AUGUSTA, Ga. — His red-hot, final-round 61 still smoldering on his scorecard, all Smylie Kaufman could do for more than two hours that Sunday in Las Vegas was wait. Wait to see if any of the contenders in the Shriners Hospital for Children Open could catch him.
He had plenty of time to think about what his first PGA Tour victory would mean for his still embryonic professional golf career. Naturally, his thoughts went to the Masters invitation that would be the special perk attached to his $1.16 million first-place check.
“It was on my mind the whole time,” Kaufman said.
A son of the South, born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, before spending four years playing college golf at LSU, an invitation to the Masters was his shining ambition and his wishful dream. It was the thing that drove him to hit thousands of practice balls and sink thousands of practice putts, hoping they would one day help him slip his arms into a green jacket.
“For me, it’s the Masters, then there’s a pretty big drop off,” Kaufman said. “I grew up loving the Masters. It’s the one I always wanted to win.”
Several golfers took aim at Kaufman’s final total of 16-under-par 268, a mark he reached by thundering home with seven birdies and an eagle in his final 11 holes as he rallied from a seven-stroke deficit.
“So much more stressful than on the course,” Kaufman said of waiting. “I felt like I was watching an LSU football game.”
After Kevin Na’s 15-foot birdie try on 18 slid past the cup, Kaufman could celebrate a life-changing victory and that special itinerary-changing tournament invitation.
“It’s always been a dream of mine just to play in it,” he said.
Golf is intertwined with the Kaufman family tree, like the famous wisteria vine that wraps itself around one of the huge oak trees outside Augusta National Golf Club’s venerable clubhouse.
LSU golf in particular. Smylie’s parents Jeff and Pam (formerly Malloy) both played golf at LSU in the early 1980s.
Jeff and Pam met at the old LSU practice range where University High’s baseball field is now, wedged between Alex Box Stadium and LSU’s indoor football facility.
“Oh, the cow smells,” said Jeff Kaufman, recalling the scent from LSU’s nearby livestock fields.
Despite the strong aroma of manure, a romance blossomed. Now their son, who finished at LSU in 2014, is playing in the place fabled for the smell of its many azaleas.
“My wife was packed (last) Monday,” Jeff Kaufman said. “It’s hard to imagine, but it’s here.”
Smylie sounds like a nickname, but Jeff and Pam’s son is actually named Carter Smylie Kaufman, named for Jeff’s cousin, the late Smylie Gebhart, a 185-pound All-American defensive end at Georgia Tech in the early 1970s. Years later, Gebhart suffered a freak neck injury and spent the last 22 years of his life as a quadriplegic before he died in 2000.
“He was a great Christian guy. A guy you wanted your daughter to marry,” Jeff Kaufman recalled. “I always knew if I had a son, he was going to be Carter Smylie.”
Like all Masters players, Smylie Kaufman is guaranteed only eight tickets for family and friends. Despite those limitations, a Kaufman entourage of more than 20 is expected to descend on Augusta, many of them wearing matching shirts for their favorite golfer.
Move over, Arnie’s Army. Smylie’s Army is on the march.
“It’s kind of funny,” Smylie Kaufman said. “They made golf shirts to look ‘classy.’”
Kaufman has had one classy season for his first full-time season on the PGA Tour.
Including his Las Vegas win, which also carries invitations to The Players Championship and PGA Championship this year, Kaufman has six top-15 finishes and has banked a little over $2 million in earnings. He’s No. 49 in this week’s world golf rankings and goes into the Masters ninth on the season’s FedEx Cup points list.
“It happened quick,” Kaufman said of his first win. “I’m glad it did. It made things a lot easier for me on tour. I’ve gotten into some of the big events, and it’s helped me with my learning curve for those big environments.
“I’ve been in situations with huge crowds and television that most rookies don’t get to experience. It’s helped me grow as a player.”
Once a player qualifies for the Masters, he is allowed as many practice rounds as he would like leading up to the tournament.
Kaufman played Augusta National only five times before Monday, but he is confident he has a good feel for the course.
“I think the golf course fits my eye,” he said. “I’m very excited about teeing it up.”
LSU golf coach Chuck Winstead said he believes Kaufman’s length and putting ability are well-suited to Augusta National’s sometimes treacherous terrain.
“I always told (former LSU golfer) John Peterson he could very easily win the U.S. Open,” Winstead said. “His game is tailored to driving it in the fairway and hitting greens.
“I’d say the same thing about Smylie at Augusta National. He hits the ball long and putts it well. Thirty-foot putts that break 15 feet, he’ll feed it down around the hole. That’s not foreign to him. His skill set aligns well with that course.”
Still, winning the Masters on your first try is a daunting prospect. Other than inaugural Masters champion Horton Smith, only two men have won the Masters on their first try: Gene Sarazen in 1935 and Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979.
Still, Kaufman feels he’s as ready as he can be.
“I’m ready to go right now,” he said. “I know what the golf course is going to do.”
If he’s sitting in the clubhouse Sunday with an early lead, Vegas or an LSU football game will seem like a breeze.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter,@RabalaisAdv.