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Wednesday, May 15, 2013
Players to watch: Byron Nelson Championship

By Richard Durrett



IRVING, Texas – It's time for the start of the North Texas swing on the PGA Tour, and that begins with a stop in the backyard of the late Byron Nelson.

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The HP Byron Nelson Championship, as it has for the past few years, is trying to make the most of being the tournament directly after The Players Championship. There won't be any rematch of feuding golfers Tiger Woods and Sergio Garcia, for instance. Neither is in the field. Phil Mickelson isn't here, either.

But there are some top Americans and international players competing at the TPC Four Seasons Resort & Club this week. Let's take a look at some of the golfers to watch in the event, which starts Thursday:

Jason Dufner: All this talk about "Dufnering" doesn't happen without the HP Byron Nelson Championship. Dufner, the defending champion, arrived in Dallas in March and appeared slumped over and out of it as kids were busy reading a story in a classroom at J. Erik Jonsson, a school supported by the Salesmanship Club of Dallas, which also runs the Nelson. The photo went viral even before Dufner flew out of town and the golfer was a great sport about it. It helped publicize the tournament in a way no one expected.

But joking aside, Dufner can play. He won last year's event thanks to a clutch par putt on the final hole to beat surprise contender Dicky Pride, continuing his best career year. He was the runner-up to Zach Johnson the next week at the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial. He ended up on the Ryder Cup team and made more than $4.8 million last season.

Dufner's not as hot this season as he was coming into the event last year (after winning in New Orleans). He is still looking for his first top-10 of the season, though he’s made nine of 11 cuts. A final-round 80 dropped him out of a chance at a top-10 at The Players Championship last weekend.

Jason Day: He has to be one of the favorites here because of how well he plays in this event. He won it in 2010, his first time playing in the tournament, and has top-10s in his other two appearances. Day had a 68 in the final round of The Players, earning him a top-20 finish.

Day has played just twice since his third-place finish at the Masters and has made the cut in all 10 of his events in 2013. The Australian nearly withdrew before winning the Nelson in 2010. He felt ill because of medicine for a sinus infection, but stayed in the tournament and won by two strokes over Blake Adams, Brian Gay and Jeff Overton. It was a strange final hole that year as Day hit his approach shot into the water on 18, giving Adams, his playing partner, an opening. But Adams didn't know where Day hit his shot and he ended up in the water too. Day bogeyed the hole to get the win.

Matt Kuchar: He blew into the Nelson fresh off a win at The Players Championship last year. It's not the same in 2013, but Kuchar is as close to an automatic top finisher as you can get on the PGA Tour this year. He has made the cut in all 14 events he’s played and he’s got four top-10s. He likes the Nelson, making the cut in all five of his attempts. His best finish was a tie for sixth two years ago.

Keegan Bradley: It was the Nelson that marked the emergence of Bradley on the PGA Tour. He won rookie of the year honors that season -- 2011 -- and was the rookie of the year. That included a major victory at the PGA Championship that season. But it was the Nelson where he posted his first victory. And he did it coming from behind. He entered the final round four strokes back of Ryan Palmer and shot a 68 to tie Palmer and force a playoff. He won on the first playoff hole (the 18th). He won with a total of 3-under for the event, the highest in relation to par at the Nelson since 1981. It was windy and the players had a tough time, but Bradley survived. He has missed his last two cuts, but he has finished fifth or better in five tournaments this season.

Jordan Spieth: It was at age 16 that Spieth was the biggest story at the Nelson, getting himself into contention on Sunday before finishing tied for 16th as an amateur. He played well under pressure in his first PGA Tour event. Three years later, Spieth is 19 and a pro on the PGA Tour. He made the decision this year to take sponsor’s exemptions rather than go full time on the Web.com Tour. But for that to be smart, Spieth had to play well early in the season. He has, earning more exemptions and a chance to finish in the top-125 of the money list to earn his card for next season. The Dallas native has three top-10s this season already and is certainly comfortable in Irving.

Marc Leishman: I know he's probably not a familiar name to many, but in flipping through the top finishers at the Nelson the past four years, his name pops up. Leishman tied for third last year and was in the top-12 in three of his four Nelson appearances. He showed he could hang in under pressure at the Masters, tying for fourth. He posted two more top-10s since and can handle the wind. He’s one to watch.

Don't forget about: Ryan Palmer (two straight top-10s at this event); J.J. Henry (TCU alum has made 10 cuts in 11 appearances); Louis Oosthuizen (has major pedigree and playing well); Ben Crane (he's hot right now and had a top-10 at The Players).