FORT WORTH, Texas – With a monsoon of respect to the other 70-odd players who will go through the motions on Sunday at the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial, Jason Dufner will begin the final round 1 up on Zach Johnson in the championship match. Everyone else will be vying for “B flight” honors.
Sure, the PGA Tour likes to go all 72 but these are the facts: Dufner heads out for the final lap at Hogan’s Alley looking to win his third event in four starts; in his last 34 rounds he’s led 11 times and, other than Johnson, he’s an eight-spot clear of the Colonial field.
If ever there was a need for the Tour to consider a 54-hole, 10-stroke rule this may be the week, but then there’d be just a six-some remaining for Sunday and even then it still would be a two-man race.
Dufner’s run would be Tiger-esque, if the guy in red managed four starts in between seasonal changes.
“If I shoot 9 under and he shoots 2 over . . . I’m right there,” figured one Tour frat brother, tongue firmly planted in cheek.
That’s not to dismiss Johnson, the 2010 Colonial champion who kept pace with Dufner despite a swing on the wayward side of balky.
“I think the wind kind of got to me. I got on my left side a little,” said Johnson, who posted a 65 despite hitting just 10 greens in regulation. “But I putted well and my chipping, my pitching, my sand game was tremendous.”
Johnson tied the match with an 8-footer for birdie at the fifth, drifted three back following birdies at Nos. 10, 11 and 12 by Dufner and cashed in when the Tour’s hottest player had an out-of-body experience and bogeyed Nos. 14 and 16.
Earlier this week Dufner hoped his solid play of late was good enough to attract the attention of U.S. Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III. We hate to go all Monday morning quarterback on Captain America, but DLIII should pencil in D-U-F-N-E-R atop his lineup card right now and hope good form has no shelf life.
At the club the “Wee Ice Mon” Ben Hogan made famous it’s historically apropos that a similarly endowed flat-liner would emerge as the even-money favorite.
If Johnson was fooled by Saturday’s gusts, Dufner seemed to feed off the challenge, hitting 14 greens in regulation and missing just five fairways. But ball-striking has always been Dufner’s specialty.
What has separated him from the Tour pack in recent weeks is a suddenly cooperative putter. Prior to last year’s PGA Championship, which he led until a late miscue opened the door for Keegan Bradley, Dufner began tinkering with his putting grip – weakening his grip and switching to an oversized grip on his putter.
“Putting for me has always been up and down,” said Dufner, who is seventh this week in strokes gained putting and posted 66 on Saturday. “The key has been more consistency.”
The results have been dramatic, with his Tour breakthrough coming last month at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans followed two weeks later with his second at the Byron Nelson Championship.
A victory on Sunday at Colonial would make Dufner the first player since Hogan in 1946 to win the DFW Slam and could move him as high as sixth in the world golf ranking according to the number crunchers.
Other than Woods, that’s high cotton, as they say in these parts.
One reflective caddie compared Dufner’s current run to that of David Duval when he won 11 times in three years after scoring his breakthrough in 1997 on his way to the top of the world ranking.
Comparisons to Duval seem inevitable for Dufner, who began his Tour career going 0-for-156 until his breakthrough in New Orleans. It’s a reality that’s not lost on Cook, who began working with Dufner four years ago.
“He’s always been a tough kid and wants to beat people. It probably had something to do with the fact that he hadn’t won much,” said Cook, pointing out that before New Orleans Dufner had five victories in his life (one junior title, two college victories and a pair of Nationwide Tour tilts). “He said, ‘I didn’t know how to win. I had to learn how to win.’”
Since then the curve has been dramatic, some would even say historic.
“Zach is in second and he’s got an eight-shot lead on third (place). I mean that’s something” said Ryan Palmer, a member at Colonial who is tied for fifth place at 5 under. “But if the wind doesn’t blow you can shoot 62 . . .”
But then wishful thinking only goes so far. Unless Dufner is rushed in for emergency Tommy John surgery following his ceremonial first pitch at the Texas Rangers game Friday night, Sunday’s shootout at Colonial will be a Texas two-step with Dufner, well, leading.