published Sunday, August 14th, 2011

Wiedmer: Dufner taking aim at PGA Championship

JOHNS CREEK, Ga. -- The lamppost lights were 150 yards away. It was 2 a.m. on the campus of Auburn University and Jason Dufner had a goal.

"I wanted to smash them with a golf ball," he said. "You'd get a few beers in you, you'd want to impress your buddies or a special girl. I'd use a 5 or 6 iron. I got a couple of them."

Ever aim at anything else?

"The engineering building was at the end of the street," said Dufner, with the smallest of grins. "You had to pull out a driver for that one."

The goal today is slightly more noble. Dufner wants his first PGA Tour win to be the PGA Championship, which he currently co-leads with Tour rookie Brendan Steele.

"You know, I play really well in the South for whatever reason," said Dufner, who was born in Ohio, but grew up in South Florida before walking on at Auburn.

"Bermuda grass, I'm really comfortable with it. You have to hit the fairways, but that's one of my stronger suits."

Nothing had been a strong suit for the 34-year-old coming into this event. He'd missed the last four cuts in tournaments he'd entered. But he also finished second in the Phoenix Open after losing a playoff, tied for third at New Orleans and tied for sixth at the Players Championship.

But as Dufner noted, the Atlanta Athletic Club isn't all that far from Auburn. Especially when you consider all the Auburn alums who end up living in the Big Peach after college.

So as Dufner has moved up the leaderboard this week, cries of "War Eagle" have pierced the air with numbing regularity, the AU faithful hoping to add another championship to the crown won by last year's football team.

"It's been a cool thing," he said. "And obviously with the football team doing so well there's a lot of pride out there."

A couple of broken lamp lights aside, there should be a lot of pride in War Eagle Nation concerning Dufner's growth from collegiate vandal to potential major winner.

"Those sophomore and junior years were my delinquent years," he said. "I buckled down after that. I realized that most people who are good at this game take it pretty seriously. I kind of put all that behind me."

But did Auburn ever find out?

"No," said Dufner, who's lived in Auburn the past 13 years. "At least not yet. There might be a lawsuit coming now."

Until this weekend, the American golf fan could have been forgiven for suing Red, White and Blue pros for lack of pride. The last six majors have been won by foreigners. With Tiger Woods missing the PGA cut, Phil Mickelson in a funk and former U.S. Open champ Jim Furyk plopping two straight into the water on Saturday's 18th, that number figured to reach seven.

But the top five names on the leaderboard -- co-leaders Dufner and Steele, Keegan Bradley (6-under), Scott Verplank (5-under) and Steve Stricker (4-under) -- are all Americans.

"It's not for lack of trying," said Bradley. "There's just a lot of really good players from all around the world now. But it would be great to see an American win a major. It's been ... a drought."

One drought that's clearly been broken, however, is having a number of compelling American storylines.

For starters there are Stricker (age 44) and Verplank (47), quality golfers on the back nine of their careers.

Then there's the rookie Bradley, who grew up in Vermont, where his home snow skiing tract was something called "Suicide Six."

After that comes Steele, whose uncle is Anthony Geary, who's been playing "Luke" on the long-running soap opera "General Hospital" since long before the golfer was born in 1983.

"Yeah, he lives half the year in Amsterdam," said Steele. "I just saw him a few weeks ago. I stayed with him in France when I played the French Open. I used to watch General Hospital all the time when I was in school, but I'm always playing golf now."

Still, no one near the top of the leaderboard can match Dufner for quirkiness.

Asked by his swing coach, Chuck Cook, a couple of years ago what his ultimate goal was, Dufner didn't mention the Masters, the U.S. Open or winning the PGA Championship.

Said Dufner: "I'd love to be done playing [for the year] by September so I can watch college football."

If he can hit 18 greens today as well as he used to hit Auburn's lamp lights at 2 a.m. 15 years ago, the $1.4 million winner's check should free up Dufner's autumn Saturdays for years to come.

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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