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Daffue, Hardy Flirt With Lead, Rare Turn in Spotlight

June 17, 2022 Brookline, Mass. By Dave Shedloski
MJ Daffue joined the gallery on Friday at The Country Club, hitting a shot from the carpet of a hospitality tent on the 14th hole. (USGA/James Gilbert)

There are always guys who crash the party, players who are not well known, who perhaps haven’t shown the fullness of their abilities, but somehow rise to the occasion when confronted with a demanding test of golf.

You’ve heard of Scott Scheffler, Rory McIlroy and Sam Burns, all of whom occupy a place on the leader board in the 122nd U.S. Open. As well they should, as players ranked in the top 10 in the world. 

Nick Hardy and Matthys "MJ" Daffue, both of whom emerged from final qualifying in Springfield, Ohio, are far from no-name individuals – at least not among the golf cognoscente. But the average fan likely doesn’t know much about them if anything at all. And that’s OK. You don’t become somebody until you’ve done something.

Hardy and Daffue definitely did something on Friday at The Country Club. Each held a share of the lead during Round 2 of the U.S. Open.

Hardy, who actually was the first alternate out of Springfield and the first “extra” player to get into the championship, managed his game sufficiently in the gusting morning winds to shoot 2-under-par 68. That tied his low round in this championship, in this, his fourth start. When he got up and down for par on the ninth, he owned a share of the clubhouse lead at 3-under 137 with none other than Scheffler, the reigning Masters champion and world No. 1 player.

Daffue, the co-medalist at Springfield Country Club with Brian Stuard, played his front nine in 3 under and opened up a three-stroke lead before a series of wayward shots – amid one quite extraordinary one – brought him back to the pack, not to mention back to earth. Still, despite closing with a double bogey at 18, the South Africa native had a respectable 72 and stood at 1-under 139.

“Back nine was disappointing. Did the simple things really bad,” said Daffue, 33, who is making his championship debut. “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! So, taking everything out of the equation, just being happy where I am and still in it with two really good rounds.”

Daffue, a Lamar University product who is enjoying a strong season on the Korn Ferry Tour with a runner-up finish and two thirds, is a sure-fire candidate for sports highlight reels after his approach from the raised platform in front of a hospitality area. He had hooked his tee shot at the par-5 14th onto the terrace, and his ball caromed off a temporary bar and settled near a tree around which the platform had been installed. He opted to hit his next from there rather than drop into deep rough. With 278 yards uphill to the front of the green, he chose a 4-wood and caught it clean. It sailed up the hill, over a tall tree and settled in the left rough, just past hole high.

He flubbed his third, however, and couldn’t get up and down to save par. “The thing about that is it's got a little bit of spring in it, so even if you hit a little bit behind it, the club actually bounces into the ball,” he said, explaining his thought process. “For me I was far enough left to actually miss the tree on the left. I think it was an awesome shot, but a birdie would have been better than a bogey.”

Last-minute alternate Nick Hardy is taking full advantage of his opportunity this week. (USGA/Kathryn Riley)

Coming home in 40 strokes wasn’t an indication that the moment was too big for him. From the places he played from – mostly sand and rough – it was about the best he could have done. From the places he’s been playing for much of his career, the results so far are more than acceptable.

“Not a lot of people get to lead the U.S. Open by three shots. I just told myself, enjoy it. You've done a lot of work. It's finally paying off,” he said. “Contending at a major where a few months ago I was just trying to lock up my card, I'm obviously very happy. I'm hoping in the future to have a lot more and getting more used to this stage.

“Being able to do what I want to do is play against the best … and lose against the best if I need to.”

Hardy is, ahem, doing both in his rookie season on the PGA Tour, which is all part of the learning curve for the former All-American from Illinois. He’s made just seven of 14 cuts with a lone top-10 finish in the two-man team event in New Orleans, the Zurich Classic. But he recently finished second in the Korn Ferry Tour’s NV5 Invitational, falling in a playoff to another U.S. Open qualifier, Englishman Harry Hall. 

Sure, his round wasn’t as entertaining as Daffue’s – and that’s sort of the point of the U.S. Open, in which steady play is often rewarded. “Really happy with how I'm driving the ball. It's key out here,” said Hardy, 26, who has needed to stay out of the thick stuff after he injured his left wrist in New Orleans and took a month off to let it heal. He hit 10 of 14 fairways on Friday and 18 of 28 overall while wearing a black wrap on his arm, gaining 1.69 strokes on the field.

A two-time Big Ten champion for the Illini, Hardy had just completed his second round at the RBC Canadian Open when he learned that the lone spot that the USGA was holding open for a player who might qualify from that event would go to the overall first alternate among the qualifiers, which happened to be him. He made the cut in his U.S. Open debut in 2015 at Chambers Bay while in college, finishing T-52 when he was 19 years old.

A pro since 2018, Hardy is ranked 371st in the world. While there have been some frustrations along the way, playing golf for a living has been a dream since a young age. In grade school, he wrote a letter to his father about playing golf and “becoming famous.”

Two more solid rounds and he will certainly fulfill that second objective.

“It's pretty cool. I mean, it's always been really my goal to be playing many U.S. Opens and winning U.S. Opens, ever since I can remember, as early as I can remember,” he said. “Just to be here now, I'm super thankful, super blessed to have this opportunity, and I feel like I'm ready for it.”

He’s never been in this position before. Why does he feel he is ready for it? Well, his coach at Illinois, Mike Small, once said that Hardy is the most positive player he ever coached. Attitude certainly will be huge going forward. That and finding fairways.

“I just feel like I have gotten better and better year after year since I was a really young kid. Maybe not as fast as I would like, but I kind of progress at my own pace, and I feel like I have understood that for a while now,” Hardy said. “I feel like I have enough experience under my belt to be ready to play well this weekend.”

Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based writer who frequently contributes to USGA websites.