Golf gives, golf takes. At the U.S. Open, MJ Daffue gets a taste of both.


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BROOKLINE, Mass. — In early 2000 in South Africa, 11-year-old MJ Daffue and his father played a round of golf with Retief Goosen and Goosen’s brother, leaving Daffue “awestruck” and primed for future utterances such as, “My life was changed that day.” At 12, Daffue sat up till 4 a.m. or so to watch Goosen win the 2001 U.S. Open at Southern Hills in Tulsa. At 15, Daffue sat up till 4 a.m. or so to watch Goosen win the 2004 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills on Long Island.

He would sleep through school on those Mondays — well, part of school.

Draw a line from there to Friday, and there came a brew of holy mercy and good grief. At 33, Daffue (pronounced “Duffy”) became the first player in this 122nd U.S. Open to reach 6 under par. He led the first major he ever tried by three. He had a golf community and a community of golf visitors around the Country Club waking up, noticing the front-nine 32 he crafted and saying, What the …?

At the head of the class was a guy who spent a good decade-plus banging around the golfing wilds, who has been a volunteer assistant coach at the University of Houston, who hopes to coach college golf someday, who planned to play the Korn Ferry Tour stop in Wichita this week to get points for his PGA Tour card but who snared that PGA Tour card in late May to make this possible. When a reporter asked Dustin Johnson whether there were any contenders whose names he had not known, the 2016 U.S. Open champion and all-around la-dee-da guy said, “I mean, the one guy that was leading for a little while, obviously playing well.”

Golf would not have this nuttiness for long, of course, so it would resume its centuries-old meanness. It would insist upon a back-nine 40 that left Daffue at 1 under. It would send him on No. 14 to a concrete path between a fence and a hospitality zone, and it would ask him to try to master that. (He did, actually, with a wow of an escape.) It would get him to No. 18 at the 3 under he held at his 6:56 a.m. tee time, and it would take him on a No. 18 horror tour with which any duffer would empathize. It included stops in tall grass in front of a bunker, then the deep gullet of a hungry bunker, then to some awkward space few go, back off the green beside a fence in grass too healthy to be helpful.

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“I would say I think I started losing focus on my clarity on my targets and how I’m envisioning my shots,” Daffue said. “I got a little quick in my process. That’s just obviously part of the nerves.”

By No. 11, he had made a mistake on the “number” (yardage) he wanted to hit.

“It’s just your thought process, too,” he said. “You think about your front number and the pin. When you stand over a shot, you’ve already forgotten your front number. There are so many things going through your head.”

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Goosen himself could nod from afar, seeing as how golf permitted him two U.S. Open titles and then, with a three-shot lead toward a third after three rounds in 2005 at Pinehurst in North Carolina, decided it might be time he enjoy an 81. Daffue, ranked 296th, had led the U.S. Open in early days, much like his friend Andrew Landry, ranked 624th, in 2016 at Oakmont in Pennsylvania. Goosen has been texting encouragement, and Daffue has been remembering not to forget to marvel.

“Not a lot of people get to lead the U.S. Open by three shots,” he said, proving he doesn’t shirk the leader-board-looking. “I just told myself: ‘Enjoy it. You’ve done a lot of work. It’s finally paying off.’” He just “did the simple things really bad,” he said. That happens, but: “You know, if you’d told me before yesterday I would be 1 under par in the top 15 after finishing my round today, I would have said yes.”


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