Whenever Hollywood takes on sport, their lead characters seem to have names stereotypically from moviedom. i.e. Rocky Balboa, Billy Clyde Puckett or Roy McAvoy. So when glancing at the PGA Tour’s 2016 rookie list, the name ‘Smylie Kaufman’ looks more like the invention of a writer’s fertile mind than that of some young parents. Kaufman’s name is genuine. His start on the PGA Tour is made for the big screen.
Even serious golf fans may be forced to admit that Smylie Kaufman first appeared on their radar Masters week when he played his way up the leaderboard. But his six-month rookie run to that position has, well, sort of resembled fiction.
Debuting on the PGA Tour’s 2016 wraparound schedule, Kaufman put up a T10 at the Frys.com Open in mid-October. The next week he improved nine spots for a win, and what a fine win it was. He started the final day at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open in Las Vegas 10 shots behind the leaders, on schedule for another nice rookie check. Posting a 10-under 61, Smylie scored eight birdies and an eagle at the par-4 15th to finish -16.
Keeping with the dramatic theme, he then had to wait nearly two and a half hours to learn whether his score would hold up. Six players took a run at his total. None could get closer than one back. The Birmingham, Alabama native was all “smyles” as a PGA Tour winner in his second start.
“Well, the goal was to win Rookie of the Year. So now winning this week, that doesn’t hurt things, so that’s kind of my goal,” he said afterward.
The win also gave him a spot in the Masters field. “I mean, it’s unbelievable. If you would have told me I had a round at the Masters, if somebody was going to take me out and, just to play Augusta National, I would have freaked out. But now that I’m playing the Masters, it’s a joke. It’s unbelievable.”
Between the win and Masters week, Kaufman has validated his credentials from those opening two weeks. In 15 Tour appearances, he has three top 10s, seven top 25s and over $2,000,000 in earnings. And that Masters appearance turned into much more, as he played his way into Sunday’s final group with Jordan Spieth. Reality eventually set in, and he finished at 81.
Kaufman has followed a typical path to the PGA Tour, starting with good blood lines. Both his parents were LSU golfers, and he also became a Tiger. The program Kaufman joined in 2010 had moved up the NCAA food chain, and he learned quickly just how much he needed to elevate his game. John Peterson and Andrew Loupe, then LSU seniors, now play on the Tour.
“Physically, I was way behind. They had a better understanding of what their golf game was at the time, and they were a lot better than I was,” he told The TigerRag.com. “Talent-wise, I didn’t think they were better than me, but they understood their game a lot more than I did at that age. I learned a lot from them, the hard work they put in and their dedication to the game and how hard they worked out and practiced.”
Those lessons would need to be applied after a successful senior season, when Kaufman decided to make professional golf part of his future. He made the Web.com Tour late in 2014 through qualifying school.
Kaufman struggled out of the box on Tour with three missed cuts. Then he posted two top fives before winning the United Leasing & Finance Championship in Evansville, Indiana. His confidence bolstered by the win, he amassed enough earnings to jump to the PGA Tour for the 2016 season.
As with college, that developmental year on Web.com was a necessary step in the progression. “The Web.com for me was perfect because it taught me how to travel, how to prepare, how to make a cut, how to handle rounds that were not going the right direction and how to turn those things around. As a 21, 22-year-old, I don’t think I was quite ready to handle those type of emotions, and a full year on the Web.com really kind of matured me in a way and made it to where I was able to be smarter in those situations and not get ahead of myself.”
Rookies don’t get any longterm guarantees, but Smylie Kaufman has already laid a lifeline with his PGA Tour win. He knows where he will be playing in 2017, unlike some in his freshman class. And the Tour Championship box still needs to be checked.
Dan Reardon has covered golf for radio station KMOX in St. Louis for 32 years. In that time, he has covered more than 100 events, including majors and other PGA, LPGA and Champions Tour tournaments. During his broadcast career, Reardon conducted one-on-one interviews with three dozen members of the World Golf of Fame. He has contributed to many publications over the years and co-authored the book Golf’s Greatest Eighteen from Random House. Reardon served as Director of Media relations for LPGA events in both St. Louis and Chicago for 10 years.