Jeff Rude’s “Hate To Be Rude” column appears on Golfweek.com on Wednesday.
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FORT WORTH, Texas – And so golf has a new worldbeater, one who takes long and slow waggles, plays like he has no pulse, hates putting and strikes a golf ball so well that his caddie says, “You don’t even have to watch where it goes.”
In simple terms, Jason Dufner has figured it out, save perhaps that putting part. He has gone from someone who had trouble closing to a guy in full bloom. Early in the year, people talked about his weekend scoring average being high. Now they’re talking about him as a player whom you want on the Ryder Cup team and a good candidate to win the U.S. Open.
No one in golf is hotter. In a span of 22 days, Dufner sandwiched his first two PGA Tour victories around his wedding. As he said, you can’t dream it up better than that.
Dufner has improved his swing while working with renowned instructor Chuck Cook the last three years and has improved his mental game through the school of hard knocks. He talked after the third round of this year’s Transitions Championship about battling “mind games” in Tour final rounds. He used the words “mind games” multiple times that night and then fell back into a tie for 10th the next day.
He slipped into ties for 15th and 24th, respectively, at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and Masters after shooting 150 on each weekend. He might look like the ultimate laid-back player, even a flatliner, as he strolls around the course, but admittedly there’s more churning inside than would appear on the outside.
Still, Dufner, 35, has learned how to scale the mental hurdles, as shown by the victories at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans and the HP Byron Nelson Championship.
He attributes his late-blooming to the fact he didn’t have a great junior or college career. He hadn’t learned to win back then, so he figures it has taken him longer than some.
Even now that he has crossed the finish line first twice in the past month, he says nerves still flare.
“Everyone out there struggles inside,” he said here at the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial. “Even if you’ve done it a couple of times, it’s a struggle. It’s all mental at this stage.”
He doesn’t sound like someone who plans to rest on his laurels and take things for granted. At this point, all he needs to do is change nothing and do the same things.
Remarkably, in his last eight Tour starts, he has held at least a share of a round lead 10 times. Little wonder that he says he feels comfortable on course, in control of his game and cooler under pressure.
“It’s just a combination of a lot of hard work and some patience and understanding of what guys do well to play well or what I might do to play well,” Dufner said in explaining his rise. “It surprised me a little bit that I’ve won two in three weeks, to be honest with you. But I’m not surprised I could play at this level.”
Incredibly, he won the Nelson despite having six three-putt greens over 72 holes. That’s right, six. That’s almost unheard of for a Tour winner. That tells how good his ball-striking has become since Cook has helped him square the face better at impact and get rid of a blocking motion to the right on the through swing.
“I couldn’t thank him enough for what he’s done to help me get to this point,” Dufner said of Cook, who has worked with the major-champion likes of Tom Kite, the late Payne Stewart and Corey Pavin. “He has been a big part of all this.”
That Dufner won Sunday with such putting problems tells how precise his shot-making was. The numbers concur. He ranked first in greens in regulation and second in driving accuracy at the Nelson.
“He’s always looked that good,” said 2006 U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy. “On top of that, he seems to have the perfect demeanor.”
Zach Johnson, the 2010 Colonial winner, agreed. Johnson said he has never seen a more laid-back Tour player in competition.
“He doesn’t look like he’s trying to grind,” Johnson said. “He’s just always in rhythm with the way he walks, talks and swings.”
Until he broke through and won in his seventh Tour season, Dufner had racked up 18 top 10s, including three seconds and two thirds. He climbed to 33rd in earnings in 2009, then to 21st last year, when he lost a PGA Championship playoff, to third at the moment.
His goals now are not outcome-related; rather they are to keep trying to improve his putting and “emotional side.”
At this point, the putting would seem to need the most work. He ranks 122nd on Tour in putting (strokes gained), clearly his least favorite part of the game.
“I think a lot of the issues with my putting probably stem more from my attitude toward putting, to be honest,” Dufner said. “I’m not crazy about being on a putting green. I don’t like practicing it. I don’t like it in tournaments.”
He spoke those words here at the so-called Hogan’s Alley. And in doing so, the terrific ball-striker sounded somewhat like Ben Hogan, also no big fan of putting.
So Dufner knows it’s time to fix the outlook.
“That’s probably 50 percent of my problem with it,” he said. “So I need to assess my attitude towards putting, and I think that would probably go a long way into helping me putter better.”