Friday, January 22, 2016

Four share lead on eight under par 

at CareerBuilder Challenge

Jason Dufner
Jason Dufner ( Getty Images )
Per the usual, the layouts at the CareerBuilder Challenge - formerly the Bob Hope Classic -  yielded several red numbers on Thursday. And it's created a logjam at the top.
Four players finished the first round in La Quinta, Califfornia, tied for the lead at 8 under. The three-course rotation over the first three rounds comprises La Quinta Country Club and PGA West's TPC Stadium Course and Jack Nicklaus Tournament Course. But only the Tournament Course and La Quinta were represented amidst the early leaders.
Jason Dufner, Jerry Kelly, Jeff Overton and Anirban Lahiri represent the four leading at 8 under, with two more at 7 under and another 10 at 6 under.
Among the leading quartet, Dufner has climbed the highest in his career, capturing three victories (including a major) in his time thus far on the PGA Tour. The 38-year-old fell on tough times in recent years, finishing with just six top-10s and no wins in 38 starts in the last two seasons. He finished 88th on the FedEx Cup points list in 2014-15 after placing 90th the season before.
But Dufner has shown signs of a return to form, with top-10s in his last two starts and a win at the (non-sanctioned) team event known as the Franklin Templeton Shootout last month.
What's been the change? Well one might want to point to the putter, an instrument Dufner has statistically ranked among the worst with on the US PGA Tour in recent years.
He's only 180th in Strokes Gained: Putting in 2015-16, though. But on Thursday, the flatstick did finally boost him to a lead.
"The biggest thing for me is to get the putter going," Dufner said. "I gave myself a lot of uphill looks for most of the day, so I was able to be confident with those. It's just all mindset. The better I feel about how I'm going to putt, probably the better I'm going to putt."
Dufner said he felt comfortable on this set of tracks ahead of the tournament, but that was hardly a universal theme among the leaders.
Overton spoke about feeling sour vibes at the Nicklaus Tournament Course before this week. Kelly, who posted a T-9 at the Sony Open last week, admitted he felt far more at home on the grass in Hawaii.
"That is my favourite grass, meaning Waialae (in Hawaii), obviously," said Kelly, 49. "I love to have the ball skid off of my putter. A lot of guys want to see it roll right away, I like to see it skid. I'm a little more of a pop stroker. So when I come here and there is absolutely no skid and I can hear the ball leave the putter head, I'm like, oh, am I topping it, what am I doing."
The Stadium Course, the host layout this week, had the reputation ahead of the event as the toughest track of the three, and it lived up to the hype on Day One. The best score from there was just 6 under, and only four of the top 30 on the leaderboard posted their scores at the Stadium Course.
Bill Haas opened his title defense at La Quinta with a 6-under 66, good enough for T-7. Another big name, Phil Mickelson, finally flashed some form in the early going on Thursday.
The 45-year-old, winless since the 2013 British Open and with just four top-10s in 40 starts the last two years, began his 2016 PGA Tour season in style. Mickelson posted two birdies in his first seven holes, and then went hole-out eagle and chip-in birdie on his next two to suddenly reach 5 under.
He got as high as 6 under through 12 thanks to a swing motion that is finally starting to sync in.
"My swing is back on plane and so that means that all the feel and the touch and the release and the draws and the fades and all that touch will eventually come back," Mickelson said. 
"So, now the swing is back on plane and I'm just working on touch. I'm just trying to get the front nine tuning of feeling the subtleties and nuances of hitting those little shots. Which I have been struggling with these last couple years because, again, I've been a little bit off plane."
Mickelson bogeyed Nos. 14 and 17 to fall back to a 4-under 68, but overall it was a grand start for a man who hasn't experienced many fine days on the course in the last several months.
"I thought it was a really good round, because it felt easy," Mickelson said. "It didn't feel like I was working, like I was fighting, I just felt like I could just swing and the ball was within these tight parameters ... It was a fun start to the year."



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