By Mike McAllister, PGATOUR.COM
Jason Dufner and his putter have never been the best of friends.
Oh, they understand the importance of working with each other. Dufner realizes a considerable part of his livelihood is dependent on how his putter performs. If he needs any proof, just turn back the clock exactly one year, when he rolled in birdie putt of 25 feet, 5 inches on the 72nd hole to win the HP Byron Nelson Championship, a title he'll defend this week. Since 2003, just seven other TOUR winners have made longer putts on the 72nd hole.
Other golfers embrace their flatstick, treat it as family. But Dufner's relationship with his putter is strictly business, a means to an end.
Right now, business is not exactly booming.
Dufner enters the HP Byron Nelson tied for 153rd in strokes gained-putting, the TOUR's primary putting statistic. His problems on the greens have been the main reason he's failed to produce a top-10 finish in 11 starts this year. It's why he has dropped from ninth at the end of 2012 to 20th in the Official World Golf Rankings and ranks 76th in FedExCup points.
"Putting," Dufner said Wednesday, "is pretty much the issue every day that I play golf right now."
At no point has that been more evident than in Sunday's final round of THE PLAYERS Championship. Dufner was tied for 13th after three rounds but shot an 8-over 80 with three double bogeys to finish tied for 62nd. Amazingly, he never found the water at TPC Sawgrass, a near-impossible feat for that high of a score.
But when you three-putt twice in one round and five times for the week, the biggest hazard is not the water but the simple act of pulling the putter of your bag.
"Putting really kind of beats me down throughout the week of 72 holes," Dufner said.
"Even when I play good rounds, I feel like I've left numerous, makeable putts, so I've got to get better at putting.... Putting wears on me. Through the week when you're continually feeling like you're shooting the highest score that you can each day, that beats you up pretty good.
"I've got to figure out how I can putt a little bit better and that will lead to better scoring."
Even in the best of times, Dufner's putting has never matched his ball-striking ability.
In 2012, his breakout year in which he won twice and became an established presence on the leaderboard, Dufner ranked 80th in strokes gained-putting but second in ball-striking. His accuracy off the tee and his iron play were the main catalysts for his rise to prominence. He won the Byron Nelson a year ago despite ranking 56th in the field in putting.
Admittedly, his putter heated up during that two-month stretch in which he was arguably the world's hottest golfer -- winning in New Orleans, winning here in Dallas and coming in second in Fort Worth -- but Dufner knows what his track record says about his putting ability.
"I've struggled with it throughout my career," he said. "I think I'll pull through. It's just a little bit of mechanical stuff and then a little bit of just feeling better with it, seeing some balls go in the hole instead of missing."
Dufner thinks the pace of his putts need to improve, one of the things he was focusing on during a practice session Tuesday at TPC Four Seasons. He remains upbeat that he will find a solution, and perhaps returning to the scene of prior success will provide the jumpstart he needs on the greens. Maybe four solid rounds is all he needs to get over the hump.
But until it happens, his frustration level will remain high. Not that you'd notice it from his outward appearance; Dufner remains the same laid-back, sleepy-eyed golfer caught on the charity event photo that led to his Dufnering fame.
Just like when he was winning and showing little emotion, Dufner won't be seen muttering under his breath or showing much angst when his game goes off-kilter.
But on the inside, he’s seething.
"I've played a lot of rounds this year with frustration and anger on my mind," he said. "It's not much fun shooting 74s and 75s that kind of throws your tournaments off. I think you see that with a lot of guys out here.
"I haven't heard anything about people being able to notice it too much. I've got a good way of hiding the good and the bad. But there has been more anger and frustration this year than there was last year, for sure."
Blame the putter. It is not his friend, but neither can it be his foe. Dufner and his putter need to find common ground. Perhaps the 7,166 yards at TPC Four Seasons Resort will be the place that these two finally put aside their differences.