Dufner takes Nelson lead with late spree
Standing over his ball in a swale behind the 18th green, Jason Dufner would have been content with a par and a spot in the big group tied for the lead in the Byron Nelson Championship.
Instead, Dufner had the lead to himself Friday. He finished by chipping in from 37 feet, his fourth birdie in five holes, after driving wide right and having his approach roll over the green.
”No, that wasn’t in the thought process,” Dufner said. ”Pretty lucky for it to go in, but that’s part of golf. Sometimes you get those breaks.”
His second long chip-in wrapped up a 4-under 66 for a two-round total of 7-under 133. That put Dufner a stroke ahead of a group of six players that included Matt Kuchar, the world’s fifth-ranked player who won The Players Championship last week.
Dufner got married the week after his first PGA Tour victory at New Orleans last month, and returned to play last week.
He has the 36-hole lead for the fourth time this season, including the Masters, and the seventh time in his career. The experience of having a victory can provide a different mindset while leading at the halfway point again.
”Maybe a little bit,” he said. ”I’m confident with my game and happy with where my game is right now.”
Kuchar shot a 68 to join first-round leader Ryan Palmer (70), Chad Campbell (66), Pat Perez (67), Dickey Pride (68) and Marc Leishman (69) at 6 under.
Defending champion Keegan Bradley (68), who last summer won the PGA Championship three months after becoming a first-time winner in a Nelson playoff against Palmer, was two strokes behind the leaders along with Ryuji Imada (68) and Charley Hoffman (69).
Kuchar recovered from a miserable early stretch when he had two bogeys and a double bogey in a four-hole span.
After a birdie at No. 10 to start his second round, Kuchar had a bogey at the 455-yard 12th when his approach from the rough landed in a bunker. His approach at No. 14 went in the water, leading to a double bogey before he again wasn’t able to get up-and-down out of a greenside bunker at the par-4 15th.
”I got on the wrong side of things,” Kuchar said. ”Par 5, took advantage of that. So I was pleased that I was able to hang in there and bounce back.”
His approach at the 546-yard 16th was inside of 5 feet. That was the first of his five birdies without another bogey over his final 12 holes.
Kuchar still has chance to become the first PGA Tour player since Tiger Woods in 2009 to win in consecutive weeks. Woods also was the last player to win in his next start after winning The Players Championship. That was in 2001, two years after David Duval pulled off that feat.
The only other top-10 player in the field is Phil Mickelson, who had a fitting finish in a round of 69 with a double bogey after his tee shot at No. 18 went in the water and his approach after the drop went over the green.
”I hit it terrible today, there was no other way around it,” Mickelson said. ”I’ve just got some mechanical issues where I was not striking the ball very solid. I was able to hit decent shots on the backside to make birdies and make a run, but that last hole stunk.”
Dufner was 4 under when he caught a glimpse of a scoreboard early in his back nine and noticed the crowd near the top with little movement on a day with steady winds.
”I was kind of around par for the day, trying to stay patient a little bit, maybe get a birdie or two,” Dufner said.
Even after a bogey at No. 12, when his approach landed in a greenside bunker, Dufner did much more than he hoped for down the stretch.
That started with three birdies in a row. There was a 21-foot putt at No. 14 before he holed a 35-foot chip at No. 15, then made a 21-foot birdie putt at No. 16.
”Ended up getting birdie on four of the last five, couple of chip-ins, which you don’t expect, especially the one on 18,” Dufner said. ”It was a nice way to finish.”
Before his last hole, which he preceded with consecutive birdies, Mickelson had only one bogey despite being in trouble several times.
There was the par save at No. 8 after he missed the fairway but knocked his second shot from the rough to inside 4 feet. His tee shot at No. 9 landed under a tree and he used a 5-wood to punch the ball under branches. It rolled up onto the green and he made a 17-foot birdie putt.
The consolation for Mickelson is that he is within six strokes of the lead with two rounds to play.
”There will be a bunching on the leaderboard,” he said. ”If I give myself some more chances (Saturday), I `m starting to feel a little bit better with the putter, and I should be able to make some.”