Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 24, 2012

Dufner Goes From Near-Miss To Can’t-Miss

For all of the understandable media focus on the rising generation of young guns on the PGA Tour, the hottest golfer on the planet right now isn’t Rickie Fowler, who recently won his first Tour event; nor is it fellow 23-year old Rory McIlroy, who has ascended to the top of the World Golf Rankings and who will defend his U.S. Open title next month in San Francisco. Rather the man whose game is on fire at the moment is a 35-year old who up until three weeks ago was building a journeyman’s career best known for its near-misses. But when he followed up his maiden Tour victory at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans last month with a win last week at the HP Byron Nelson Championship, Jason Dufner became just the second Tour player to record multiple wins this season.

It’s unlikely that anyone, possibly including even Dufner, saw this hot streak coming. He turned pro in 2000 after graduating from Auburn University, and spent three years on the Nationwide Tour before finally earning his PGA Tour card for the 2004 season. But he made the cut just eleven times in twenty-nine events and returned to the developmental tour after finishing far out of the top 125 on that year’s money list. He regained his PGA Tour playing privileges in 2007, and has remained on the big tour since. He recorded the occasional top-10 finish, and as many journeymen have, made a very good living without ever winning a golf tournament. At the start of this season he had earned more than $7.5 million on the Tour.

More than $1.5 million of those earnings came from two tournaments last year. He finished second at the Waste Management Phoenix Open in February, losing in a playoff to Mark Wilson. Then in August he seemed poised to claim his first victory at the year’s final major. On Sunday at the PGA Championship Dufner was in the final pairing, starting the day tied for the lead with Brendan Steele. An early string of bogeys dropped Steele out of contention, and Dufner appeared headed for victory when his closest pursuer, Keegan Bradley, made a triple-bogey on the 15th hole. Dufner was playing bogey-free golf through fourteen holes and had a five shot lead with just four to play. But he sent his tee shot on the par-3 15th into the water hazard to the right of the green. While he managed to get up and down for a bogey, that was the first of three consecutive holes that Dufner played over par.

Meanwhile ahead of him Bradley birdied the 16th and 17th to move into a tie. In the three-hole playoff that the PGA Championship uses, Dufner missed a short birdie try on the first playoff hole and then three-putted the second. Even when he birdied the final playoff hole, Bradley needed only a safe two-putt par to seal the victory.

While the $865,000 prize for second place no doubt helped ease the pain, that was the kind of loss that can haunt a player, especially one who has never won on Tour. Three weeks ago in New Orleans, Dufner again began the final round in the lead. There was no late collapse this time as he shot a respectable two-under par 70 to finish at 19-under; but he again found himself headed for a playoff, having once more been caught by a golfer playing in the group ahead of him. This time it was Ernie Els, who fired a final round 67 to force sudden death. But in his 164th start on the PGA Tour, Dufner happily found the roles reversed from what they had been the previous August. It was Els who missed a short putt that would have won it on the first playoff hole; and then got in trouble on the second, giving Dufner the luxury of two putts to win. Still he admitted after holing out that he took longer than usual over the final putt. Even though it was little more than a tap-in he needed to clear his head of any negative thoughts from his prior playoff disappointments.

After taking time off to get married to his long-time girlfriend, Dufner continued his hot play last weekend at the Nelson. He again led the tournament at the start of the final round, and recovered from a pair of early bogeys by making four birdies over seven holes between the 4th and the 10th. Once more he appeared headed for a playoff as once more a player in the group ahead moved into a tie for the lead. This time it was 42-year old Dicky Pride, whose sole PGA Tour win came almost eighteen years ago. But this time Dufner avoided extra holes and won in dramatic fashion, holing a 25 foot birdie putt on the 18th hole to beat Pride by a stroke. In the past three decades only seven players have won tournaments by making longer putts on the final hole.

That the ball should have found the bottom of the cup after being struck by Dufner’s putter is all the more remarkable, since he readily acknowledges that putting is his least favorite part of the game. The PGA Tour’s statistics back him up. A straight and accurate ball-striker, Dufner is regularly among the leaders in fairways hit and greens in regulation. But so far this season he ranks a lowly 117th in the Tour’s primary putting statistic, Strokes Saved – Putting. Even while winning at the Nelson he ranked 56th of 71 players who made the cut.

But sometimes, when a player gets in a certain groove, statistics become just so many numbers; and there is no doubt that Jason Dufner is in that groove. He’s already won more than $3.1 million this season. He could take the rest of the year off and it would be his most financially rewarding year ever. He’s first in the year-long FedEx Cup point’s standings, and third on both the money list and the U.S. Ryder Cup standings; making him a virtual lock to make the team that will take on Europe this fall. And he’s not taking the rest of the year off. At this week’s Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial, he opened Thursday with a 5-under par 65 to sit in a four-way tie for second, one stroke behind first round leader Zach Johnson.

The soft-spoken Jason Dufner may not have Rory McIlroy’s comfort level with the media or Rickie Fowler’s style; and in truth he doesn’t really have either of their games. But raw ability alone doesn’t always win out, and Dufner now has something that Fowler, McIlroy, and all the other 20-somethings don’t; multiple wins in 2012.

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