Rory McIlroy was going to bounce back as a major force in the game.

Dufner is a very fine golfer.  The quality of some of his short-iron play on Sunday was quite breathtaking at times.  And his tee-shots along notoriously testing fairways were little short of exemplary.  If he fails to build on his image, however, his public appeal is certain to be limited.

One remembers the early Nick Faldo whose general behaviour on and off the golf course did little to endear him to the fans, even his fellow Britons.  Even his breakthrough Major triumph in the 1987 Open Championship at Muirfield didn’t do much to help insofar as his 18 closing pars seemed to endorse his status as a plodder.  Granted, a significantly gifted one, but a plodder just the same.

Having established a valuable platform for himself, Faldo then made little attempt to build on that achievement with the general public through his behaviour, on and off the course.  The sheer quality of his golf, however, almost forced people to admire his wonderful ball-striking talent and indomitable spirit in the heat of battle.  And he seemed to dare the media not to acknowledge his undoubted stature in the game, when making his infamous “from the heart of my bottom” comment after capturing the Open for a third time at Muirfield in 1992.

Dufner doesn’t have the putting stroke or competitive instincts to match Faldo at his best.  And while the cool dude image may be endearing in the short term, one suspects he has much work to do if he’s to claim a serious slot in supporters hearts.  Which I hope he does, because he seems to be an admirably pleasant man.

- Dermot Gilleece

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