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Dufner turns corner on health issues

LA QUINTA, Calif. -- After arriving in Southern California for his first golf tournament of 2015, Jason Dufner couldn't help himself. There was the staple of West Coast "fine" dining, an In-N-Out Burger, and Dufner indulged.

That might not come as a surprise to those who think of the "Dufnering" Dufner who carried a bit of extra weight around the midsection and seemed unfamiliar with an ironing board.

But this is a new Dufner -- 20 pounds lighter -- and so the side trip to a fast food restaurant was a form of cheating that was more reward than relapse.

"It'll probably be the only one I eat all year," Dufner said. "There's allowances here and there, but I've been clean since that In-N-Out Burger on Sunday."

Dufner, 37, has changed his lifestyle, cutting out sugars, alcohol and soda, adding a fitness routine and feeling better about himself after an injury-plagued 2014 cut short his season.

The new Dufner fits in nicely with the Humana Challenge's health initiatives, and hence Dufner is serving as a Well-Being Ambassador during the tournament at PGA West and La Quinta Country Club. The reason Dufner made the change isn't complicated.

"If I didn't do it, I wasn't going to be able to play golf," he said. "So it was pretty simple for me. Didn't really have a choice. I haven't felt good for two or three years. It kind of came to a head last year. I couldn't play. I missed the [FedEx] playoffs, missed my defense of the PGA Championship. More than likely missed playing in the Ryder Cup because of it.

"I'm not really ready to give the game of golf up yet. I needed to make a change, and I did."

Dufner, who struggled during an opening-round 76 on Thursday at the Humana Challenge but rallied with an 8-under-par 64 on Friday at the Nicklaus Private course, started having trouble last year with his neck and left shoulder, an issue he said is not readily identified. It doesn't require surgery, but consultation with Dr. Andrew Johnston in Atlanta led to an approach to reduce inflammation.

The winner of the 2013 PGA Championship, Dufner started having issues before the Masters last year. He lost in a playoff to Adam Scott at the Colonial, but he was generally struggling, with a couple of missed cuts and ultimately having to withdraw during the first round of the PGA Championship.

That's about the time Dufner decided to get serious about health and fitness.

"I had a lot of inflammation in my body," he said. "I had a lot of muscle soreness, muscle tightness, inflammation in my joints. They think I had thoracic outlet syndrome, where sometimes it's caused by your first rib, sometimes it's caused by muscle compression.

"It compresses on the nerves that come out of your neck and go into your arm. They think the muscles got so tight that they compressed on those nerves. That's why I started having the dead arm. And once that happened, I couldn't really play golf.

"So I got a lot of rest. I got on a good treatment program to strengthen my shoulder, to get more mobility in that area. And that's kind of where I'm at."

Dufner said he went "clean" for 11 consecutive weeks in which he ate nothing outside of what was listed for him by his doctor. And when he returned to golf, the results were positive.

His first event was in October at the ISPS Handa Perth International on the European Tour. He then played PGA Tour events in Malaysia and China followed by an Asian Tour event. He was 10th at the WGC-HSBC Champions and tied for seventh at the Asian Tour event.

"I haven't felt anything but good with my golf game," he said. "I'm not really in golf shape right now. I haven't played a lot of golf. I went overseas for a month, then shut it down again and didn't touch a club until Christmas.

"Tournament weeks I'm going to have to find a good median between how much I practice. Because the most important thing is competing on Thursday through Sunday. I don't really know where my game's at. That's why I'm here playing this week and why I'm playing next week [in Phoenix]. That will give me a good assessment of where I'm at, what can I do, what I can't do, what I need to get better at."

Dufner's jump up the leaderboard to get to 4 under overall for the tournament Friday afternoon has him hovering around the cutline at an event where you have to go low every day. But the good news is he gets to play 54 holes here before the field is reduced.

And for now, after all his woes last year, that is good enough.