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Valhalla preparation a pain in the neck for Dufner

By Mark Lamport-Stokes

LOUISVILLE Kentucky (Reuters) - Most golfers are meticulous when it comes to preparing for tournaments but Jason Dufner has had to abandon his usual attention to detail ahead of this week's PGA Championship because of a lingering neck injury.

Dufner has been severely hampered by two bulging disks in his neck since April and will launch his title defense at the year's final major in Thursday's opening round at Valhalla Golf Club after seeing very little of the par-71 course in practice.

"It's an arthritic, degenerative issue that I'm probably going to be dealing with for a good bit," American Dufner told reporters on Wednesday. "It's just something that's not going to change. I'm going to have to deal with it.

"I had an epidural last Monday. They like you to rest seven to 10 days after that. I haven't really been able to do that, so I'm trying to rest, keep my reps down. I feel sore. I get a little fatigued quicker than usual.

"I'm probably not going to be healthy until I can take six to eight weeks off. Not sure when that's going to be, but I'll get through it. Obvious reasons for playing this week; defending (the title) is pretty important to me."

Dufner, who won his first major with a two-shot victory in last year's PGA Championship at Oak Hill, has no idea how he will fare this week at Valhalla after such limited preparation for his title defense.

"I have not seen the golf course," the 37-year-old said. "I haven't played the golf course as of yet. I walked nine holes yesterday, and plan on playing nine this afternoon. That's about the extent that I know.

"It's just lack of mobility, the shoulder turn gets pretty restricted, pretty short, and fatigue," Dufner replied when asked how the injury affected his golf. "Those are the things I deal with a little bit.

"Mentally it's just frustrating to not really do what you know you're capable of. But I feel better than I did last week. We'll see how it goes today on the range. I'm going to hit 40 or 50 balls and see how it goes."

EXTENDED BREAK

Dufner, who has been troubled by the injury since the Masters in April, accepts that he will need to take an extended break from the game but would prefer to do that after the Sept. 26-28 Ryder Cup in Scotland.

The top nine players in the U.S. point standings after this week will automatically qualify for Tom Watson's team to take on Europe and Dufner, in eighth spot, would dearly love to represent his country for a second time in the competition.

"I'm right on the edge of those points, and there's a lot of points this week," he said. "That's an important thing for me to try and be part of. So hopefully I can have a good week.

"I have a plan in place if I make the Ryder Cup team after this week; I have another plan in place if I don't make the Ryder Cup team.

"I'm looking forward to defending this week, playing and then at some time in the near future getting some rest to recover and get healthy again."

Dufner, a three-times winner on the PGA Tour, said the uncertainty of what he was able to do on the golf course had been a significant challenge.

"The pain is just a state of mind, but it's really difficult to play when you haven't practiced much, you haven't played much," said the American, who has recorded four top-10s and three missed cuts in 16 starts on the 2013-14 PGA Tour.

"There are a lot of questions. Last year and in 2012, I came to events expecting to play well. If I had a bad day, I expected to play well the next day.

"Right now at this point, I come to the course kind of wondering if I'm going to play, and if I do, how I'm going to play. That's difficult mentally, but I've just got to suck it up. This is a big week."

(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Frank Pingue)

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