Dufner conquers nerves (he has them!) for first win

By April 30, 2012, 1:27 am

AVONDALE, La. – Jason Dufner stood over the putt – not even 2 feet – and didn’t move. What was happening? He had missed other crucial putts in other tournaments, but never one this short. What was he thinking?

'I was thinking, ‘Just don't miss it. This is for the win,’' he said. 'I hate to admit it but those thoughts creep into your head. I just wanted to stroke that putt like I would with one hand on a Tuesday round at your home club.' 

Instead, he rolled it in conventionally, and as the ball fell, so did his status as a winless PGA Tour player. Now he was Jason Dufner, 2012 Zurich Classic of New Orleans champion. Winner in a playoff over Ernie Els.

He raised his arms in what looked like more shrug than celebration. Dufner may appear to lack a pulse at times on the course, but he insists his heart races like anyone else’s. 

'There's a lot of nerves out there,” he said. “I know it doesn't look that way with me, but it's stressful when you're trying to win.”

'I don't know how long he can keep it up, that wall, but he's doing a good job so far,' Els said, laughing. 'Kind of reminds me of myself back in the day.' 

Dufner, 35, had taken at least a share of the lead into the weekend five previous times in his PGA Tour career, including twice already this season. Until Sunday, he had failed to seal the deal. 

'There's been a good bit of pressure, people asking, 'Why haven't you been winning? Why can't you close the deal?'' Dufner said. 'Friends, family, media and even people in my inner circle were asking. To get that off my back, maybe that will jump-start me and get me thinking that I can compete out here and win some of these things.' 

Shedding the label of best player on Tour without a victory, however, required overcoming his own nerves and a three-time major champion. 

Dufner and Els finished tied at 19 under par after 72 holes at TPC Louisiana. Each could have won by birdieing the par-5 18th hole in regulation, but both settled for par. Dufner’s was especially disappointing, coming after he had made two birdies and an eagle on the hole in the first three rounds. 

To get to the 72nd hole with a chance to win, however, Dufner first had to escape almost certain doom at the 16th. Tied with Els on the tee and with a 3-wood in hand at the short par-4, Dufner tugged his tee shot through the fairway and into a water hazard.  

Caddie Kevin Baile let his man process what had happened and what he needed to do to get up and down for par. 

'When you've got the fastest horse in the race, you don't mess with him at all,' Baile said. 'That was probably the only bad shot he hit all week.' 

Looking at bogey or worse, Dufner had an 83-yard wedge shot which he played safe to 45 feet right of the hole. Then he snaked in the par save. 

'It's unexpected, but that's what I tried to do,' Dufner said. 'I knew I had to do it. I had that putt last year for birdie, so I was comfortable with it.' 

Dufner’s fiancée, Amanda Boyd, welled up with tears as the putt fell. 

'I had just heard really loud cheers for Ernie on the hole ahead and thought it was for birdie,” she said. “Then with Jason looking like he was going to make bogey or double bogey, I had that all running through my head. When he made that putt, tears came to my eyes. It was so exciting.' 

On the first playoff hole, No. 18, Dufner reached in two but three-putted. He thought the tournament had been lost as Els stood over a 5-footer for the win.  But the South African missed.

'A good mentality to have is to think that somebody is going to make a putt like that. A lot of guys think that way,' he said. 'Obviously it didn't go in, so I felt like I had a second chance.' 

Playing No. 18 again, Els was forced to lay up after driving into a fairway bunker. Dufner found the green in two for a second time, nearly in the identical spot as the first playoff hole. This time, his lag putt came to rest safely past the cup. 

After Els missed a 15-footer, Dufner stood frozen over his tap-in, finally stroking it into the hole.

Els was disappointed not to win for the 19th time on the PGA Tour and punch a ticket back to the Masters, which he missed this year for the first time since 1993.  

'Disappointing to lose but all in all, I had a good week,' he said. 'I really felt shooting those four rounds in the 60s the way I did, was really nice.  Just came up short.' 

Other than the putt he missed on the first playoff hole, Els could not blame his putter. He did not have a single three-putt green in four rounds.

'I didn't hit a great putt on that first playoff hole. It was a better putt than I hit in Tampa,' he said with a laugh, referring to a putt he missed on the final hole of the Transitions Championship that would have put him in a playoff. 'But it wasn't as good as I wanted it to be.' 

Both players will skip Quail Hollow next week. Dufner will marry Boyd  in Alabama. 'It's a great wedding present for both of us,' he said of his $1,152,000 winner’s check. 'It helps paying for the wedding, which is more expensive than I thought. It's a bit of a gift for her and a bit of a gift for me.'  

The newlyweds, however, will not be able to get away until later in the summer. It's back on Tour in two weeks. 

'The honeymoon's going to be at the Players Championship,” Dufner said. “Ever been there? It's nice.

“They have an island green.'

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McIlroy, Scott have forgettable finish at Honda

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 22, 2018, 11:03 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Rory McIlroy and the rest of his group had a forgettable end to their rounds Thursday at the Honda Classic.

McIlroy was even par for the day and looking for one final birdie to end his opening round. Only two players had reached the par-5 finishing hole, but McIlroy tried to hold a 3-wood up against the wind from 268 yards away. It found the water, leading to a double bogey and a round of 2-over 72.  

“It was the right shot,” McIlroy said. “I just didn’t execute it the right way.”

He wasn’t the only player to struggle coming home.

Adam Scott, who won here in 2016, found the water on both par 3s in the Bear Trap, Nos. 15 and 17. He made double on 15, then triple on 17, after his shot from the drop area went long, then he failed to get up and down. He shot 73, spoiling a solid round.

The third player in the group, Padraig Harrington, made a mess of the 16th hole, taking a triple.

The group played the last four holes in a combined 10 over.

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Woods (70) better in every way on Day 1 at Honda

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 22, 2018, 8:40 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Consider it a sign of the times that Tiger Woods was ecstatic about an even-par score Thursday at the Honda Classic.

It was by far his most impressive round in this nascent comeback.

Playing in a steady 20-mph wind, Woods was better in all facets of the game Thursday at PGA National. Better off the tee. Better with his irons. And better on and around the “scratchy” greens.

He hung tough to shoot 70 – four shots better than his playing partner, Patton Kizzire, a two-time winner this season and the current FedExCup leader – and afterward Woods said that it was a “very positive” day and that he was “very solid.”

It’s a small sample size, of course – seven rounds – but Woods didn’t hesitate in declaring this “easily” his best ball-striking round of the year.

And indeed it was, even if the stats don’t jump off the page.

Officially, he hit only seven of 14 fairways and just 10 greens, but some of those misses off the tee were a few paces into the rough, and some of those iron shots finished just off the edge of the green.

The more telling stat was this: His proximity to the hole (28 feet) was more than an 11-foot improvement over his first two starts this year. And also this: He was 11th among the early starters in strokes gained-tee to green, which measures a player’s all-around ball-striking. Last week, at Riviera, he ranked 121st.

“I felt very comfortable,” he said. “I felt like I hit the ball really well, and it was tough out there. I had to hit a lot of knockdown shots. I had to work the golf ball both ways, and occasionally downwind, straight up in the air.

“I was able to do all that today, so that was very pleasing.”

The Champion Course here at PGA National is the kind of course that magnifies misses and exposes a player if he’s slightly off with his game. There is water on 15 of the 18 holes, and there are countless bunkers, and it’s almost always – as it was Thursday – played in a one- or two-club wind. Even though it’s played a half hour from Woods’ compound in Hobe Sound, the Honda wasn’t thought to be an ideal tune-up for Woods’ rebuilt game.

But maybe this was just what he needed. He had to hit every conceivable shot Thursday, to shape it both ways, high and low, and he executed nearly every one of them.

The only hole he butchered was the par-5 third. With 165 yards for his third shot, he tried to draw a 6-iron into a stiff wind. He turned it over a touch too much, and it dropped into the bunker. He hit what he thought was a perfect bunker shot, but it got caught in the overseeded rye grass around the green and stayed short. He chipped to 3 feet and then was blown off-balance by a wind gust. Double.

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But what pleased Woods most was what he did next. Steaming from those unforced errors, he was between a 2- and 3-iron off the tee. He wanted to leave himself a 60-degree wedge for his approach into the short fourth hole, but a full 2-iron would have put him too close to the green.

So he took a little off and “threw it up in the air” – 292 yards.

“That felt really good,” Woods said, smiling. And so did the 6-footer that dropped for a bounce-back birdie.

"I feel like I'm really not that far away," he said. 

To illustrate just how much Woods’ game has evolved in seven rounds, consider this perspective from Brandt Snedeker.

They played together at Torrey Pines, where Woods somehow made the cut despite driving it all over the map. In the third round, Woods scraped together a 70 while Snedeker turned in a 74, and afterward Snedeker said that Woods’ short game was “probably as good or better than I ever remember it being.”

A month later, Snedeker saw significant changes. Woods’ short game is still tidy, but he said that his iron play is vastly improved, and it needed to be, given the challenging conditions in the first round.

“He controlled his ball flight really well and hit a bunch of really good shots that he wasn’t able to hit at Torrey, because he was rusty,” said Snedeker, who shot 74. “So it was cool to see him flight the ball and hit some little cut shots and some little three-quarter shots and do stuff I’m accustomed to see him doing.”

Conditions are expected to only get more difficult, more wind-whipped and more burned out, which is why the winning score here has been single-digits under par four of the past five years.

But Woods checked an important box Thursday, hitting the shots that were required in the most difficult conditions he has faced so far.

Said Snedeker: “I expect to see this as his baseline, and it’ll only get better from here.”

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Players honor victims of Parkland school shooting

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 22, 2018, 8:36 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – PGA Tour players are honoring the victims in the Parkland school shooting by wearing ribbons on their hats and shirts.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School is located about 45 miles from PGA National, site of this week’s Honda Classic.

“It’s awful what happened, and anytime the Tour can support in any way a tragedy, we’re always going to be for it,” Justin Thomas said. “Anytime there’s a ribbon on the tees for whatever it may be, you’ll see most, if not all the guys wearing it. Something as simple and easy as this, it’s the least we could do.”

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The school shooting in Parkland, which claimed 17 lives, is the second-deadliest at a U.S. public school.

Tiger Woods, who lives in South Florida, offered this: “It’s just a shame what people are doing now, and all the countless lives that we’ve lost for absolutely no reason at all. It’s just a shame, and what they have to deal with, at such a young age, the horrible tragedy they are going to have to live with and some of the things they’ve seen just don’t go away.”

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Thomas' game on track for Masters

By Randall MellFebruary 22, 2018, 8:22 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Justin Thomas likes where his game is trending.

He said that on the eve of the Honda Classic.

With the Masters just six weeks away, that’s where trends are aimed as the Florida swing makes its start.

Thomas made another encouraging move Thursday to get his game ready for a chance at winning back-to-back major championships.

A 3-under-par 67 moved him a shot off the lead in the first round at PGA National’s Champion Course.

Thomas, who won five times on his way to winning PGA Tour Player of the Year honors last season, is feeling something special brewing as he seeks to claim his first title of this calendar year.

“I've been playing well all year,” Thomas said. “Just haven't had much to show for it. I feel like I'm close to reeling off a couple tournaments here. I just need to stay patient.”

Thomas put together a strong start playing in a pairing in front of Tiger Woods, a spot that comes with challenges, with galleries on the move setting up to watch Woods.

Thomas, who played with fans causing problems at Riviera last week, said galleries weren’t an issue.

The Honda Classic isn’t a major, but it looks like it will present the sternest test of the year so far.

The Champion Course is always a brute, but it sets up as a particularly grueling test this year, with Florida’s winter winds blowing briskly right from Thursday morning’s start.

“It was a very tough day out there, very windy, tough crosswinds,” Thomas said. “I was a little bummed to see that the weather showed a little bit more wind in the morning than the afternoom.”

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The course is also playing firmer and faster than it typically does.

Thomas, 24, confirmed how solid his ball striking is in a round of six birdies and three bogeys.

“The players know it's a tough golf course,” Jack Nicklaus said earlier this week. “It's going to be a handfull this week, with a dry golf course. This golf course plays much more difficult when it's dry ... and it's a little breezy.

“You're going to see some very interesting rounds. You might hear a couple complaints.”

Not from Thomas, who lives in nearby Jupiter.

“Any time you're even or better on this course, on a day like today, was definitely positive,” he said.

Thomas’ 67 is confirmation his game is shaping up for the test at Augusta National, where he will be looking to add a green jacket to the Wanamaker Trophy he won at the PGA Championship last August.

“I love where my game is trending for Augusta,” Thomas said Wednesday. ”I feel like I'm getting, just very, very slowly, better every week ... I'm improving on the things I need to improve on.”

A victory would be the ultimate confirmation he’s getting major championship ready.

“I'd like to have a chance to win one of these next three events before Augusta,” he said.

Thomas is coming off a tie for ninth at the Genesis Open last week. He was T-17 at the Waste Management Phoenix Open before that and T-14 at the Sony Open before that.

Thursday’s round heated up with Thomas making four birdies in the middle of the round. He chipped in for birdie at the seventh (his 16th hole of the day) to get to 4 under before making bogey at the difficult 17th, where he just missed the green short playing into the wind and left his chip 20 feet short.

“I hit probably one of my better shots in the Bear Trap, that just ended up in a horrible lie,” he said.

Thomas headed home eager to keep his promising trend going.

“It's definitely a little better feeling going to sleep and waking up in your own bed,” Thomas said.