Jason Dufner, Justin Rose lead Zurich Classic field

Justin Rose of England tees off on the 14th hole during the third round of Abu Dhabi Golf Championship in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili) Show caption
Justin Rose of England tees off on the 14th hole during the third round of Abu Dhabi Golf Championship in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

AVONDALE — After a monster breakout season in 2012, 36-year-old Jason Dufner isn’t having the kind of follow-up year he was expecting on the PGA Tour.

But he knows if there’s anywhere he can find his game, it’s the TPC Louisiana layout on which he earned his first PGA Tour victory last April in a two-hole playoff with World Golf Hall of Famer Ernie Els.

After claiming the title in the Zurich Classic of New Orleans, Dufner was married six days later and then started a month-long stretch of the best golf of his life as he won HP Byron Nelson Championship, was second in the Crowne Plaza Invitational and tied for fourth at the U.S. Open.

That helped Dufner to a fourth-place finish on the PGA Tour money list with $4.869 million, which earned him a berth on the U.S. Ryder Cup team last fall.

But as he begins defense of his title on Thursday in the first round of the $6.6 million Zurich Classic, Dufner is trying to get back the mojo he flew out of town with a year ago.

He’s made the cut in seven of nine starts this year, but has only three top-20s with his best finish being a tie for 12th at the WGC-Cadillac Championship.

When asked about the challenges of trying to follow a breakout season with another big year, Dufner could only shrug his shoulders.

“I’m not sure,” he said Wednesday, “I’m kind of going through it right now. I don’t have much experience with it. I don’t know.”

Dufner said part of the problem was he had a chance to play more overseas events after being in demand because of his 2012 season. He made the cut in 21 of 22 PGA Tour events and had eight top-10 finishes and 14 top-25s.

“I don’t feel like I’ve added any pressure on myself,” said Dufner, who did note that playing overseas put him behind on his U.S. schedule. “I’ve played in a lot of bad weather and wind. I got into a position where I wasn’t really happy with where my golf sing was.”

But help may be at hand.

In his last four visits to TPC Louisiana, which will likely play extra soft in the first round because of a heavy thunderstorm that swept over the course Wednesday, he’s tied for ninth (2009), tied for seventh (2010) and tied for third (2011) before outlasting Els last year.

“I enjoy coming here,” said Dufner, who’s won a little more than $1.86 million in his last four starters here. “I know that I feel like I’m going to play good and I’ve got a lot of great experience here. So it’s a very comfortable feeling for me.”

Justin Rose, the world’s fourth-ranked player, knows that feeling — to a certain extent.

Like Dufner, he enjoys playing the TPC Louisiana course. He tied for 10th last year and is seeking to extend an impressive streak as he’s finished in the top 25 of his last seven tournaments worldwide dating to last season.

“The golf course has gotten better and better every single year,” said Rose, who is the highest-ranked player in the 156-man field this week. “I think I’m slowly learning how to play it.”

Rose is coming off a tie for 25th at the Masters, where he fell off after being in contention with a 3-under score at the halfway point of the tournament. He shot 75 and 74 on the weekend, however, but comes to New Orleans feeling good about his game.

The one thing he would like to improve on is his putting. And after 1.5 inches of rain fell in a short time early Wednesday afternoon, Rose said it should help players put up some low numbers.

“In professional golf, soft courses only make it easier,” he said. “The greens here can be fairly small in some places. But if they’re soft, they’re not going to play as small. I expect it will help in the scoring the next day or two.”

Which is good news for a player who ranks second on the PGA Tour with a 69.29 scoring average in 18 competitive rounds.

“Whenever I’ve won tournaments, I’ve putted well,” Rose said. “I do putt well and that’s one are of my game that hasn’t been as consistent as the rest of it. So that’s the next level for me.

“The important thing is that I don’t get frustrated by it. I’ve decided this week to be more positive about my putting and only talk positively about it. It’s there, I’ve just got to keep doing it and keep believing in it.”