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August 13, 2013

Former Auburn golf coach Mike Griffin thrilled with Dufner’s success in life and on the course

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala.Mike Griffin wasn’t going to kid himself.

Basking in the glory of Jason Dufner’s PGA Championship victory on Sunday, he couldn’t brag about the accomplishment being an inevitable one. Auburn’s former golf coach had no idea Dufner had that kind of ceiling when he was in college — and Griffin said no else did, either.

Former Auburn golf coach Mike Griffin (left) and Jason Dufner (right) were reunited at the Auburn University Regional Airport on Sunday. The former Auburn men's golf coach congratulated his old protege after Dufner captured the PGA Championship at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y. earlier in the day. (RYAN BLACK/rblack@ledger-enquirer.com)

Former Auburn golf coach Mike Griffin (left) and Jason Dufner (right) were reunited at the Auburn University Regional Airport on Sunday. The former Auburn men’s golf coach congratulated his old protege after Dufner captured the PGA Championship at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y. earlier in the day. (RYAN BLACK/rblack@ledger-enquirer.com)

In fact, Griffin didn’t even know who Dufner was until he won a qualifier for walk-on players.

“I was at the meeting when he came in to sign his eligibility papers and stuff like that, as everyone did,” Griffin recalled. “There were probably 15-20 young men in the meeting with us. I didn’t know him from any of the others. Had never met him. Later I found out he had written me a letter.”

Sifting through some 400 letters, Griffin found Dufner’s in the stack. Nothing stood out about it, Griffin said, and it gave little clue that the writer would eventually become a major championship winner.

But what his words didn’t achieve, his feats on the course did.

“He ended up winning college tournaments, made All-SEC three years and All-American one year. And he did that on his own, basically,” Griffin said. ” We guided him, we helped him. We put (players) in a situation where hopefully they can become winners, but it’s ultimately up to them, and (Dufner) did a whale of a job with it.”

Griffin shuddered to think how close Dufner’s collegiate career — and all of his subsequent success after he departed Auburn — almost came to not happening.

How close?

“A lot closer than I dare to think,” he said. “I mean really, it was 11th hour. Actually, it was about 11:55. He was in danger of not being able to go out for the qualifier. If he doesn’t do that, where is he? Because he’s already enrolled in classes. If he were to leave school to go somewhere else, basically, he would have had to sit out some time if he had gone to a D-I school.”

Not that Dufner would have left Auburn. He hasn’t done so yet, even with his exploits on the PGA Tour.

And that, Griffin said, hits at the core of Dufner’s persona.

“Here’s a guy who could live anywhere in the country — anywhere,” he said. “And he chooses to live in Auburn. That couldn’t be a higher compliment to a place that he genuinely loves. And from what I hear, he’s building quite a pad down in south Auburn right now, which is going to be something to see. So I hope I get to go to one of the housewarmings, that’s all I can say.”

Dufner’s down-to-earth, everyman personality is why so many people identify with him, Griffin said. That profile is bound to grow even more now that Dufner has added a Wanamaker Trophy (given to the winner of the PGA Championship) to his collection.

“He’s a marketable product right now, but more importantly, he’s just a genuinely good person,” Griffin said. “I’m real, real proud of the golfer he’s become, but as I’ve told him on many occasions, I’m much more proud of the man he’s become.”

Of course, the viral sensation known as “Dufnering” — which took off after a picture was posted on the Internet earlier this year, with Dufner sitting in a school classroom with his hands at his sides and a blank look on face — perhaps was the biggest factor in the former Tiger’s popularity boom.

“He took it and parlayed it into one of the biggest things that could ever happen to anybody,” Griffin said. “It started out kind of as a poking fun joke from some of his buddies, and he just turned it into a goldmine. That’s what is so unique about it. He thinks about things differently than a lot of other people.”

And what does Griffin think is next for his former player?

“Anything. Literally,” he said. “Anybody that can ball strike like that can do anything. Geez almighty, I could putt for him and we could win tournaments. When you hit it that close, they’re kick ins, man.”

Griffin said the proof is in the pudding — when Jim Furyk, one of the most accomplished players on the PGA Tour, said in his post-round press conference on Sunday he simply got beat by a better player, that’s all people need to know about how far Dufner’s game has progressed.

Through it all, though, Dufner remains the same person Griffin got to know during their days together in Auburn.

“That guy you saw out there? That’s still ‘Duf,’” he said. “And like I said, I hope he never changes. He’ll have a lot of opportunities to change if he wants to, but I hope he doesn’t. I think as long as he stays in Auburn, he’ll keep his butt grounded, because these folks around here will make darn sure he keeps grounded. I know I will if I ever have the chance.”

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