Fowler, Dufner a contrast in success
Jason Dufner and Rickie Fowler are perhaps the hottest two players in the field this week at Colonial. After Dufner finally got his first tour win in his 164th start (in New Orleans), he added another victory on Sunday at the HP Byron Nelson Championship. As for Fowler, in his last three starts he tied for 10th, earned his maiden win at the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte, and finished T-2 at The Players Championship. There is a good chance these two Americans will be Ryder Cup teammates in September at Medinah (Ill.) Country Club.
Playing together this week for the first two rounds at Colonial, they might learn how well their games would mesh if U.S. team captain Davis Love III sent them out as partners. The coupling of their differences in style and comportment could bring a special congruence to their potential partnership in Greater Chicago.
Yet how each got to this place in his career is as interesting and complicated as what kind of chemistry the duo might have as Ryder Cup teammates. Dufner is a self-fashioned, 35-year-old late bloomer. He's a journeyman who walked on to the golf team at Auburn and was little-known even inside the very insular world of pro golf until his surprise showing at last year's PGA Championship in Atlanta. The Cleveland native went back and forth between the Nationwide Tour and PGA Tour before he finally settled down on the big stage in 2009 when he had six top-10s and earned more than $2.1 million.
The 23-year-old Fowler was an All-American at Oklahoma State and a two-time Walker Cupper and a Ryder Cup member in his rookie year on the PGA Tour. When he finally won in Charlotte, it was a relief to his legions of fans and to the insiders who had predicted from the outset of his pro career that he would be a big winner. While Fowler's ascent to the victory podium was like a 100-meter sprint, Dufner's rise was a grueling marathon. These two men seem to represent different poles of the development of the PGA Tour player: the early bloomer versus the late bloomer.
Stars who rose to prominence early in their careers -- such as Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Seve Ballesteros, Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods -- have dominated the sport for years. Sure, plenty of these prodigies have fizzled out by the end of their 20s, but the best of them get out ahead of the heap and stay on top for a long time. They have superior talent. Rory McIlroy and Fowler want to play that role for their generation.
In Thursday's first round at Colonial, Dufner will play with Matt Kuchar in addition to Fowler. Kuchar was an early bloomer who won a U.S. Amateur as a college student and then struggled on tour before rebuilding his golf swing a few years ago. Since then, he's become one of the most consistent players in the world. The 33-year-old former Georgia Tech star is a good example of an early bloomer who had a late bloomer phase in his early 30s.
The weathered players take a less glamorous and linear route, humbled somewhere along the way by some circumstance that put them behind schedule. Ben Hogan didn't win the first of his nine major championships until he was 34. Vijay Singh took 22 of his 34 PGA Tour wins after he turned 40. Late bloomers like three-time major winner Larry Nelson and 12-time tour winner Calvin Peete didn't play golf until their 20s, but they were two of the best American players of the 1980s. Nelson went 9-3-1 in three Ryder Cup appearances, including 5-0 in the 1979 matches. In the 1990s, no one better personified the late-bloomer tag than Tom Lehman, who won a British Open and had the 54-hole lead in three straight U.S. Opens.
Jamie Moyer, the 49-year-old ageless left-handed pitcher for the Colorado Rockies, has won 105 games since he turned 40.
All of these older athletes managed to have sustained success, but many seasoned veterans end up like Todd Hamilton.
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Hamilton was a 38-year-old stalwart on the Japan Tour when he finally earned his 2004 PGA Tour card after eight trips to Q-school. In his rookie year, he won twice, including the British Open at Royal Troon, where he beat a phenom, Ernie Els, in a four-hole playoff. Since that major victory, Hamilton has had just three top-10s and is no longer fully exempt to play the PGA Tour.
According to recent educational studies of struggling school-age students in reading, late bloomers are rare. The slow learners typically never catch up with the early bloomers, and the ones who do close the gap with their more advanced peers need early intervention. These talent-deficit kids must become very hard workers.
Dufner didn't start playing golf until he was 15. He was never the most talented player at Auburn, but he won three times in his collegiate career by working harder than anybody on the team. As a pro, he's taken on the tireless practice habits of his pal, Vijay Singh. Over the offseason, he dedicated himself to getting into the gym and eating better.
Dufner now expects to win and compete in major championships. He's in the same boat as Fowler, but as a grizzled veteran, Dufner doesn't have the same pressure to succeed as the California kid with the bright-colored clothes. Fowler has the pressure to be one of the great young American players, and he is expected to help fend off the international challenge to displace the United States as the center of the pro golf world. That's a hefty responsibility. Perhaps Dufner is in a better place, right in the middle of the action, but not burdened with the same kind of expectations.
Come September at the Ryder Cup, Dufner's everyman demureness and late-bloomer attributes could free him from the anxiety that comes with the patriotic ardor of the matches. But before those days arrive, he might soon become a U.S. Open or an Open champion if can continue working to narrow the talent gap between him and the early bloomers.
Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at email@example.com.
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