By Simon Evans
(Reuters) - Perhaps it is his trademark waggle before his swing, his shaggy hair or maybe his less-than-athletic physique but American Jason Dufner recalls players from golf's more easy-going years.
Dufner, who turns 35 on Saturday, was once dismissed as a journeyman but is starting to believe he can really challenge the modern game's elite at the April 5-8 Masters and that might not just be the usual positive thinking.
An opening 66 at Bay Hill on Thursday gave Dufner a share of the Arnold Palmer Invitational lead with South Korean Charlie Wi -- the third time in as many tournament's that he has had at least a share of top spot.
After last season's PGA Championship, where he finished runner-up after losing a playoff to fellow-American Keegan Bradley, it is certainly not beyond the realm of possibility that the Clevelander could be a contender at Augusta.
"Definitely. I think my game is a pretty good set up for that golf course," Dufner told reporters. "This is probably the first time in my career I can actually think about winning those types of tournaments."
Dufner, who spent over five years on the second-tier Nationwide Tour, has yet to win on the PGA Tour however, despite threatening to do so on this Florida swing.
At the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral, he shared the lead after a first round 66 but fell out of contention at the weekend. It was a similar story last week at the Transitions Championship where he made 66 in his opening two rounds before finishing tied for 10th after two rounds of 71.
"I am looking to close a little better on the weekend and try to close one of these tournaments out and get a win," he said. "That would really boost my confidence heading to the Masters. I love Augusta. I love everything about the Masters and that tournament.
"I'm starting to think about the shots I might need for that golf course practice-wise and I am going to head up there pretty early next week and prepare - which is something different for me."
That narrow loss in last year's final major was a painful one given Dufner let slip a five-shot lead with four holes to go before eventual defeat in the playoff, but it was a performance which clearly gave him some previously absent belief.
"I kind of proved to myself that I can compete out here. Maybe not every week but on some weeks, I can really get after it and play well," said Dufner.
"It gave me a lot of confidence to shoot low scores and be comfortable competing against some of the best players in the world."
(Reporting by Simon Evans; Editing by Frank Pingue)