Red-hot Dufner keeps cool demeanor

By Will GrayJune 5, 2015, 9:59 pm

DUBLIN, Ohio – Even a barrage of eagles isn’t enough to break Jason Dufner’s poker face.

Dufner remains the PGA Tour’s most notable flat-liner, offering the same deadpan expression when he misses a cut and when he wins a major. Like a duck on a pond, he keeps his effort below the surface and guards everything else with care.

That trend has continued at the Memorial, where Dufner (66-67--133) is back on the leaderboard after months of injury and turmoil.

The closing stretch at Muirfield Village is as daunting as it gets, but Dufner carved it up during his second round. After a birdie on No. 14, he eagled the par-5 15th and followed with an ace on No. 16, holing a 6-iron from 208 yards. It was his fourth eagle of the week, already one off the all-time mark for a tournament.

His post-round reaction? Dufner-esque.

“I hit it pretty good,” Dufner said of his hole-in-one, “and it looked pretty good from my vantage point.”

Dufner did not speak with reporters after his opening-round 66, and instead offered statements to a Tour media official. On Friday multiple national media members attempted to ask questions, but Dufner gave answers only to select local media outlets.

Memorial Tournament: Articles, videos and photos

While an eagle-ace combo would be a highlight of many careers, Dufner appeared largely unaffected. In fact, he seemed like a man weary from running an emotional gamut over the last year.

Dufner withdrew from his title defense at the PGA Championship in August because of bulging discs in his neck, and the injury abruptly ended his season and cost him a spot on the Ryder Cup team. He said last summer that an end to his career could be near, and after the injury he made it clear that golf was taking a back seat to his overall health.

“I’m not really concerned about when I play again, to be honest with you,” Dufner said at Valhalla.

He returned in Australia after more than two months off, but he didn’t tee it up again in the U.S. until January. At that point, he was a man transformed – the bushy hair on display at Oak Hill was neatly trimmed, and he had shed nearly 30 pounds.

While his appearance changed, the results did not return. Dufner has slipped to No. 68 in the world ranking after starting the year at No. 38. He was 16th exactly one year ago.

Injuries, though, have not been Dufner’s only off-course battle. Over the years, he openly shared moments of his marriage on various social media platforms and his relationship garnered headlines in March when he and wife Amanda filed for divorce.

While the precise source of his regression is difficult to pinpoint, the fact remains that Dufner has been struggling. He went 11 straight starts this year without a top-15 finish before finally breaking through last week with an eighth-place tie at the AT&T Byron Nelson Championship.

Dufner shot 65-64-66 over the final three rounds in Dallas and has brought that momentum with him to his home state.

“Last week was a pretty good week. I felt pretty good about my game coming in here,” he said. “The practicing has been good, casual rounds, pro-am has been good. Usually that begets some good play out here in tournament rounds, so I’m excited.”

Jim Furyk played the first two rounds alongside Dufner, and the veteran knows what it’s like to deal with both a long-term injury and the frustrations that can arise when the results don’t immediately return.

“You think you’re just going to come back, and three weeks later you’ll be ready to go, but it just takes some time,” Furyk said. “His game looks like it’s really coming around, and it’s just hard for us to be patient. We all want it now.”

Always a tough emotional read, Dufner has done little to open up this week despite his on-course success.

His play, though, has him in contention for his first win since his major breakthrough nearly two years ago. Dufner trails David Lingmerth by a shot, a position that Furyk suggested could be even better based on his tee-to-green performance.

“I’ll say right now, he put a ball-striking clinic on these last two days,” Furyk said. “The fact that he’s only 11 under, he did make some putts but it could be whatever. He’s missed a bunch of 4- and 5-footers, and he could easily be well under par, more than what he is.”

The poker face appears unlikely to change anytime soon, but so too does Dufner’s spot on the leaderboard. And who knows, perhaps a victory that could signal the end of a difficult journey back to the top might be enough to warrant a smile.

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DJ: Kapalua win means nothing for Abu Dhabi

By Associated PressJanuary 17, 2018, 2:55 pm

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – Dustin Johnson's recent victory in Hawaii doesn't mean much when it comes to this week's tournament.

The top-ranked American will play at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship for the second straight year. But this time he is coming off a victory at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, which he won by eight shots.

''That was two weeks ago. So it really doesn't matter what I did there,'' said Johnson, who finished runner-up to Tommy Fleetwood in Abu Dhabi last year. ''This is a completely new week and everybody starts at even par and so I've got to start over again.''

In 2017, the long-hitting Johnson put himself in contention despite only making one eagle and no birdies on the four par-5s over the first three rounds.

''The par 5s here, they are not real easy because they are fairly long, but dependent on the wind, I can reach them if I hit good tee balls,'' the 2016 U.S. Open champion said. ''Obviously, I'd like to play them a little better this year.''

The tournament will see the return of Paul Casey as a full member of the European Tour after being away for three years.

''It's really cool to be back. What do they say, absence makes the heart grow fonder? Quite cheesy, but no, really, really cool,'' said the 40-year-old Englishman, who is now ranked 14th in the world. ''When I was back at the Open Championship at Birkdale, just the reception there, playing in front of a home crowd, I knew this is something I just miss.''

The Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship starts Thursday and also features former No. 1 Rory McIlroy, who is making a comeback after more than three months off.

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Kuchar joins European Tour as affiliate member

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 2:52 pm

Months after he nearly captured the claret jug, Matt Kuchar has made plans to play a bit more golf in Europe in 2018.

Kuchar is in the field this week at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and he told reporters in advance of the opening round that he has opted to join the European Tour as an affiliate member:

As an affiliate member, Kuchar will not have a required minimum number of starts to make. It's the same membership status claimed last year by Kevin Na and Jon Rahm, the latter of whom then became a full member and won two European Tour events in 2017.

Kuchar made six European Tour starts last year, including his runner-up performance at The Open. He finished T-4 at the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open in his lone European Tour start that wasn't co-sanctioned by the PGA Tour.

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Hot Seat: Rory jumps into the fire early

By Randall MellJanuary 17, 2018, 2:11 pm

The world’s top tours head to desert regions this week, perfect locales for The Hot Seat, the gauge upon which we measure the level of heat the game’s top personalities are facing ...

Sahara sizzle: Rory McIlroy

McIlroy won’t have to look far to see how his form measures up to world No. 1 Dustin Johnson at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

McIlroy will make his 2018 debut with Johnson in his face, literally.

McIlroy will be grouped with Johnson and Tommy Fleetwood in the first two rounds.

Players like to downplay pairings early in a tournament, but it’s hard to believe McIlroy and Johnson won’t be trying to send each other messages in this European Tour event in the United Arab Emirates. That’s the alpha-dog nature of world-class players looking to protect their turf, or in the case of McIlroy, take back his turf.

“When you are at the elite level, you are always trying to send a message,” Trevor Immelman said about pairings during Tiger Woods’ return at the Hero World Challenge last month.

And that was an offseason event.

“They want to show this guy, ‘This is what I got,’” Immelman said.

As early season matchups go, Abu Dhabi is a heavyweight pairing that ought to be fun.

So there will be no easing into the new year for McIlroy after taking off the last three months to regroup from the stubborn rib injury that plagued him last season. He is coming off a winless year, and he will be doing so alongside a guy who just won the first PGA Tour event of 2018 in an eight-shot rout. Johnson’s victory in Hawaii two weeks ago was his fifth since McIlroy last won.

“Mentally, I wasn’t in a great place, and that was because of where I was physically,” McIlroy said of 2017. “I feel prepared now. I feel ready, and I feel ready to challenge. I feel really good about where I’m at with my health. I’ve put all that behind me, which has been great.”

Sonoran Smolder: Phil Mickelson

Mickelson will turn 48 this summer.

His world ranking is sliding, down to No. 43 now, which is the lowest he has ranked in 24 years.

It’s been more than four years since he last won, making him 0 for his last 92 starts.

There’s motivation in all of that for Mickelson. He makes his 2018 debut at the CareerBuilder Challenge in the Palm Springs area this week talking like a man on a renewed mission.

There’s a Ryder Cup team to make this season, which would be his 12th straight, and there’s a career Grand Slam to claim, with the U.S. Open returning to Shinnecock Hills, where Mickelson finished second in ’04.

While Mickelson may not feel old, there are so many young stars standing in his way that it’s hard not to be constantly reminded that time isn’t on his side in these events anymore.

There has only been one player in the history of the game to win a major championship who was older than Mickelson is right now. Julius Boros won the PGA Championship when he was 48 back in 1968.

Campaign fever: Jordan Spieth

Spieth’s respect in the game’s ranks extends outside the ropes.

He was just selected to run for the PGA Tour Player Advisory Council’s chairman position. He is facing Billy Hurley III in an election to see who will succeed Davis Love III on the Tour’s Policy Board next year.

Spieth, just 24, has already made Time Magazine’s list of the “100 Most Influential People.” He made that back in 2016, with the magazine writing that “he exemplifies everything that’s great about sports.” Sounds like a campaign slogan.

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CareerBuilder Challenge: Tee times, TV schedule, stats

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 17, 2018, 1:10 pm

The PGA Tour shifts from Hawaii to Southern California for the second full-field event of the year. Here are the key stats and information for the CareerBuilder Challenge. Click here for full-field tee times.

How to watch (all rounds on Golf Channel):

Thursday, Rd. 1: 3-7PM ET; live stream:

Friday, Rd. 2: 3-7PM ET; live stream:

Saturday, Rd. 3: 3-7PM ET; live stream:

Sunday, Rd. 4: 3-7PM ET; live stream:

Purse: $5.9 million ($1,062,000 to winner)

Courses: PGA West, Stadium Course, La Quinta, Calif. (72-7,113); PGA West, Nicklaus Tournament Course, La Quinta, Calif. (72-7,159); La Quinta Country Club, La Quinta, Calif. (72-7,060) NOTE: All three courses will be used for the first three rounds but only the Stadium Course will be used for the final round.

Defending champion: Hudson Swafford (-20) - defeated Adam Hadwin by one stroke to earn his first PGA Tour win.

Notables in the field

Phil Mickelson

* This is his first start of 2018. It's the fourth consecutive year he has made this event the first one on his yearly calendar.

* For the second year in a row he will serve as the tournament's official ambassador.

* He has won this event twice - in 2002 and 2004.

* This will be his 97th worldwide start since his most recent win, The Open in 2013.

Jon Rahm

* Ranked No. 3 in the world, he finished runner-up in the Sentry Tournament of Champions.

* In 37 worldwide starts as a pro, he has 14 top-5 finishes.

* Last year he finished T-34 in this event.

Adam Hadwin

* Last year in the third round, he shot 59 at La Quinta Country Club. It was the ninth - and still most recent - sub-60 round on Tour.

* In his only start of 2018, the Canadian finished 32nd in the Sentry Tournament of Champions.

Brian Harman

* Only player on the PGA Tour with five top-10 finishes this season.

* Ranks fifth in greens in regulation this season.

* Finished third in the Sentry Tournament of Champions and T-4 in the Sony Open in Hawaii.

Brandt Snedeker

* Making only his third worldwide start since last June at the Travelers Championship. He has been recovering from a chest injury.

* This is his first start since he withdrew from the Indonesian Masters in December because of heat exhaustion.

* Hasn't played in this event since missing the cut in 2015.

Patrick Reed

* Earned his first career victory in this event in 2014, shooting three consecutive rounds of 63.

* This is his first start of 2018.

* Last season finished seventh in strokes gained: putting, the best ranking of his career.

(Stats provided by the Golf Channel editorial research unit.)