Dufner quickly becoming a sure bet on Tour

Jason Dufner fired a 3-under 69 to sit in a tie for fourth after the first round of the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club.

Jason Dufner fired a 3-under 69 to sit in a tie for fourth after the first round of the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club.

AUGUSTA, Ga. – If there was a surprise to Jason Dufner’s start in just his second Masters appearance, it had nothing to do with the round of 69 to get him onto the first page of the leaderboard.

Hey, we’re talking about a first-round scoring machine here, a guy whose average score for his last four opening rounds is a sizzling 66.75.

No, the surprise was that he had company at the first tee – Charles Howell and Bernhard Langer, to be specific. Certainly, Dufner knew it was part of the tournament landscape, though it deviated from his week of preparation. The 35-year-old had played seven of the previous eight days at Augusta National, logging a total of 81 holes – two rounds of 18; five rounds of 9 – and for no other reason than he felt it provided a better feel of the course, “I played them all alone.”

Thrilled to have qualified for his second Masters, and determined to improve upon the share of 30th that he had in 2010, Dufner had no problem putting in all that work. He arrived here last Wednesday (March 29) and came every day to play until taking yesterday off.

Now such a steady presence doesn’t qualify one for membership at Augusta National, but neither was he going to turn away the opportunity.

“They didn’t tell me to leave, so I wasn’t going to leave,” Dufner said.

Truth is, he doesn’t have any intention of leaving from competitive view, either. One of the sure bets on the PGA Tour landscape of late is that Dufner is somehow going to thrust himself into contention. There was his bid to win last summer’s PGA Championship and already in 2012 he has two top 10s and four times has been within the top 15. What hits at the Dufner story, however, is the manner in which his tournaments have unfolded; he is, to say the least, still trying to figure out his weekend methods.

His previous two stroke-play events? Dufner is 19 under on Thursday and Friday, 6 over on the weekend. He got stuck in neutral and fell into a share of 10th at the Transitions, then shot a Saturday 77 to squander his chance at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

Dufner merely sees it as part of the process.

“Everything’s feeling good. I’ve had some really nice rounds this year, been playing pretty good, feeling more comfortable playing regular Tour events, feeling more comfortable in majors,” he said.

And whether it was playing for seven consecutive days here or the rhythm he’s been in of late, the Auburn product was ready when his 12:36 tee time rolled around.

“For some reason, it felt like when I stepped on the tee today that I was going to be comfortable and play well.”

To get himself into a share of fourth, just two off the lead, Dufner opened birdie, birdie, turned in 3-under 33, and sandwiched birdies on the par 5s, Nos. 13 and 15, around a bogey at the par-4 14th.

The start was particularly pleasing, since Dufner registered one of three birdies at the 455-yard first. It ranked toughest (4.379 field average), but Dufner couldn’t tell a fib. “I wasn’t flag-hunting,” he said of his 6-iron from 188 yards that came to rest a mere 5 feet from the hole. “The wind was kind of pushing it toward the pin for me.”

The bogey at 11 didn’t ruffle him, but the one at 14 was a bit disconcerting. He drove it down the left, “and you can’t do anything with it from there,” he said. But he reached the 15th in two, two-putted for par at 16, scrambled nicely to save par at 17 and made a rock-solid par at 18, which gave the field fits (4.295 average) and ranked third-toughest.

All in all, a nice day at an office that is feeling more and more comfortable by the hour.

But if you’re thinking that Dufner is stressing out about his inability to finish the job and earn that elusive first PGA Tour win, think again.

“I’m not too nervous about it. Maybe Sunday it will be a little bit more different,” he said.

“I’ve played in a good bit of these. Maybe I don’t have as much experience as some players, but I’m getting to the point where I feel good.”

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