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Dufner Looks to Regain Form Despite Physical Issues
Jason Dufner comes into the 96th PGA Championship as the reigning winner. After being the runner-up to Keegan Bradley in the same tournament in 2011, the 37-year-old Dufner finally broke through with his first major last year, closing with a 2-under 68 at Oak Hill in Rochester, N.Y., to edge Jim Furyk by two strokes.
But Dufner isn't in the best of shape entering the PGA at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville. He's been suffering from neck pain due to a degenerative arthritic condition that came to the fore at the Masters in April. He missed the cut at Augusta National after opening with an 8-over 80.
"Had the epidural last Monday," he told reporters Wednesday of a recent medical test. "They like you to rest seven to 10 days after that. I haven't really been able to do that. So trying to rest, keep my reps down. I feel sore. I get a little fatigued quicker than usual. I'm probably not going to be healthy until I can take six to eight weeks off. Not sure when that's going to be. But I'll get through it."
Dufner needs to continuing playing tournaments if he wants to qualify for the 2014 USA Ryder Cup team. He currently is eighth on the points list; the top nine are automatic qualifiers. Captain Tom Watson has three discretionary picks to fill out the 12-man squad that will face the Europeans at Gleneagles Hotel in Scotland in September.
"I didn't play very well last week," said Dufner, who finished tied for 66th at Firestone in the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational after rounds of 70, 74, 73 and 77 for a 14-over 294 total. "I'm hoping this week I'll be able to feel a little bit better, get through 72 holes. Obvious reasons for playing this week; defending is pretty important to me. Being on the Ryder Cup, I'm right on the edge of those points.
"There's a lot of points this week," he added. "That's an important thing for me to try and be part of. So hopefully I can have a good week. I have a plan in place if I make the Ryder Cup Team after this week; I have another plan in place if I don't make the Ryder Cup Team. I'm looking forward to defending this week, playing, and then at some time in the near future getting some rest to recover and get healthy again."
Dufner admitted he hasn't kept himself in the best shape. The well-known laid-back player, who gained Internet fame last year - and many mimics among his contemporaries since - for his sitting-down, comatose appearance against a wall during a presentation at an elementary school that led to the term, "Dufnering."
Always pudgy, Dufner was asked whether he was doing enough physically away from the course during his Wednesday Q&A. "Probably not," he responded. "Well, you can take a look and see. It's not that hard," he noted about his appearance.
In 16 starts this year, Dufner has made 13 cuts and logged four top-10s, with his high finish being a second in May's Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial, where he lost to Adam Scott on the third playoff hole.
Yet Dufner is hopeful he can turn his season around at Valhalla. "This is a big week," he said. "I've tried to conserve my energy as much as I could last week and early part of this week, because I know this week's going to be mentally and physically a little bit tougher for me to get through. But sometimes when you're at that point, you really test yourself and you can do some great things."
Here's what else the defending PGA champion told reporters on the eve of the year's fourth and final Grand Slam event.
MODERATOR: Defending PGA champion, Jason Dufner with us at the 96th PGA Championship at Valhalla Golf Club. Last year at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, New York, Jason won his first major championship. So you get to be the host this week. You get to be the host of the Champions Dinner. What is it like coming in as defending champion at a major championship?
JASON DUFNER: It's been good. Last night we had the dinner. I think everybody enjoyed the food we had for them. I haven't had any reports of anybody being sick today, so that's a good thing. I think it's a neat part of the championship to be able to attend that. Look forward to doing that the rest of my time as a PGA champion, and I look forward to getting to start the competition tomorrow.
MODERATOR: Talk a little about the golf course. Had you seen it before this week, and just some general thoughts.
JASON DUFNER: I have not seen the golf course. I haven't played the golf course as of yet. I walked nine holes yesterday, and plan on playing nine this afternoon. That's about the extent that I know.
Q. Is that because of your health? How is your neck?
JASON DUFNER: Yeah, I'll just go ahead and make a blanket statement about my health and where I'm at right now so we can get on with it. I feel okay. Had the epidural last Monday. They like you to rest seven to 10 days after that. I haven't really been able to do that. So trying to rest, keep my reps down. I feel sore. I get a little fatigued quicker than usual. I'm probably not going to be healthy until I can take six to eight weeks off. Not sure when that's going to be. But I'll get through it.
I didn't play very well last week. I'm hoping this week I'll be able to feel a little bit better, get through 72 holes. Obvious reasons for playing this week; defending is pretty important to me. Being on the Ryder Cup, I'm right on the edge of those points. There's a lot of points this week. That's an important thing for me to try and be part of. So hopefully I can have a good week. I have a plan in place if I make the Ryder Cup Team after this week; I have another plan in place if I don't make the Ryder Cup Team. I'm looking forward to defending this week, playing, and then at some time in the near future getting some rest to recover and get healthy again.
MODERATOR: When did you first start having issues with the neck and has it gotten worse over that time?
JASON DUFNER: Started feeling pretty bad at Augusta. Started to feel a little bit better there when we went to Texas for a couple weeks. Thought I was going to be good to go, and then since the U.S. Open, it's been pretty poor health wise for me. But to be honest, it's kind of a blessing. I need to take a serious look at my health and maybe make a better effort to be in better shape, because if you don't have your health out here, as you see with a pretty prominent player and myself, it's pretty hard to be competitive out here. So in the end, I look forward to being really healthy for next season and getting through this season and hopefully I can have some good results one way or another.
Q. Sorry to follow up on this, but you said you needed six or eight weeks off. Did you ever consider taking this run of events, which is very important, did you consider taking it off, and did you think you would be healthy by the time the Ryder Cup came around?
JASON DUFNER: That's a possibility. That's part of the plan I have in place now, depending on how the Ryder Cup goes. I'm not going to qualify if I don't make some points this week. I seriously doubt I would be a captain's selection with an injury if I didn't play. So I kind of need to suck it up and make some points and try and get healthy. I think if I were to make the team after this week, I think I could be healthy by the time the Ryder Cup rolls around.
Q. If you were to qualify on points and then couldn't go at some point, would you tell Watson, hey, get somebody else, I can't go?
JASON DUFNER: Most definitely. I don't know what the cutoff is for that. I don't know the timing on that but obviously I would find out, if I was part of the team, and be honest. I feel like a pretty honest guy. I feel like I'm a pretty unselfish guy. I feel like it would be for the better of the team. If I can't go out there and compete for at least a portion of the matches in the best ball and four ball match or sorry, the foursome match and compete in the singles, at least three matches, I feel like I wouldn't be helping the team very much.
Q. So if you were to qualify for the team, you have a plan to get ready for the Ryder Cup, which would involve resting?
JASON DUFNER: Resting and playing a little bit, or at least trying to play, seeing how it goes, yeah. I wouldn't feel uncomfortable to be honest with you; Mr. Watson may feel uncomfortable, but I would not feel uncomfortable taking the playoffs off if I needed to, and coming in, trying to be healthy and participate in the Ryder Cup. There's been many times where I've taken a four or five week absence from tournament play and come in and felt comfortable with my game. Obviously that time off would involve some rest, rehab, strengthening and getting to where I could play and practice some at home. If I took where I'm at in the points now, if I took the first two off, I probably wouldn't be at the Tour Championship or the event in Denver. If I took the first two, I probably wouldn't play any. If I miss the first two, I wouldn't be able to play any the way I stand in the points, you know.
MODERATOR: With the neck injury, what are the specific limitations to your game?
JASON DUFNER: Just lack of mobility, shoulder turn gets pretty restricted, pretty short, fatigue. Those are the things I deal with a little bit. Mentally it's just frustrating to not really do what you know you're capable of. But I feel better than I did last week. We'll see how it goes today on the range. I'm going to hit 40 or 50 balls and see how it goes.
Q. Based on some of the things you've just listed now, there seems to be some trepidation. Is there any nerves or trepidation based on the factors you've just enumerated coming into this week?
JASON DUFNER: Trepidation from on the fact that I haven't been playing good golf, I haven't been practicing golf and I haven't been playing golf. I'm not afraid; the pain is just a state of mind, but it's really difficult to play when you haven't practiced much, you haven't played much. There's a lot of questions. Last year, 2012, I came to events expecting to play well. If I had a bad day, I expected to play well the next day. Right now at this point, I come to the course kind of wondering if I'm going to play, and if I do, how I'm going to play.
So that's difficult mentally, but I've just got to suck it up. This is a big week. I've tried to conserve my energy as much as I could last week and early part of this week, because I know this week's going to be mentally and physically a little bit tougher for me to get through. But sometimes when you're at that point, you really test yourself and you can do some great things.
Q. Assuming you are 100 percent healthy next season, is there anything you can take from this experience mentally that might be beneficial for your career moving forward?
JASON DUFNER: Not mentally. Like I said earlier, I think it's kind of a wake up call that I need to do a better job with my health. I'm getting a little bit older. People don't realize that I am 37. I'll be doing this, it will be my 15th year next year. I've been taking a look at that and I've had a lot of discussions with people on my team about a better plan to get in better shape so I can be out here and be competitive, because it's no fun not being competitive because of your health. If you don't have your health, like I said earlier, we've seen a lot of examples of that recently, you're no good to yourself to be out here.
Q. Following up on that, when you talk about a need to be in better shape, do you just not think that you've done enough physically away from the course, too?
JASON DUFNER: Probably not.
Q. Why do you think that?
JASON DUFNER: Well, you can take a look and see. It's not that hard.
Q. Also, too, how frustrating obviously with what happened a year ago, a great triumph in your career and to have this where I'm sure you would have loved to carry that momentum and be kind of relishing that and playing well in majors, and following up on that a little bit, how tough is that to deal with?
JASON DUFNER: Not really. I don't really think about it like that. I just want to be healthy. I want to play good golf. I want to be able to practice. I want to be able to be competitive. I think that's the biggest thing for us out here. Most of the guys out here are pretty competitive in everything they do. So to come out here and not feel like you can be competitive, that's discouraging. But as far as missing opportunities or playing poorly, it's not too big of a deal to me. I just want to be able to do what I do and do what I love to do.
Q. There are obviously a lot of difficult holes out there. Would you mind pinpointing two of them and saying why you find them difficult.
JASON DUFNER: Well, I've only seen nine of them, so that's a short list. I think the sixth hole comes to mind from what I saw yesterday. Not really a hole you can hit driver on, 490. That's a tough go. The green is pretty tough, well bunkered there on the left. So 6 I think is going to be tough. 2 looks pretty tough. That hole looks pretty narrow. It's a converted par-5. So on the front nine, 2 and 6, I would say.
Q. 7, would you go down the side?
JASON DUFNER: Definitely. It's the only chance to get there. I'm not long enough to get there going down the right and it's pretty wide over there.
Q. I know you're a racing fan so it's just striking me, if you were a race horse, would you be scratched by the veterinarian, the state vet before
JASON DUFNER: I don't know about that. I've not been to the point at any moment this year of withdrawing or walking off the course or feeling like I couldn't play. Like I said, the pain is just a state of mind. You can get through that. You can deal with that. I've never been in an amount of pain where you've got to pick me up off the ground. But it's been discouraging. I know that I'm not swinging the way I would like to swing and I'm limited in what I can do. That's the nice thing about golf, we can scratch ourselves and I haven't come to that point and I don't have anybody else making those decisions. I'll play at least 36 holes this week and we'll go from there.
Q. I missed it; how did you hurt yourself to begin with?
JASON DUFNER: It's just an arthritic, degenerative issue that I'm probably going to be dealing with for a good bit. Like I said earlier, if I can get six to eight weeks of a strength, rehab, resting program, I feel like I can get better. But it's just something that's not going to change. I'm going to have to deal with it.
Q. How often do you think back to last year at Oak Hill, and when you do think back, what comes to mind?
JASON DUFNER: Occasionally. You know, coming in this week, I thought about it a little bit. They had the Champions Dinner and they make you present a speech and talk about what your year has been like, so I had to think about it a little bit about it then. You see little bits and pieces on television or the Internet and people say things to you through Twitter and stuff like that.
I'm not the type of guy that sits back on the couch and reflects about much. The things I think about, it's just how great of a week it was, that fit for me. I love Oak Hill. I've loved Oak Hill since I played the '98 U.S. Amateur there; how good my game was at that point, just coming off a great week at Firestone. I think I finished fourth. I felt good about my game. The course was a good fit. And to go out there and play as well as I did that week, I think that's a pretty neat experience and something that I'll always remember.
Q. So I'm up this morning watching the Golf Channel and I see your nachos and cheese. Is that going to be eliminated from the menu and what will you be doing for nutrition?
JASON DUFNER: That's just something I did a couple of months ago with the Funny or Die people. They invited me to come out. Obviously I can't remember the last time I made nachos in a microwave to be honest with you. Yeah, that will be something I look at, some stuff that we've talked about to try and be healthier, make better decisions, lose some weight so that I can be competitive and not feel so terrible like I do now.
MODERATOR: Separate from the injury, what's it been like over the last year to be the PGA champion and do the things you've been able to do?
JASON DUFNER: The most important thing, and I shared this last night, didn't really change me as a golfer, didn't really change me as person, I didn't feel like I was a better player or I needed to play at a different level. The most important thing to me was how important it was to other people and how important it was to people that I didn't know, how it inspired them and encouraged them and changed people's lives, to be honest with you.
Then the platform that I've had because of that. We've done some great things in Alabama, specifically Auburn, Alabama with our Foundation through partnerships. I really believe because of playing the game of golf and winning the PGA Championship and being the PGA Champion, I've had a better influence to try and change lives. That's the most important thing, and I think going forward for me, that's the biggest thing that I can do with being able to win a golf tournament of that magnitude is to continue to change lives; to continue to encourage people and inspire people to do better things with their life.
MODERATOR: PGA Champion, Jason Dufner, thank you very much.
The transcript for the above interview is courtesy of ASAP Sports.