This pro didn’t even plan on playing the U.S. Open. Now he’s a shot off the lead

MJ Daffue shot three-under 67 at The Country Club on Thursday.

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BROOKLINE, Mass. — MJ Daffue stepped to the lectern inside the interview area behind The Country Club‘s massive yellow clubhouse and shielded his eyes from the lights shining back at him.

“Well this is new,” he said with a laugh as he prepared to take questions following his opening-round 67 at the U.S. Open. That the 10-year pro would be noteworthy enough to garner a stop in the media parade at a major was unlikely for more than one reason.

For starters, Thursday was Daffue’s (pronounced “Duffy”) first start in one of golf’s Big Four events. He’s a career mini-tour grinder who’s only just recently started playing regularly on the Korn Ferry Tour. Guys like that don’t often speak to a media scrum at majors.

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The even more unlikely reason for Daffue’s media appearance is that he didn’t even plan on being here a month ago. In fact, just a week before final qualifying for the 122nd U.S. Open, the South African wasn’t even planning on showing up to the qualifier.

As a Korn Ferry Tour pro, he was focused on trying to lock up his PGA Tour card. If he played the qualifier and got through, it would take a KFT event off his schedule, which would mean one less chance to earn points. There may be more prestige at the national open, but big-tour performance has no bearing on securing a card via the KFT — it’s all about points.

Consider Taylor Montgomery as a cautionary tale. He competed in last summer’s U.S. Open after advancing through a qualifier, and ultimately made the cut, finishing T57. But he had to skip a KFT event to do so. Come year’s end, he missed out on earning a Tour card by 17 points. If he’d teed it up in the Wichita Open instead of the U.S. Open, he would’ve almost certainly garnered enough points for a Tour card.

These are the calculations up-and-comers have to make when the U.S. Open comes around each year. Make the wrong decision, and it can — quite literally — change the trajectory of your career.

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Daffue didn’t want to be the 2022 version of Taylor Montgomery. So, he planned on skipping the qualifier altogether and spending the third week of June in Wichita.

But the week before U.S. Open final qualifying, Daffue finally summited the mountaintop. On the strength of back-to-back third-place finishes on the KFT, the 10-year pro crossed the fail-safe points threshold to earn a Tour card. Suddenly, a run at the U.S. Open was back in the cards.

“I didn’t want to skip a week,” Daffue said. “But then I locked it up [in Kansas City], and I said, ‘Oh, I’m going to go do it.'”

He made the right call. Teeing it up among one of the strongest qualifier fields in the country, Daffue tied for medalist honors at Springfield Country Club in Ohio, shooting eight under over 36 holes to earn a tee time at The Country Club.

“Sometimes you have to go this way to end up in the right place,” he said. “And that’s kind of what happened.”

Daffue arrived in Brookline this week having never teed it up on such a stage, but that doesn’t mean he was intimidated. Far from it, in fact.

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As a career grinder, the 33-year-old is a regular on the Monday-qualifying circuit — and he’s become quite comfortable with playing for his livelihood. He’s gotten through 12 of his last 20 Monday qualifiers (an absurd success ratio) and he’s taken that mindset from Mondays at the goat tracks to a Thursday at one of the finest clubs in the world.

“[The] pressure when you don’t have any status and you are playing a Monday qualifier — that’s a lot more pressure,” he said. “It really taught me to make a lot of birdies.”

Daffue did just that in Round 1 at Brookline. He carded six birdies (tied for tops in the field) playing in the gusty afternoon wave, and his 67 leaves him just a shot off the lead heading into Friday.

It all goes back to securing his Tour card just a month ago.

“Now I’ve finally this week probably started feeling the freedom,” he said. “I’m, like, I secured my card next year, and maybe I can go for a few more things that I would never have.”

You can put being in contention at a major championship at the top of the list.

Golf.com Editor

Zephyr Melton is an assistant editor for GOLF.com where he spends his days blogging, producing and editing. Prior to joining the team at GOLF.com, he attended the University of Texas followed by stops with Team USA, the Green Bay Packers and the PGA Tour. He assists on all things instruction and covers amateur and women’s golf.