BROOKLINE, Mass. — Jonathan Dismuke was a hell of a golfer at Auburn and a national championship assistant coach at Texas A&M before he became Houston’s head coach, not to mention fast friends with a former Cougar named Jim Nantz.
In other words, Dismuke had seen it all in the game before he started caddying for MJ Daffue at the U.S. Open, or so he thought. Daffue (pronounced “Duffy”), a Texan by way of South Africa, was on the verge Friday of becoming more famous than any of the 200,000 or so Duffys who live in greater Boston.
He was the undisputed U.S. Open leader at 6-under after 27 holes, and the only member of the 156-man field to reach that number. In the post-World War II era, 6-under would have won the tournament or forced a playoff more than five dozen times.
That is where the 33-year-old Daffue stood as he started the second half of Round 2. He’d grown up watching countryman, idol and family friend Retief Goosen win two U.S. Opens on TV, staying awake until 4 a.m. on school nights. He’d been an anonymous mini-tour player and Korn Ferry minor leaguer, a no-status drifter who should’ve been known as “Mr. Monday” for all the qualifying he needed to do. He might’ve been this year’s Francis Ouimet, the caddie who lived across the street from The Country Club and toppled a pair of British greats in 1913 in one of the greatest upsets in sports history.
Dismuke knew Daffue as something entirely different six years ago — a completely broken man who had battled depression and financial woes after the 2013 death of a mother-in-law he adored, a woman who had tripped on a street before being struck by a car.
“He was really struggling personally from a mental health standpoint,” Dismuke told The Post. “He was in a dark place, asking a lot of questions that had no good answers.”
Dismuke allowed Daffue to practice after hours at his facility. One day, the Houston coach summoned Daffue, a former Lamar University star, into his office and offered him a solution to some of his problems in the form of a volunteer assistant’s job.
“Get off of you and get into others,” Dismuke told him. “If you serve others, it will change your perspective and you’ll feel better about yourself.”
It worked. Daffue started playing better and, far more importantly, started feeling better, too. “For a long time I was feeling sorry for myself, just thinking about what I need, how I can get to the next step,” he recalled. “The moment I stepped away and said, ‘OK, I’m going to start … helping these guys,’ I started feeling a little bit of self-worth, and everything changed. You feel good about yourself. You get out of depression, and you just focus on other people.”
That’s when Daffue started believing a day like Friday was possible. He wasn’t among the top 1,300 players in the world two years ago, and yet he entered this week among the top 300 and in possession, finally, of a PGA Tour card. If he hadn’t earned that card, he likely would’ve skipped U.S. Open qualifying to play another Korn Ferry event in pursuit of the necessary points. Thank heavens that didn’t happen.
On Friday, Daffue wanted desperately to savor the moment.
“Not a lot of people get to lead the U.S. Open by three shots,” he told himself. “Enjoy it. You’ve done a lot of hard work. It’s finally paying off.”
But his mind and his heartbeat were on the fast break. Daffue tried taking three sips of water before every shot, a few extra practice swings and a few extra deep breaths to slow down, but he found it hard to focus. He wasted his time calculating the yardages to the front of the green and to the pin.
“When you stand over a shot, you’ve already forgotten your front number,” Daffue said. “There are so many things going through your head.”
To complicate matters, The Country Club course is so lethal that Dismuke had nicknamed it “Bodacious” in honor of the old rodeo bull considered the most dangerous of all time.
“At some point it’s going to throw you off,” Dismuke said.
So yes, the back nine was reduced to a wild ride defined by brutal lies around bunkers, brutal stances in bunkers and amateur-hour chips and wedges out of the rough and sand. In the middle of it all, Daffue made the play of the tournament on the par-5 14th, a 288-yard four-wood shot off a hospitality deck with a fence to his immediate right and a tree and an army of cell phone-holding fans to his immediate left.
“I’m coming right over you, sir,” Daffue warned to a man 50 yards in front of him.
“What is he thinking?” Nick Faldo said on the air. “Fingers crossed everybody.”
Daffue hit a wonderful blast into the greenside rough. “That’s a bit of ‘Tin Cup’ there,” Faldo quipped.
Daffue screwed up the chip and bogeyed the hole anyway. On the 18th, he hit a dreadful bunker shot that left him with a double bogey and a score of 5-over for the back nine and 1-under for the tournament.
No sweat, Daffue maintained afterward. He called leading the U.S. Open, if only briefly, “an unbelievable feeling,” but added, “My goal is just to be the best I can be.”
Daffue said that he wants to contribute to the public dialogue about mental health, and that he wants to be an inspiration to those who struggle with depression. As a husband and as a father to a 21-month-old son, Daffue said he appreciates life and golf now “because I know what it feels like to be at the bottom.”
It was the opposite of what MJ Daffue felt after 27 holes Friday, when he stood tall on golf’s mountaintop and cherished the view.