By Lee Davis
Smylie Kaufman is no stranger to the winner’s circle in athletics.
As a basketball point guard in 2009, Kaufman helped the Vestavia Hills Rebels win the Class 6A championship. By 2011, Kaufman had traded in his basketball, but he still was winning. While a varsity golfer at LSU, he won the 2011 Alabama Amateur as his father, Jeff – a former LSU golfer himself – caddied for him.
With such a record for success, maybe it wasn’t surprising when Kaufman won his first professional tournament in May. Shooting a four-day total of 10-under par 278, he won the United Leasing Championship at Victoria National Golf Club in Newburgh, Indiana, by five shots. Kaufman’s five-stroke win was the largest victory margin in the tournament’s history. His best day came in the third round, when he tied a course record with an eight-under par 64 total. The victory came in only his sixth career start on the Web.Com Tour Series, and he earned $108,000 for his efforts.
“I’m blown away,” Kaufman said. “I still can’t comprehend it all but I’m so excited about getting the win. I wasn’t perfect. I made mistakes all week. I just stay composed and believed in what I was doing.”
His win catapulted him all the way to fourth on the Web.Com Tour, in the money list through the first eight events of the season. Perhaps more importantly, Kaufman’s season total of earnings likely qualified him for one of 25 PGA tour cards that will be handed out at the end of the regular season.
“It’s been a dream for my entire life to play on the PGA tour,” he said. “So obviously this was a big deal.”
Kaufman had previously played in two PGA events, missing the cut in the 2014 U.S. Open and at the 2015 Shell Houston Open, but proved last week he can be competitive at golf’s highest level.
Playing at the Barbasol Championship at the Robert Trent Jones Grand National Trail in Opelika, Kaufman put together opening rounds of 69-69 to easily make the cut. He faltered slightly with weekend totals of 73-72 to finish two-under par 282.
“It was great to make the cut at a PGA event, but I’m still disappointed overall,” Kaufman said. “The leaderboard showed me tied for second on the last hole on Friday and I made a careless double bogey. But that didn’t affect the way I played the last two days. I just didn’t bring my best game into the weekend.”
Kaufman said he took valuable lessons away from the experience in Opelika. “Playing at the PGA level is as much about your mind as anything,” he explained. “If a player doesn’t think he is good enough to be there, he probably isn’t. You need to have full confidence in what you can do.”
One highlight of the weekend was the great support Kaufman got from family and friends, who called themselves “Smylie’s Army.”
“The people I’m close to have always been very supportive of me and my dreams,” Kaufman said. “They are always there for me. Having them watch me wherever I’m playing is part of what makes it fun.”
Kaufman will continue the season on the Web.Com tour, hoping to continue to upgrade the level of his game.
“Golf is a game of cycles,” he said. “If you had asked me a month ago what my strong point is I would have said my driving. Now, I think I’m hitting my irons really well.
“I really don’t think I have a weak part of my game. It’s just a matter of improving every aspect of what I do, and getting better every time I play.”
Kaufman’s drive to succeed comes naturally. In addition to his father being a star golfer at LSU, his grandfather Alan Kaufman formerly coached the golf team at UAB.
Kaufman lettered four years at LSU, producing six top-five finishes and nine top-10 finishes in 28 appearances for the Tigers. He finished 19th in the NCAA Men’s Golf Championships in his senior season of 2014 and was an honors graduate with a degree in general business administration.
Interestingly, “Smylie” is Kaufman’s given name. His namesake is Smylie Gebhart, a distant cousin who was an All-American defensive end at Georgia Tech in the early 1970s.
Smylie Kaufman doesn’t look like a defensive end, but his heart and determination are probably big enough to take him to the top. ϖ