Wells Fargo leader Jason Dufner searching for greatness in twilight of his career

Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Wells Fargo leader Jason Dufner searching for greatness in twilight of his career

PGA Tour

Wells Fargo leader Jason Dufner searching for greatness in twilight of his career

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CHARLOTTE – If anyone can weather a slump, it’s Jason Dufner.

The guy isn’t about to go all crazy when his game goes to pot, isn’t about to let demons haunt him and scar tissue crush him when the golf course gets the best of him. It’s just not his M.O., for the man who gave the world the expressionless, slumped-over pose known as “Dufnering,” quietly goes with the flow.

But his serenity has been severely tested for more than a year now.

Once ranked No. 9 in the world, he’s fallen to No. 230. Since finishing in a tie for fifth in the 2018 Players Championship, Dufner hasn’t posted a top-10 in 22 starts, with his best finish being a tie for 21st in the 2018 Mayakoba Golf Classic.

In this futile stretch, he missed 12 cuts and earned world golf rankings points in just four events. In the 2018-19 season, he’s won $177,452 in 15 events. Heading to the Queen City for the Wells Fargo Championship, he’d broken 70 just four times in 22 rounds in 2019.

“It’s been tough,” Dufner said. “Golf’s a tough game. It’s a lonely game, it’s a frustrating game. This is my fourth caddie of the year so far. I think I’m on my fourth or fifth putter this year, I’m on my fourth or fifth driver, my fourth or fifth golf ball, fourth or fifth lob wedge. I’m trying to find stuff that’s going to work.”

Well, he’s found the right stuff this week at Quail Hollow Club. After opening with a 3-under-par 68, Dufner shot 63 Friday to move to 11 under and to the top of the leaderboard at the Wells Fargo Championship.

Dufner leads Joel Dahmen (66-66) and Max Homa (69-63) by one shot. Rory McIlroy, the only one to win twice at Quail Hollow, went double-bogey, bogey on his final two holes to shoot 70 and was five shots behind Dufner.

Through 36 holes, Dufner’s looked like the man who played on the 2012 Ryder Cup team and the 2013 Presidents Cup team – earning three points in each of the matches – and won five PGA Tour titles, including the 2013 PGA Championship and the 2017 Memorial, his most recent victory.

Through two rounds, he’s driven the ball superbly, made the most of solid iron play, taken care of business on the scoring holes, and gotten the putter hot. In Friday’s second round, he played the three par-5s in 4 under – an eagle on the seventh from 23 feet; a birdie on the 10th from four feet; and a birdie on the 15th from six feet. He also made a 40-foot bomb on 17 for birdie, and closed his round with a 10-footer for par. He made additional birdies at 1, 3, 8 and 14.

“Everything kind of meshed together,” Dufner said.

Nothing meshed when Dufner basically changed everything. At 42, he determined his window of opportunity on the PGA Tour is becoming smaller by the passing year. So last fall, he started making swing changes, putting changes, caddie changes, equipment changes.

“I’ve probably got three or four more really good years left in me, so I’m not really trying to be mediocre or average,” Dufner said. “I’m searching for things that are going to make me a better player and that’s what I felt I needed to do at the end of the year. I think change can be a good thing. Sometimes it takes a while to find the right fit and that’s just kind of where I’ve been at.

“By no means do I think that this is the end of me playing good golf. It may have looked like that to some people from the outside for the last 12 months or so, but I feel like I’ve got a lot of good golf left in me and I’m working hard at it and kind of getting situated.”

Dufner thinks he may have turned the corner two weeks ago at the RBC Heritage, where he tied for 63rd. He felt good about his swing last week when he and Pat Perez missed the cut in the Zurich Classic of New Orleans.

“For me being out here, being competitive, trying to win tournaments is where I want to be at,” Dufner said. “It’s been a while since I’ve been in the lead or competing for the tournament, but I know what that feels like, so it will be a good experience.”

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