Near season’s midpoint, Colonial offers golfers a chance to go on a year-changing surge

Posted Sunday, May. 19, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Throughout his professional golf career, Fort Worth resident Mark Brooks has maintained a simple but effective philosophy on maximizing success at PGA Tour events.

Brooks always has operated under the premise that most touring pros collect more than half of their annual earnings in less than one-fourth of the season, usually within a span of two or three events when they are playing at the top of their games. So the goal is to ride any hot streak that surfaces for as long as possible because no one knows when the next cold snap is coming. In this fickle sport, inconsistent efforts are par for the course for all golfers — even the world’s elite players.

Brooks, a seven-event winner on the PGA Tour, competes on the Champions Tour these days. But his basic premise is echoed by today’s touring pros, many of whom will be heading into Thursday’s opening round of the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial in search of a season-turning surge that can make 2013 memorable while securing a spot on the 2014 PGA Tour.

The reigning poster boy for such a season-defining swing is Jason Dufner, a journeyman-turned-rising-star on the PGA Tour in large part because of last year’s magical May that culminated in a near-sweep of the Dallas-Fort Worth tour stops.

In back-to-back weeks, Dufner won the 2012 HP Byron Nelson Championship and finished second at Colonial, one stroke behind playing partner Zach Johnson. The DFW finishes capped a 29-day stretch in which Dufner also got married and earned his first tour triumph at the 2012 Zurich Classic of New Orleans.

A year later, Dufner, 35, still is reaping the benefits of that magical May swing. A member of the 2012 U.S. Ryder Cup team, Dufner heads to Fort Worth ranked 20th in the world golf rankings despite going winless in tour events this season.

But he’ll arrive at Hogan’s Alley armed with confidence because he knows Colonial could be his launching pad to a stellar second half of the 2013 season. He understands any week could light the fuse to a run similar to last year’s 29-day dream stretch, when Dufner collected $3,032,485 at tour events, including both of his career victories.

That total represented 62.2 percent of his 2012 season earnings ($4,869,304) and, more telling, 23.5 percent of his $12.9 million in career earnings for a golfer who was a rookie on the 2004 PGA Tour.

“It’s great for your confidence,” Dufner said of a season-turning hot streak. “But it’s really hard to put your finger on why it happens. Every tournament is separate and different from the others. It’s such a fine line out here between winning and finishing 10th. It could be a number of different scenarios, and the one thing I finally realized is I’m not the only guy out there fighting those things. So it evens out.”

Dufner paused, then channeled his inner Ron Washington. Sort of.

“Right when you think you’ve got it whooped, you make a couple of silly bogeys and you are scratching your head,” Dufner said. “That’s usually how golf is.”

Angela Stanford, a Fort Worth resident and five-time winner on the LPGA Tour, can relate.

“There’s just an element of golf that you can’t explain, no matter how talented you are,” said Stanford, a former TCU and Saginaw Boswell standout. “You can feel so far away but be closer than you think. Or you may feel really close to something and be far away. I still can’t explain what happens sometimes in bad rounds.”

That is because a tiny miscalculation in golf is more punitive than a slight error in most other sports. An unexpected breeze or surge of adrenaline can alter a player’s landing area on a delicate approach shot, turning a potential birdie putt into a watery two-stroke penalty and a trip to the drop zone. An unexpected carom off the flagstick or ricochet off a tree branch can turn a birdie hole into a scramble for bogey — or vice versa.

Asked about the significance of making sure that a 147-yard approach shot truly carries 147 yards in a PGA Tour setting, 2011 Colonial champ David Toms said, “There are plenty of times when, if you hit it 146, it’s a double bogey.”

That is why a golfer’s round-by-round scores can vary wildly during tournament week, even for the winner. When Toms claimed his Colonial plaid jacket in 2011, he mixed in a third-round 74 with other rounds of 62, 62 and 67.

“Golf is so hard,” Toms said. “Some days, everything is a perfect number and you make good swings. Other days, you’re always in between clubs on distances for approach shots. … And our field changes every single day. In basketball, the goal is still 10 feet off the ground, and the arena size is always the same. In golf, you may never get the same conditions twice in four rounds.”

Holding onto proper swing mechanics from day-to-day and week-to-week can be a fleeting task. Golfers endure ball-striking and putting slumps in much the same way that Major League Baseball players have hot and cold streaks at the plate.

Ben Crenshaw, a two-time Colonial champ, cited an alignment tweak suggested by caddie Carl Jackson during his Wednesday practice session before the 1995 Masters as pivotal in helping him win his second green jacket. Tom Watson, the 1998 Colonial champ, corrected a swing flaw on the driving range before the third round of the 1982 U.S. Open that allowed him to post weekend scores of 68-70 and capture the event in comeback fashion.

“I was hitting it all over the place the first two days. But on the range that morning, something clicked and I went with it,” Watson said. “It made all the difference.”

Golfers of all levels can relate to Watson’s immediate turnaround. Fellow pros also can relate to Dufner’s breakthrough season in 2012, marked by two victories, two runner-up finishes and four additional top-10 efforts by a golfer that — one year later — began his Nelson title defense in search of his first top-10 finish on the 2013 PGA Tour.

Steve Stricker, the 2009 Colonial champ, has endured greater meteoric swings than that in his career. Stricker, 46, finished as the runner-up in the second event he played as a rookie on the 1994 PGA Tour. But he endured an extended drought from 2003-05 before rebounding to be selected by peers as the tour’s Comeback Player of the Year in 2006 and 2007. Stricker, the No. 9 player in the world rankings, understands the quirkiness of the sport he loves.

“I had a three-year streak where I played horrible, so I’ve seen both ends. And that’s the nature of our game,” Stricker said. “Very rarely do you see one player continue to play great every year for their entire career. You see that with Tiger [Woods] and Phil [Mickelson], but those are special people. More times than not, players are going to have their ups and downs. That just hardened me as a player. I learned a lot. I think I learned more from those down years than from the good years, and I’ve taken a lot away from that.”

Although fans and media members tend to focus on leaderboard finishes in gauging the success of a player’s season, Colonial champ Zach Johnson looks at something else. Johnson, 37, tracks key statistics that he considers instrumental in leading to victories rather than dwelling on his Sunday placements in relation to peers because he cannot control opponents’ performances.

“My goals are never outcome oriented,” said Johnson, a two-time winner in Fort Worth (2012, 2010) who is the career leader in Colonial earnings ($2,875,490). “I can’t control how many times I win. But I can control the drills that I do to help accomplish these stats. There are certain things that, if I get to this number statistically, then it’ll really show up on the leaderboard or on the outcome stats.”

Among Johnson’s key stats he is tracking during the 2013 season: scrambling, three-putt avoidance and driving accuracy.

“One of my goals … is to improve my scrambling — to try to get up and down better and save more pars,” Johnson said. “Putting is still huge. My lag putting last year was not great. Three-putt avoidance, for example, is big. To compete out here, I have to hit the ball straight. So my driving accuracy is always pretty good. I’ve got to maintain that. And I would say par-5 birdie conversion percentage is a good one, too. Eliminating the 6’s is big on par-5s.”

But eliminating inconsistent efforts, regardless of a player’s skill level, is impossible for even the best players on the PGA Tour.

Woods, the No. 1 player in the world rankings and winner of 14 major championships, has not added to his collection of major titles since the 2008 U.S. Open. Mickelson, a two-time Colonial champ and three-time Masters winner, tied for 54th last month in Augusta, Ga., at the season’s first major championship. Normally a perpetual contender at the Masters, Mickelson fired rounds of 76-77-73 in his final three trips around the layout and posted his worst finish at Augusta National Golf Club since missing the Masters cut in 1997.

Such blips on the radar screen bite everyone at some point. It happened last year to Toms in his title defense at Colonial. Playing as the defending champion, the Shreveport, La., resident missed the cut for the first time since 1999 at a tournament where he has collected five top-10 finishes in his last 13 Colonial appearances.

Toms will be back for more this week with expectations to contend again but not a goal that it must happen.

“There’s so many things you can’t control in golf. You set yourself up for failure if you say, ‘I’ve got to do this’ or ‘I’ve got to do that,’” Toms said. “I don’t really set those specific goals, like I want to win twice this year. To me, … if I give it 100 percent, things will take care of themselves.”

Likewise, players seeking to break into the winner’s circle at PGA Tour events, which Dufner achieved in resounding fashion in 2012, view Colonial week as a better-than-average opportunity to make it happen. Because the event is an invitational rather than a full-field event, there will be roughly 30 fewer competitors in Fort Worth than at the HP Byron Nelson Championship in Irving, an open event with a 156-player field.

That opportunity is what continues to bring Brian Davis, 38, back to DFW on a regular basis. A Colonial competitor, Davis has earned almost $11 million in his PGA Tour career without a victory. But two of his runner-up finishes came at the 2009 Nelson and the 2010 Colonial.

“You’ve got to keep knocking on the door, and the door will open,” Davis said. “No doubt there will be a few wins out there for me.”

Could the first one be this week? In golf, you never know.

For Dufner, the 2012 DFW swing marked his evolution from field-filler to headliner as a PGA Tour competitor. Although it is a major step, he knows it can be a quick journey for a player on a hot streak. The key, Dufner said, is adjusting mentally to seeing your name on the leaderboard on a regular basis.

“It’s a tough transition. It’s a lot harder than if you are finishing 40th each week,” Dufner said of the front-runner’s mentality. “But I think you get a little bit more in tune with it over time. It takes a little more focus mentally to play at that level. I definitely have a new appreciation for it.”

Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760 Twitter: @Jimmy_Burch

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