Dufner reminds that major pain invariably prefaces major gain

WM Phoenix Open - Round One



Jason Dufner’s PGA Championship victory proved once again that to win spectacularly at most anything, you had to have failed spectacularly.

I don’t know if influential psychiatrist Carl Jung played golf, but his quote “There is no coming to consciousness without pain” is quite appropriate in appreciating Jason Dufner’s win in the PGA Championship.

While some may argue Dufner appears to be barely conscious when he plays, he’s suffered lots of pain: his parents divorced when he was young and he lost his father to cancer in his mid 20s. Blowing a four-shot lead with four holes to play in the 2011 PGA and losing a playoff was shattering for the 36-year-old from Cleveland.

Winning the PGA for his first major Sunday was sweet redemption for Dufner, and certainly serves as a reminder that losing painfully is a passage to finally breaking through. More to the point, the first few times that a player has victory within his grasp, he invariably blunders away the biggest championship of his life.

In nearly every endeavor, from business to sports to love, enduring adversity and heartache is an unavoidable part of the journey to getting what you want in life. (I’m hoping the Leafs’ Game Seven meltdown last spring was their painful major moment.)

Some learn from the experience and go on to win a major, such as Curtis Strange, Tom Watson and Rory McIlroy. Some never did, such as Scott Hoch, Jean Van de Velde and Doug Sanders. (Of course, Tiger Woods and John Daly are exceptions, but they went through their trials by fire later, proving perhaps that everyone has their time.)

Well before Sunday, Dufner had become almost mythic for the way he appears to zone out on the golf course. An image taken during a visit that Dufner made to a school went viral, inspiring a new verb ‘Dufnering.’ His tangled mop of hair, blank face and paunch imbue him with a wonderful dorkiness. He looks like a guy perennially on the outs with the in-crowd.

Even that wonderful waggle, more like a baseball player than a golfer, was an acquired taste for most. (But oh, how it prefaces such a marvellously fluid swing.)

But Dufner experienced significant loss–the worst kind for a young person; first, your family shatters and then your father—the most important man in your life—dies. Compared to that, fumbling away a golf tournament is no a big deal, but losing the 2011 PGA did steel him for his coming battle with himself in this year’s fourth major.

Despite the blank exterior, his jangled interior was exposed a few times on the weekend, notably some wonky putting strokes—he’s the first major winner in a while who had some obviously yippy moments. (He also threw his misbehaving driver around on the 18th tee deck Saturday, which CBS oddly refused to acknowledge).

Dufner’s redemption certainly bears out the wisdom preached by my favourite cartoon dad who repeatedly told Calvin that most anything difficult “builds character.”

Indeed, adversity is good for us. For recent examples, there’s Adam Scott winning this spring’s Masters for his first major after squandering a four-stroke lead with four to play in the 2012 Open Championship. Or the Chicago Black Hawks who came back from 3-1 deficit against Detroit in the Western Semifinal to win the 2013 Stanley Cup.

When you jump to a higher level of anything, everything is amped up. At the 1995 Ryder Cup—ironically enough at Oak Hill, site of Dufner’s weekend win–TV analyst Paul Azinger said your body is suddenly different than you have ever felt it before. In describing the pressure of the Ryder Cup event, Azinger said: “Your fingers feel like they are on fire, and you can feel your pulse in your eyeballs.”

If you’ve never experienced anything remotely close to that before, it’s nearly impossible to fully draw on your skills. Your brain and body are in fight-or-flight mode.

Thus, the athlete, actor, business person—whoever—usually fails in his or her first few experiences at a higher level. But history shows that champions put the painful emotions behind them, and focus on what they learned from the experience.

Jason Dufner is the latest champion to remind us that to win a major—whatever a major is for you—you’ll likely lose one first.

Picture Credit: PGA Tour

About Tim O'Connor

Tim O'Connor is a golf coach, an award-winning writer, and speaker. Tim takes a holistic approach, coaching golfers in the physical and mental aspects of golf. He co-hosts the Swing Thoughts podcast with Howard Glassman, and is the author of The Feeling of Greatness: The Moe Norman Story. He plays bass in CID—a Guelph punk band!