ROCHESTER, N.Y. – On the short drive home from the Atlanta Athletic Club, Mike Griffin was worried sick about Jason Dufner, his former walk-on at Auburn who had just surrendered a full scholarship to Keegan Bradley.
Dufner held a 5-shot lead with four holes to play at the PGA Championship two years ago, and then, suddenly, without warning, the wiring between his brain and his hands got scrambled and he bogeyed his way into a devastating playoff defeat.
"And I thought it was going to rip Jason's heart right out," Griffin said by phone Saturday night. "He was coasting, and all he had to do was hit greens and he wins the tournament. Man, I couldn't sleep all night."
The longtime Auburn coach got Dufner on the phone the next morning and prepared to console a 34-year-old golfer, who was surely thinking he'd just blown his first and only chance to win a big one.
"But as soon as I talked to Jason, I worried no longer," Griffin recalled. "That's the day he realized he belonged out there. He was like, 'Hey, this is the best thing that's ever happened to me. I almost won a major.' I didn't get any sleep, and Jason probably slept like a baby."
A day after he matched the greatest score in major championship history with a 63 that fell a few feet short of a record 62, Dufner looked just as sleepy shooting a 1-over 71 that left him a stroke behind Jim Furyk. His expressionless gaze has become his trademark, whether he's putting for history or planted among schoolkids on the floor of a classroom, striking a catatonic pose that went viral on the Web.
But there's a fire that burns beneath the ice, confirmed Griffin, who coached 25 years at Auburn (and 11 at Troy State) and counts his all-American and three-time all-SEC selection as the best post-college player he's ever had.
Pre-college? That's an entirely different story. Griffin had never heard of Dufner, and knew nothing of his career at St. Thomas Aquinas High in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., from which the kid showed up as an uninvited guest and asked to compete in Auburn's walk-on qualifier.
Dufner aced that exam and then told the stunned coach that he'd once sent him a letter. "I save all of my recruiting letters," Griffin said, "So I went through a pile of about 400. And, sure enough, there it was in the middle of the pack.
"Nothing on his high school résumé really stood out, but recruiting is a funny game. We missed Jason, but he didn't miss us. Now I feel like a great recruiter." An apostle of Ben Hogan's faith, Dufner made himself a big-time Division I player by hammering away at balls deep into the night. As a pro years later, when he wasn't studying Hogan's work ethic and swing, Dufner was admiring from a distance the practice habits of Vijay Singh, another of golf's card-carrying gym rats.
So no matter how much Dufner projects that carefree vibe of his, this second opportunity to win a PGA Championship is the product of his blood and sweat on the range. "Jason is a lot more confident now than he was two years ago, I can say that," his wife Amanda said as she headed toward the players' parking lot. "He's had a lot more success, and he knows he belongs out here now."
Was there a time when Jason Dufner didn't believe in himself?
"I wouldn't say that," Amanda said. "But the newer, younger guys have to find their places because there's a lot of big sharks out here."
Dufner has a chance to go from shark bait to great white on Sunday, when he'll be paired with Furyk, a former U.S. Open champ with his own set of scars. Furyk had memorable meltdowns in 2012 at the U.S. Open at Olympic, at Firestone and at the Ryder Cup. The man who endorses 5-Hour Energy drink kept coming up a half-hour short.
Adam Scott is lurking, but there are a number of Henrik Stensons and Jonas Blixts on the leaderboard and no sign of Tiger or Phil. So Dufner can bring new meaning to all the "Dufnering" being done on the Internet, the mocking imitations of his classroom pose supplied by fellow players and PGA Championship executives alike.
He needs to get past Furyk first, another stoic who rarely betrays the swirling emotions within. "There is a lot at stake to play well," Dufner said. "There is a lot of pressure. Some guys show it, some guys hide it. Me and Jim hide it pretty well."
Maybe Dufner hides it best of all. As he was paired Saturday with the human fashion shoot, Adam Scott, Dufner came across as an unmade bed, his shirt and hair all askew. He plays as if he's got a two-dollar Nassau going with a college buddy at the local muni. In fact, tour officials never approach Dufner to put him on the clock but to check him for a pulse.
"What you see is what you get with Jason," Griffin said. "He's just a cool customer out there who keeps things simple. He still lives in Auburn when he could live anywhere he wants. He's a private guy, but once you get in his inner circle and become a friend, you're a friend for life."
Griffin believes his old Auburn Tiger is due to make like the old Tiger, as in Woods, and win a big one. The coach was as proud of Saturday's 71 as he was of Friday's 63 because he understands how difficult it is to back up a special round with a solid one at a course as penal as Oak Hill.
As it turned out, Dufner survived a double-bogey at No. 5 in his third round when, he said, "Things could've gone really south there." He lucked out a bit on a par-saving putt on the 18th green, a putt that he thought had missed before it curled around the right edge and dropped through the back door.
When he was done signing for his 71, Dufner was asked what he'd learned from his PGA Championship collapse of 2011.
"Patience," he said.
Truth is, the 36-year-old Dufner has been patient long enough. It's time for the walk-on to finally win his full ride.