Wi, Dufner will battle the course, pursuers all week

March 22, 2012
Larry Dorman, PGATOUR.COM

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Just when it looked like the tough old golf course at the Bay Hill Club and Lodge might be in its most inviting mood in years, a hot, nasty little southeast breeze turned gustier on Thursday and roughed up a number of the players in the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard.

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One of the late starters -- Jason Dufner -- was unscathed by the ill winds of the afternoon, and fought his way into a tie for the lead with Charlie Wi at 6-under 66. Neither has won on the PGA TOUR and it might be a little early to suggest one or the other could hold on and break through for their first victory this week.

They led by two strokes over long-hitting Nick Watney and three strokes over a group of seven tied for fourth at 69. All the players in that group are bombers, including the current longest driver on the PGA TOUR, Bubba Watson. Then there's Tiger Woods -- who has won this event six times -- Anthony Kim, who appears to have found something in his game after going winless on TOUR since taking the 2010 Shell Houston, Jimmy Walker, the only other player in the first-round top 10 without a win, and Justin Rose, who won two weeks ago.

Multiple winners Sean O'Hair (4), who last won in 2011, and reigning PLAYERS champion, K.J. Choi (8) -- both of whom can go deep -- round out the top 10.

That's a whole lot of firepower for Dufner and Wi to be trying to stave off for three more rounds, especially with the added burden of going for their first win. Dufner is making his 161st start and Wi his 167th start.

If either were to pull it off, it wouldn't be the first time a relatively short-hitting, putting wizard has prevailed at Bay Hill, but it would break a long string of power players that began with Phil Mickelson in 1997 and has run right up through Martin Laird in 2011. Paul Goydos in 1996 was the last short-to-medium-length hitter to win here, following consecutive wins in 1994-95 by Loren Roberts.

Before counting out either of the co-leaders, there are a few things worth noting. Each has made some serious noise this season. Wi had the 54-hole lead and finished second at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-am a few weeks ago; Dufner has shot 66 in the opening round of his last three events, finishing T-29 at the World Golf Championships Cadillac Championship and T-10 at the Transitions Championship.

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Dufner, who grew up in Coral Springs west of Fort Lauderdale, has a few other things going for him. He'll be turning 35 on Saturday, so this could portend a happy confluence of confidence, a little birthday karma and a keen understanding of the vagaries of South Florida golf.

"Played a lot of good golf throughout my career in South Florida," said Dufner, whose loss to Keegan Bradley in a playoff at last year's PGA Championship also came on familiar Bermuda grass at the Atlanta Athletic Club. "I feel very comfortable down here. Obviously, I'm playing some really nice golf. I've held the lead at Doral; held the lead last week through two rounds."

Closing the deal is the issue, something Dufner recognizes and he dealt with upfront and unprompted in Thursday's press conference.

"I'm really happy where my game is," he said. "Just looking to close a little bit better on the weekend and try to close one of these tournaments out and try to get a win."

Those who watched the aplomb with which Dufner approached the first 68 holes of the PGA Championship will recall just how bulletproof he was looking until he hit his tee shot into the pond at the 15th hole and made the first of three straight bogeys to fritter away a 5-stroke lead.

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But there was no dark cloud following him around after that tournament, and his continued good play into this season indicates that he just might have gone through enough disappointment to steel his resolve.

And Wi has been laughing off the 13 that marred his Sunday round at Transitions, jokingly answering a question about how he certainly had put it behind him quickly by thanking the reporter who asked it and saying, "Next question?"

The next question is how will a pair of non-winners hold of such a formidable array of chasers who have Augusta, Ga., on their minds as motivation this week? That includes Woods -- who would like to get a victory before Augusta to end a winless drought of 30 months -- and Ernie Els, a two-time winner at Bay Hill, who needs to move up 12 spots in the Official World Golf Ranking just to get into the Masters field.

Els predicted Thursday's tough finish and seems to be preparing himself for a tough weekend.

"It's playing tough this year," he said. "Greens are going to get firm. Anything under par I would be satisfied with."

If the windblown first round, in which 86 golf balls were hit into the lakes of Bay Hill, is any indicator, it could be a tough 54 holes remaining -- especially for the winless leaders, trying to hang on at a place that turns nasty on a dime.

Larry Dorman is a freelance columnist for PGATOUR.COM His views do not necessarily represent the views of the PGA TOUR.