The Dufner dilemma: Love winning, hate putting

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Where is Jason Dufner least happy on the course? On the green.
May 23, 2012
Mike McAllister, PGATOUR.COM Managing Editor

FORT WORTH, Texas -- Consider it a bigger mystery than who shot J.R. Or the Loch Ness monster's existence. Or Kim Kardashian's popularity. For those following golf, it's a true headscratcher, difficult to comprehend because it defies logic, defies conventional wisdom. It goes against everything we've been told about how to enjoy a successful career on the PGA TOUR.

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Jason Dufner has won two tournaments within the last month ... and he doesn't even like to putt.

"I'm not crazy about being on a putting green. I don't like practicing it. I don't like it in tournaments," he said.

No, he's not kidding.

And so you ask -- how can a player who seemingly has such, well, contempt for one of the game's essentials keep winning tournaments? Isn't the ability to putt, especially in clutch situations, supposed to be the difference-maker?

That's not to suggest that only those who embrace the flatstick enjoy success on TOUR. Nor does it mean that those who struggle with a putter are flat out of luck. In 2004, Phil Mickelson won his first major but ranked 126th in Strokes Gained-Putting, the TOUR's primary putting statistic. In 2008, Padraig Harrington won two majors and Player of the Year honors, despite ranking 118th in putting.

But do you remember either one publicly acknowledging an outright distaste for putting?

That's essentially what Dufner did this week. Recall that less than 48 hours earlier, he claimed the HP Byron Nelson Championship by rolling in a 25-1/2 foot putt on the 72nd hole to avoid a playoff with Dicky Pride. Since 1983, just seven players have made longer putts on the final hole to win tournaments. It was as clutch a putt as you'll see.

For the guy who loathes putting, he had a funny way of showing it Sunday.

"I don't know why he says that," fellow pro Zach Johnson said. "But it's working."

Pride, who walked out of the scorer's trailer to watch the winning putt, was asked to assess Dufner's putting. "I only saw one," he said, "but I didn't like it."

The aspects of golf that Dufner enjoys the most is, well, everything else. He's accurate off the tee (sixth on TOUR). He's accurate with his irons (13th on TOUR). He's precise with his irons (fifth on TOUR). Swinging a club is the fun part for him; short pendulum strokes are pure drudgery.

While the 35-year-old is enjoying his breakthrough moment right now, perhaps it could have happened earlier in his career had he just embraced his bag's shortest tool. He was 0 for his first 163 TOUR starts before winning a month ago in New Orleans.

"It's not my favorite part of the game, which probably leads to a reason why it's not the strongest part of my game," Dufner said. "I need to find better ways to make that a bit less of a weakness or maybe even turn it into a strength."

Entering the HP Byron Nelson Championship, Dufner ranked tied for 117th in Strokes Gained-Putting, and in winning the event he actually dropped five spots and now ranks 122nd going into this week's Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial.

Dufner wins the HP Byron Nelson Championship

With this 25-foot putt, Jason Dufner won for the second time a month on the PGA TOUR.

Asked if Strokes Gained-Putting was a bit misleading from his standpoint, given that he's won twice in his last three starts, Dufner just shook his head.

"That stroke gained statistic is about as accurate as you can get," he said. "You know, at times this year I putted well. I thought I putted pretty good on Sunday at Byron Nelson. At times, I haven't putted very well.

"It's definitely something that I will continue to look at, continue to see and assess where I can get better with it."

Something he won't be doing, however, is experimenting with a long or belly putter.

The thought certainly has crossed his mind; last week during his practice session on the green, he took a 3-wood out and hit a few putts to get a feeling of using a long putter. But he isn't convinced that the switch would result in an improvement.

During the offseason, he was involved in what he called a "case study" in which he hit nearly 1,000 putts with putters of varying lengths, including a belly putter. The result?

"I didn't see any statistical evidence that proved that I putted better with it," he said. "So why use it?"

Quite frankly, Dufner knows that to improve his putting, he'll need to improve his attitude. "I just need to assess and think about my mental state and my attitudes toward putting," he noted. "I think that would probably go a long ways into helping me putt a little better."

Then again, maybe he shouldn't think about it at all. Maybe the rest of his game is so solid that he shouldn't deviate at all from his current approach. Maybe being a great ball-striker and a so-so putter is the formula that fits him best. Maybe feeling an aversion to putting isn't such a bad thing.

As long as he makes the clutch putts, the kind of putts that win tournaments, then why overthink things?

"His putting stroke to me -- I'm by far not a golf coach or teacher -- looks pretty simple," Johnson said. "... He gets out there, looks at the line and hits it. There's not a lot of thought going into it."

Not much thought. Even less enjoyment. But right now, lots of winning.

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