Jason Dufner: A Putting Lesson

The PGA Tour rolls on and into Dallas for the HP Byron Nelson Championship, the namesake of the late Byron Nelson. He passed away in 2006 and was a contemporary of Ben Hogan and Sam Snead, all treasured, superlative players.

The “Nelson” used to be quite prestigious when he was alive; it was an opportunity for the Tour players to be in the presence of and honor greatness. His widow, Peggy, is making her best efforts to keep that connection going for the players. But in this world of elite players scaling back and tailoring their schedules to peaking for the four majors, it is a stretch for many of them to play the week after big tournament like The Players Championship. 

But one elite player who did show up this year was Jason Dufner, the Defending Champion. The defending champions invariably come back unless they get drafted into some sort of tournament where they’re representing their country, for example. Or in the case of the European Tour players, they have a standing date with a significant tournament on their Tour. I seem to remember something like that happening with Graham McDowell in the recent past.

The other reasons defending champions come back is because they were successful on that particular course. Once that seed gets planted, it’s like a vine that wraps around their hearts.

Dufner stopped by the media center and the subject turned to how much he looked back on his success last year to draw inspiration for this year. For someone who looks so unassuming, his answer was filled with the rich wisdom of always playing in the present:

I don’t reflect on it very much at all, to be honest.  That was in the past, golf is a transient game.  Nothing is staying the same in golf.  You’re either getting better or you’re getting worse.  At this moment in time I’m a little bit worse than I was last year.

And that segued quite naturally into his poor putting. He’s currently ranked 153rd in Strokes Gained – Putting, the new standard for putting skill:

I’m just trying to focus on some things that I need to do better.  The main thing is, putt better.  Have a better attitude about my putting.  Putting really, kind of beats me down throughout the week of 72 holes.  I’m trying to work on those things, and hopefully get to be playing a little better golf come Thursday through Sunday.

This is interesting because last year he was talking about how much he disliked putting. He didn’t like practicing it, it gave him no pleasure and he specifically said that he realized that his attitude was holding him back. He was determined to work harder at liking it.

This is a perfect example of the value of keeping a notebook to keep track of all of those ideas, revelations and commitments. Because golf is a game in the present, it’s easy for gems to slip away. (My first Tour coach, Dave Collins, suggested that I keep notes on feelings and swing movements, but I never got to it. I wanted to get to my “good swing” before I started taking notes and I wasn’t really sure when I would go back and read them. On the other hand, Padraig Harrington is a copious note taker because he is constantly changing his swing and he said he reads them on the airplanes.)

On the other hand, he does see the value in looking back to remind yourself how great you were at that point:

I think it gives you a good perspective of what level you can play at.  Obviously I was playing at a very high level through most of last year, felt comfortable with what I was doing, definitely have a lot of questions when I was playing from week to week, from tournament to tournament, and you’re always trying to get back to a certain point where you feel like you played your best and doing things well at that point.

And then his focus turned to specific putting strategies:

No, putting is pretty much the issue every day that I play golf right now.  Even when I play good rounds I feel like I’ve left numerous, makeable putts, so I’ve got to get better at the putting.  Like I said, 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.

And then he shared the specifics of what he’s working on now in his putting practice regimens:

I worked with with my coach yesterday.  We talked a lot about it on Sunday when I was driving home (from The Players to Auburn, Alabama).  Obviously there are some areas that we think we can improve on with the pace of my stroke, the pace that the ball rolls, because I feel like I’m hitting good putts, missing putts high, on the high side or on the low side.

I never feel like my stroke has too much at fault. I just need to clean up my pace and pick my line a little bit better. So we worked on that a little bit yesterday thinking about the speed that the ball rolls at. And the pace that you’re putting that will free me up from so many mechanical thoughts and trying to get a ball started on the line.

I experience the same thing. When I was chasing the Champions Tour and playing and practicing every day, I was a great putter. But when I start thinking about mechanics when I putt, say after a long week or so without practice, I putt much worse. I actually hit a long putt eight inches fat last Saturday. But when I concentrate on seeing the line — actually seeing the start line and the die line from start to finish — and then work the speed of the putt with an accelerating stroke on that line, I am my old, reliable self.

Good thing I made a note about that.

And Dufner remains hopeful too:

I’ve struggled with my putting in the past, last year I putted a little better, he was better than average as far as Tour standards go and fourth on the Money List.  And there have been years that I was 140th and I was 30th on the Money List, so I’ve struggled with it throughout my career.  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.

He goes off the 10th tee at 7:40 CT with Matt Kuchar and Keegan Bradley.

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