ORLANDO -- At the 10th hole at Bay Hill on Friday, Jason Dufner took three or four long waggles with his driver and then in his next motion hit the golf ball with his quick, one-plane swing. You wouldn't know from his very reserved manner whether he was in the lead of the Arnold Palmer Invitational or in last place. With sad eyes, a small paunch, shaggy hair and a wad of chewing tobacco tucked inside his lower lip, the former Auburn star who will turn 35 on Saturday seems to be in a world of his own.
But we've come to be surprised by this late-blooming Cleveland native, who didn't get serious about golf until he moved with his family to Florida when he was 14 years old. Most of us didn't know much about him before last year's PGA Championship, where he held a 5-stroke lead with four holes to play before three bogeys dropped him into a playoff with the eventual winner, Keegan Bradley. Probably few remember that Dufner had lost in a playoff to Mark Wilson earlier that year at the Waste Management Phoenix Open.
On Friday, Dufner started his round with back-to-back birdies to take the outright lead over Charlie Wi, with whom he had shared the first-round lead after a 6-under-par 66 in Round 1. Dufner would get it to 10-under par before his lone bogey of the day at the par-5 sixth hole, which was his 15th hole of the day. He would finish his second round with a 3-under-par 69.
"It was a pretty nice start with two birdies," Dufner said. "I played pretty consistent. I hit a lot of fairways and a lot of greens. I probably could have played the par-5s better, but other than that, it was a good [first two] rounds."
There have been a few signs that Dufner's stellar play last year has carried over into 2012. He's had top-10s at the Waste Management Open and the Transitions. Last year was his best year on tour since got his card in 2007. Those playoff losses were two of his six top-10s on the year.
"I have had some really nice rounds this year," Dufner said. "But I haven't really put four good rounds together. I haven't putted well on the weekends."
Still, after 2011, he's in the best place of his career. Not long ago he was worried about just keeping his card at the end of the year. Now he feels like one of the guys.
"Last year really helped me out a lot this year, knowing that I belonged out here and that I could be competitive, especially knowing that I could compete at the highest level at a major championship," he said.
On Wednesday, Dufner will head to Augusta to prepare for only his second trip to the Masters. On his maiden trip to Augusta in 2010, he finished in a tie for 30th. Last year, he didn't make the field but drove over from his home in Auburn, Ala., with some of the Auburn football coaches. Like every player who comes to the Masters, he will spend most of his practice days around the greens and in the fairways, where there are a lot of uneven lies.
"I think [Augusta] favors the longer hitters," he said. "It just depends on the conditions and weather. Sometimes the weather can even the playing field out a little bit. But in order for me to win the Masters, I would have to be really precise with my game. I couldn't have many errors."
But before he attempts to solve the riddles of Augusta, he'll try to get his first career win here at Bay Hill. He'll have a late tee time on Saturday, so he has no plans for his birthday. He expects to be near the lead by the end of the day Friday.
"The last three or four holes, the wind picked up a little bit, so possibly that could be a factor in the afternoon," Dufner said. "The greens seem to be about the same firmness, probably a little softer in the morning."
No matter what the conditions are in the afternoon or where Dufner starts his third round, he knows that he finally belongs on the PGA Tour and that he has the game to win.
"I've played some great rounds out here on the tour on Sunday and guys just played one shot better or two shots better and beat me by one or two," Dufner said. "So it's just really difficult, and I think, you know, you've just got to stay patient and hopefully your time will come and the putts will drop in certain situations."
Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at email@example.com.