Putting holding Dufner back


IRVING, Texas – You can prosper on the PGA Tour for years without anyone noticing, make a couple million each season without winning a thing and bask in the splendor of utter anonymity. Not everyone wants to be famous. Some people like being invisible. Especially when it pays seven figures annually.

Then something happens, dadgummit, and the same guy wins a tournament. Then another. Then he wins a major. And now a lot of people know who Jason Dufner is, as his 380,700 Twitter followers will attest. The social media phenomenon escorted Dufner to the mainstream, making him the first and only Tour pro to gain widespread recognition for sitting on the floor of a classroom while looking bored out of his gourd.

Dufnering was all the rage for a bit, although the golf ball doesn’t seem to care about the success of your Twitter account or, for that matter, the PGA Championship you won last August. “When you need 33 putts a day, you’re not gonna shoot low numbers,” Dufner said Thursday after opening with an even-par 70 at TPC Four Seasons.

Full-field scores from the HP Byron Nelson Championship

HP Byron Nelson Championship: Articles, videos and photos

It certainly wasn’t a bad score, but like so many rounds he’s played in 2014, it could have been better. At the par-4 eighth, for instance, Dufner drove his ball into the left fairway bunker, hit a fine recovery shot to the center of the green and had an uphill, 35-footer for birdie. He left the putt 3 ½ feet short, then missed his par attempt.

When you hit 15 greens in regulation and get nothing out of it, you really don’t want to talk to some dude with a media badge and a notebook. Dufner’s understated demeanor and sarcastic chops explain why he is well-liked among his colleagues, but when it comes to explaining himself to the public, uh….

“Good players don’t play bad forever,” is how he put it.

He’s right, of course, but mediocre putters don’t play well all the time, either. Dufner’s lone top 10 in a full-field, stroke-play event this season came at Doral. His only missed cut occurred at the Masters, where poor putting comes with a very high price; the rest of his year is a collection of good rounds after bad and vice versa.

“Been a little bit of everything,” said his caddie, Kevin Baile. “He’s showing signs.” In other words, a player who went 163 starts before picking up his first victory isn’t all that different from the player who has won three times in his last 44.

At this same tournament two years ago, Dufner validated his emergence on the radar by winning the Byron Nelson just three weeks after his inaugural triumph in New Orleans. Baile received a new Cadillac as part of the winner’s package—Dufner had to make do with $1.17 million and an all-expenses-paid trip into the spotlight.

He made the 2012 U.S. Ryder Cup team and played very well (3-0), winning both his alternate-shot matches with Dustin Johnson and beating Peter Hanson in the eighth singles bout. At that point, you wouldn’t have been laughed at for thinking Dufner was becoming a better-late-than-never superstar.

In 2013, however, he was having a rather lackluster season (by his own admission) until claiming the PGA at Oak Hill. And at that point, an average year becomes a very good one. The purpose of all this background? Hitting the ball as well as Dufner does will make you a lot of money, but only good putters win consistently.

Since 2009, the only year Dufner has finished on the positive side of the strokes-gained ledger was 2012, the year he won twice. He finished 142nd in putting last year and is 167th in 2014.

“Nothing,” he said when I asked him what he was doing to improve his prowess on the greens. At that point, you didn’t need a translator to tell you he didn’t want to talk about it.