Although Smylie Kaufman lost out to Emiliano Grillo of Argentina in the PGA Tour’s 2016 Rookie of the Year race, he had an experience that none of the other rookies enjoyed last season.
The 24-year-old Kaufman, who defends his only PGA Tour victory this week in the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open at TPC Summerlin in Las Vegas, played alongside his pal, Jordan Spieth, in the final round of the Masters in April.
Of course, it didn’t turn out anything close to what Kaufman might have hoped for, as he closed with a 9-over-par 81 and plummeted from solo second to a tie for 29th in his first trip to Augusta National, but he still had fun.
“It was so cool,” said Kaufman, whose only other victory as a pro came in the 2015 United Leasing Championship on the Web.com Tour. “That last round really stunk, but just the crowd and just how loud it was, the roars. … I got to watch Jordan handle the pressure and just see what it was kind of like. So I’m just going to try to build on it moving forward and I’ll see what I can do in the coming years here.
“It’s cool. That was some heat. Obviously I’ve never felt something like that before. I think I got in my own head a little bit. I didn’t do a great job with close reaction, and I think I got in my own head a little bit with the putter. But everything else is awesome. I loved the atmosphere, it was cool. It’s something I think I’ll thrive on one day.”
Kaufman, who was trying to become the first Masters rookie to earn the Green Jacket since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979, instead got to watch Spieth melt down on the back nine while blowing a five-stroke lead, closing with a 73 to tie for second behind Danny Willett of England.
That also was a learning experience.
“I was really cheering for Jordan as a buddy, and it’s unfortunate what happened,” said Kaufman, who finished sixth on the 2015 Web.com Tour money list to earn his PGA Tour card. “It just kind of stunk to watch it, but we both kind of struggled. … We played great that front nine, but it was just kind of a weird day for both of us. If he had putted for me, I would have had a great day. …
“You know, I can’t speak for Jordan. I kind of just worry about what I did, which wasn’t a great day for me, but I’m going to try to build on what I can do. … I’ll just flush it down the toilet, and I’ll be ready next time.”
Even though he finished 43rd in the FedExCup standings and was unable to join fellow rookies Grillo and Si Woo Kim of South Korea in the season-ending Tour Championship, Kaufman did make it through the first three legs of the playoffs.
Kaufman posted 10 finishes in the top 25, including a tie for eighth in the WGC-Cadillac Championship and ties for 10th in the Frys.com Open and the Quicken Loans National, but the highlight came in Las Vegas.
Seven strokes back when he started the final round, the rookie reeled off eight birdies and an eagle to shoot 10-under-par 61 and win by one stroke over six players.
“Vegas was a surprise, but I did think I’d win this year,” said Kaufman, who had to wait two hours to see if his score would hold up for the victory. “I just happened to win the second event of the year. … I felt pretty comfortable. The atmosphere felt good. I was in a rhythm. I kind of expected to do it coming down the stretch.
“I dodged a lot of bullets coming down the stretch with guys coming in. So much more stressful than on the course. So much worse. I felt like I was watching an LSU football game.”
Kaufman, a native of Birmingham, Ala., turned pro after graduating from LSU in 2014. However, he was something of a late bloomer and didn’t crack the Tigers’ starting lineup on a regular basis until his senior year in Baton Rouge before finishing 67th in Web.com Tour Qualifying School.
“I don’t think I’m a world-class player yet,” Kaufman said. “I have a long way to go. … Well, it’s not that far off.”
Spoken like a guy who knows he has come a long way already.
–Story courtesy of The Sports Xchange, TSX Golf Editor Tom LaMarre