Sports

Jason Dufner takes control with a 64 in the desert

Jason Dufner was minding his own business, being a normal sports fan on Twitter in late December, when he made an innocuous comment about the NFL.

Then some guy with apparently nothing better to do than be snide responded, "When's the last time you won?"

It was a shot at Dufner's record since the laid-back Alabaman won the 2013 PGA Championship and made "Dufnering" a verb and a social media sensation. By late last year, he'd gone winless in 43 PGA Tour events.

In his usual droll but direct manner, Dufner offered three words to the smart aleck — "week ago, clown" — with a photo of him and Brandt Snedeker holding the trophy for their team win in the unofficial Franklin Templeton Shootout in Florida.

Dufner's fans got some laughs out of that one.

Clearly, major championship winners are held to a different standard, and Dufner, 38, has had difficulty rising back to that level. What he has done this week in the CareerBuilder Challenge, with a chance to secure a victory Sunday, would go a long way toward bumping up his visibility again.

On a third straight day of perfect conditions, which produced a handful of outrageous scoring barrages, Dufner birdied seven times on his back nine for a 29 at La Quinta Country Club on Saturday for an eight-under-par 64.

He has a 23-under total and a two-shot lead over former USC star Jamie Lovemark, who posted his third consecutive 65 on his 28th birthday, picking apart the PGA West Stadium Course with seven birdies.

Perhaps recalling the Twitter dust-up, Dufner said after the round, "I'm out here to win tournaments. It doesn't matter when I won them or when the last time was. I'm showing up to win tournaments this year and play good golf every week."

He's been far better than good. Over 54 holes, Dufner, unlike many of his closest pursuers, doesn't have the advantage of eagles on the many reachable par-fives in the three-course rotation, but he has made 26 birdies.

"I feel relaxed out there," Dufner said. "I never feel like this has to happen or that has to happen. I'm just playing golf like I should."

Dufner had a fascinating, if not unsettling, time in the aftermath of his major win at Oak Hill. Then sporting long curly hair that he has since drastically trimmed, he became something of a fan favorite for how nonchalantly he seemed to approach even the biggest of moments.

That reputation was only solidified when a photographer captured him slumped against the wall, looking nearly asleep as a teacher read during his visit to an elementary class. Getting a picture on Facebook and Twitter while "Dufnering" became a cult pastime.

But some difficult times followed, including a divorce last year. Dufner didn't play well last season, notching only two top 10s. But he's off to a promising start in the 2015-16 wraparound season with a pair of ninth-place finishes before this week.

For the final round on the host Stadium Course, Dufner is paired with Lovemark, and they both have the tournament low there this week with 65s. The third man in the final threesome is 28-year-old Canadian Adam Hadwin, who got to 20 under by making eight birdies and an eagle in a third-round 65 on the Nicklaus Tournament Course.

There are seven other players six shots or closer to the lead, including two who fired 62s on the Nicklaus in the third round. Kevin Na (17 under), who started on the 10th tee, had a phenomenal run, going eight under for his last seven holes. Swede David Lingmerth (18 under) made five straight birdies in his round.

Lovemark, a San Diego native now living in Jupiter, Fla., is seeking his first PGA Tour win in his 71st start. After capturing the NCAA individual title as a freshman at USC he was one of those "can't-miss" prospects coming out of college, but was slowed by injuries, including disk surgery on his neck.

A two-time champion on the Web.com Tour, Lovemark nearly seized his first PGA Tour victory in the 2009 Frys.com Open, losing in a three-man playoff.

"Winning is winning," Lovemark said. "I won some decent events throughout my life. I feel comfortable now. I've felt comfortable for a while."

To celebrate, Lovemark was heading off with his fiancée to a unique dinner on his birthday — a handful of PGA Tour couples were invited to dine with former President Bill Clinton, whose foundation supports the tournament.

"I remember playing behind [Clinton] at Coronado Golf Club back in the day," Lovemark said with a grin. "All the Secret Service was out there. It was like a 10-hour round."

tod.leonard@sduniontribune.com

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on January 24, 2016, in the Sports section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "64 for Dufner looks effortless - He birdies seven holes on his back nine and takes a two-shot lead as he looks for his first official win since 2013 PGA." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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