ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Making three late bogeys to let a major slip through your fingers would be heartbreaking for anyone.
So Jason Dufner’s response the day after his heart-breaking runner-up finish at the 2011 PGA Championship wasn’t what his former college golf coach anticipated.
“He basically looked at that whole adventure as a first step in his career,” said Mike Griffin, Dufner’s coach at Auburn University who walked with his former player during the ’11 PGA Championship in Atlanta. “That was something he needed to do: lose a major. I’m here thinking this was going to be a crushing blow to him, and he’s celebrating. He’s taking this as the greatest thing that has ever happened.”
Now Dufner has a new moment atop his list of greatest things ever: winning the tournament that ripped his heart out two years ago.
“I was probably over what happened in Atlanta, 95 percent of it, by the time we got back home at Auburn,” Dufner said as he looked at the massive Wanamaker trophy sitting atop the table to his right Sunday night. “[Now] my name will always be on this trophy, and nobody can take that away from me.”
Dufner entered the final round trailing Jim Furyk by one stroke, but took control after a 3-under front nine. This time he didn’t – wouldn’t – let himself make the same mistake.
“It was so easy to relax with four holes to play in Atlanta because he had such a comfortable lead,” Griffin told Golf.com. “You can let your mind wander too far ahead. Not today. It was a completely different situation.”
Griffin wasn’t with Dufner at Oak Hill– the coach was 1,000 miles away in his living room in Auburn– but he knew what was in his former player’s head.
“I know exactly what he was thinking, because I was thinking the same thing: one shot at a time, baby,” Griffin said.
Griffin witnessed it all that day at Atlanta Athletic Club. The five-stroke lead with four holes to play, the playoff with Dufner’s buddy Keegan Bradley and ultimately, Dufner’s second-place finish when first was in such close reach.
“I was really concerned about what effect this was going to have his psyche,” Griffin said.
Amanda Dufner, Jason’s Southern belle bride, said that his 2011 near-miss only made her husband a stronger golfer, and that this past week in Rochester was just like any other major, even the gut-wrenching 2011 PGA. Business as usual included a rental home in the area for the entire Team Dufner and group dinners every night. The only change to the itinerary was an extra passenger flying home to Auburn: the 27-pound silver trophy with Jason Dufner engraved on the lower section of the cup.
“I think he’s in shock right now,” Amanda said immediately after her husband had tapped in for the best bogey of his life at the 72nd hole. Part of the shock was seeing Bradley – who can't needle Dufner about that afternoon in Atlanta any longer – clapping and cheering in support of his friend at the 18th hole. Bradley was on his way to the airport after cruising to a final-round 66. Instead of boarding his plane, he turned the car around, ran a red light and hurried back to the course to see “The Duf” win his first major title.
“He deserves this,” Bradley said as he stood on the practice putting green in a gray t-shirt, Red Sox hat and Nikes. “It’s good to see him win this thing.”
He’s not the only one.
Down in Auburn, football rules. Case in point, each fall there is a “Fan Day” dedicated to letting the public snag autographs from football players and coaches. But today, football shared the spotlight with Dufner. During the event held in Auburn’s basketball arena, all of the televisions in the building were turned to CBS so no one would miss one of their own win a major championship.
“This win is for all the people in Auburn, all the Auburn fans out there,” Dufner said to a group of fans and reporters gathered late Sunday night to celebrate the return of Auburn’s only golfer to win a major. There were several adopted members of the Auburn family in Rochester.
Fans in hats representing colleges from all over the country took up the battle cry of Dufner’s alma mater as the “War Eagles” echoed down each fairway.
Oak Hill Country Club is over 1,000 miles from Auburn, but as Jason Dufner hoisted the Wanamaker trophy Sunday night, it felt a lot closer.