Zach Johnson came dressed for success Saturday at the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial, sporting a plaid collar on his red golf shirt that hinted at the pattern of the tournament champion's jacket.
But it was Jason Dufner, the PGA Tour's hottest player for the past month, who emerged from an 18-hole staredown between Colonial front-runners as the golfer best positioned to wrap his arms inside the colorful garment at the conclusion of today's final round.
Dufner, winner of last week's HP Byron Nelson Championship, unleashed a back-nine birdie barrage to carve out one stroke of separation between himself and Johnson heading into today's final spin around Hogan's Alley. Dufner stands at 15 under par for the tournament after Saturday's effort of 4-under 66.
Johnson, at 14 under, is the only pursuer within fewer than eight strokes of Dufner in what shapes up as a final-group Sunday showdown.
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With a Colonial triumph, Dufner would become the first golfer to earn titles at both DFW tour stops in a year when the events were played in consecutive weeks.
Ben Hogan won both the 1946 Colonial and the 1946 Dallas Invitational (later renamed the Nelson), but the events were played in May and September, respectively. The closest any golfer has come to victories in consecutive weeks occurred in 1980, when Nelson champ Tom Watson followed up with a tie for fourth the next week at Colonial.
Dufner, 35, relishes the opportunity to achieve an unprecedented North Texas Two-Step in May.
"That is a little bit crazy that somebody hasn't won both of these events back-to-back," Dufner said. "If I were to pull the victory off, it would be pretty great company to be in and ...a little bit of history for myself to tell people that me and Mr. Hogan are the only two to win these tournaments in the same year."
To make it happen, Dufner must hold off Johnson in what could boil down to a match-play session in today's 12:55 p.m. group. Both golfers admit their final-round strategies will be different than normal because of the lack of challengers remaining on the Colonial leader board at the conclusion of a third consecutive round played in swirling winds with gusts to 25 mph.
"We are going to be battling it out in kind of a unique situation," Dufner said. "It seems like one of us is either going to win or finish second. My focus will be to try and shoot a low score on the front nine, then assess how Zach is doing and maybe change strategy and be a little more aggressive on the back nine if I'm behind."
Johnson said he might have "a change of aggressiveness" on today's back nine, depending on circumstances. But he acknowledged that Dufner, who has won two PGA Tour events in the past month and is 26 under par in his past seven rounds (Nelson and Colonial), will be difficult to catch because of his recent successes and soaring confidence.
"Dufner played better than I did [Saturday]," said Johnson, whose third-round 65 edged his playing partner by a stroke but included a chip-in birdie at No. 2, followed by eight one-putts. "But I scored. I totally anticipate Dufner to keep doing what he's doing. He is striking it very nice and putting beautifully. His rhythm is tremendous. There is a reason why his name is on top and has been on top."
Dufner seized the 54-hole lead Saturday by taking consecutive birdies on the 10th, 11th and 12th holes after both he and Johnson carried matching scores of 13 under to the back nine. Johnson, the 2010 Colonial champ, answered with a birdie-bogey exchange in his favor on the 16th green but missed a 12-foot birdie putt at No. 18 that would have made him a co-leader heading into the final round.
Dufner, meanwhile, escaped with par on his closing hole after glancing his drive off trees in the left rough.
"I actually got a pretty good break when the ball kicked far left off that tree," said Dufner, who carved an 8-iron approach from 183 yards around some trees to set up a two-putt from 68 feet. "It was a good way to finish. It's great for your confidence."
Dufner, who has held the lead in 12 of his past 35 rounds at tour events, will carry that confidence into an 18-hole journey that could make him an unprecedented figure in DFW golf lore. If he wins, he will become the 15th golfer to post career victories at both DFW tour stops but the first to claim those titles a week apart.
"Some of the things I've experienced in final groups, good or bad, can be helpful to me in winning tournaments," Dufner said. "I feel pretty confident. I'd like to make a little bit of history."
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760