What’s up with Jason Dufner’s putting? A statistical analysis

June 15, 2018

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — Jason Dufner faced down a putt of 1 foot, 11 inches at the par-3 7th on Friday at the U.S. Open. He set his putter down behind the ball, adjusted over it, wiggled his shoulders and his legs, looked at the hole, then back at the ball, and froze. Most Tour players pull the trigger quickly once they’re set, particularly on short putts; Dufner waited a full five seconds before moving his putter blade. The ball shot out to the right, barely noticing the hole as it trickled past the edge.

On this we can agree: Jason Dufner looks uncomfortable over short putts. Said putts have been under particular scrutiny since a particularly wobbly stroke cost Dufner hundreds of thousands of dollars on Sunday at the Players. Friday’s round, which featured four three-putts, gave more ammo still to the Dufner-haters. But the numbers say that Dufner’s overall putting has been largely better than its recent perception.

This season, Dufner ranks 102nd on the PGA Tour in strokes gained putting; that puts him slightly above average on the greens. That’s in line with 2017, when he was 90th for the year, and it’s actually better than seasons past: Dufner was 164th in 2016, 177th in 2015, and 143rd in 2013. It’s revisionist history to suggest that Dufner looks newly tentative over short putts; anyone who watched him lag in two-footers en route to his PGA Championship win at Oak Hill can attest to that.

In the lead-up to the Memorial, Dufner was asked about his stroke. “Week-to-week it’s a little indifferent, but over the course of the year I think I’ve been doing really well with it,” he said, citing coach Mike Bentley, who he’s been consulting with since late 2017. “I feel like it’s starting to become more natural, but there’s times that obviously I wish it was better than others. But I like where I’m at. I think I’m physically and mentally the best I’ve ever been with that part of my game.”

Putting is inherently difficult, and putting on the PGA Tour is high-stakes. Plenty of guys struggle on the greens but putt more quickly and with fluid strokes; Dufner serves as a good reminder that what we see and what we know to be true can conflict with one another. There are, of course, rounds where he waits that same amount of time, looks equally uncomfortable and then makes all those short putts. It’s high-profile misses like at Sawgrass that attract the most attention — and even a rebuttal from Dufner.

Diving further into the numbers from this season show that from 10-25 feet, Dufner is actually above-average with the flatstick. But when he gets over those shorties, the numbers do get worse: he’s just 163rd on putts inside 10 feet and 133rd on putts 4-8 feet, and has missed more than his fair share from even closer in. But there are still many players who are worse, legendary putter Jordan Spieth among them.

Dufner’s 70-74 open at Shinnecock had him inside the top 15 headed to the weekend. Midway through Friday afternoon, he was 4th in the field in strokes gained from tee to green. He ended up with four ugly three-putts in an eight-hole span, capped off by the missed two-footer at No. 7, his 16th hole of the day. He has also missed five putts inside 5 feet, tied for most in the field, but he has done everything else well enough to stay in contention.

“These greens were built a long time ago when they were supposed to be rolling 4, 5, 6 on the stimp, and we’re not at that pace this week,” Dufner said. It wasn’t a put-down; he was more than complimentary of the USGA’s job. But there’s no doubt the greens have put extra stress on every player’s shortest club.

Dufner’s putting stroke is certain to come under further scrutiny should he continue to hit it this well over the weekend, where he’ll try to buck (half of) one more curious trend: he has been 26th-best on the greens on Saturdays this season but just 202nd on Sundays.

One way to avoid any further talk of putting yips? Don’t bother to putt at all. That’s the approach Dufner took on his last hole on Friday, when he punched out of the thick rough to 118 yards and promptly holed it from there for a walk-off birdie.