By DAVID W. KEEN
One thing about talking to people on the PGA Tour — not the players, but the professionals from other walks of life who’ve found their way onto the tour in some capacity — they all have a unique story as to how they got here.
It’s no different for Jason Dufner’s strength and conditioning coach Jeff Wagner, who’s gone from gym owner to coaching a major championship winner.
“I played football in college and that was sort of my introduction to bodybuilding, then I competed for around 13 years,” says Wagner. “My dad was a big golfer, so I grew up with it, but I never had lessons or anything, I just sort of messed around with it, but once I started bodybuilding less and less, I started competing in golf more and more.”
Wagner says that it was Tiger’s ascent on tour that introduced fitness and condition to players in a meaningful way. When that happened, Wagner saw an opportunity to bring his two loves together as a new career.
“I sold the gym I owned, and crazy enough, I was telling people I was going to work on the PGA Tour and when people asked me ‘well, how are you going to do that?’ I really had no idea.”
As so often is the case, Wagner got his breakthrough via a seemingly random connection. Someone he knew who had helped with his gym’s financial statements dated someone who knew coach “Joey D” Diovisalvi, who was working with Vijay Singh at the time.
“When I got connected to Joey, he was kind enough to take me under his wing around 2004 while I got all my certification and eventually, around 2007, he would ask me to fill in for him at certain times and so I got to know some of the players.”
One of those players was Jason Dufner who, at the time, didn’t even have his PGA Tour card. When Diovisalvi decided to retire from working full-time on tour, Wagner says a few players he had been working with, including Dufner, asked him to stay on. Since then, despite the omnipresent jibes about Dufner’s fitness, his career has taken off noticeably.
“When Jason and I first met, one of the first things he told me was that working out was one of the last things he’d ever want to do, so for me,” says Wagner, “one of my biggest challenges has been finding ways to make working out enjoyable to help keep Jason consistent.”
It’s sentiments like that one that the amateur golfer can relate to and part of what has made Dufner a fan favourite. Wagner says that in 2010, the pair really began to see the results of a dedicated fitness routine and after losing the PGA Championship to Keegan Bradley, Dufner “kicked it 100 per cent into high gear.”
Wagner says that most of what the pair works on in the gym is focused on the body’s core and flexibility and making sure he remains stable through his swing.
“Jason is fortunate that he only has to worry about a few certain things because his swing is so efficient. He generates a lot of power simply through efficiency, but he’s one of the less mobile guys I’ve worked with so we’re always making sure we’re maximizing his flexibility.”
Wagner says one of the things working on tour has confirmed for him is the importance of tailoring a player’s routines to his individual swing and body.
“It’s really important to take what you believe as a coach and find the best possible way of delivering that to the player you’re working with,” says Wagner. “You can’t have a cookie-cutter approach or program — everyone has different needs and different personalities so it’s important not just to do an assessment of the swing and the body, but also the player’s mind.”
For Dufner, who like most of us isn’t dying to get into the gym, that meant finding ways of making working out fun or targeting his competitiveness and making gym work a challenge. The results have been a meteoric rise up the world rankings, from somewhere in the 600s to the top 25 and culminating in the 2013 PGA Championship victory.
“You know, we’ve become pretty good friends working so closely over the years and having watched him work and claw his way up the rankings, seeing him win a major was special. It was one of the highlights of my life and my career for sure.”
Wagner says he is acutely aware of how many guys, just like players themselves, can spend a career on the PGA Tour without having a major to their name and he is especially thankful for having been a part of the experience.
When asked about the importance of fitness on a player’s performance, and just what his influence brings to a player’s game Wagner says it’s more about fine-tuning than anything else.
“One of the things a lot of us coaches on tour always talk about is just how good these players are. I mean, they’d be phenomenally good with or without us, but after all it’s the body that swings the club and if your body can’t do certain things, you’ll never be able to maximize your talent.”
On the PGA Tour, where the world’s best are competing every week against each other, players have to do what they can to give themselves an edge. Coaches like Jeff Wagner, who is phenomenally talented and incredibly hard-working in his own right, are now an integral part of a player’s team.