AUGUSTA, G a . — There was a brief moment early in Sunday’s final round, a moment you would have missed if you weren’t paying exceptionally close attention, when Smylie Kaufman tied Jordan Spieth for the lead in the Masters.
It was on the second hole, when Kaufman drained an 8-footer for birdie after fearlessly parachuting a 108-yard wedge shot over the pearl white but purely evil greenside bunker.
Within a minute, Spieth had tapped in for a two-putt birdie to reclaim the lead solo. But in that sweep of the clock, it looked like Kaufman had found a comfort zone in the Masters’ manicured pressure cooker. The battle was joined and he was the man in the arena, inexperienced in such circumstances, yes, but fit for the fight.
Unfortunately for the former LSU golfer turned pursuer of his game’s most prestigious prize, it turned out to be an illusion.
After Lee Westwood, that seasoned campaigner with many more major championship scars than 24-year-old Smylie can fathom, finished in a second-place tie three back of fellow Englishman Danny Willett, he summed up the Augusta National Golf Club and Minefield quite aptly:
“There’s a fine line between disaster and success at this place.”
For the first three days of his Masters career, Kaufman tiptoed around all the booby traps and snipped the right wires. His rounds of 73-72-69 were successively better, more comfortable, and it seemed had insulated him from the bone-cracking weight of a major championship Sunday.
That wasn’t the case. After three days of clutch putts, Kaufman’s touch suddenly abandoned him. He had a power lip out on No. 1 from 4 feet, looking like he was trying to hammer the ball into the hole. He three-putted five times. It was a display his father, Jeff, himself a former LSU golfer, said he had never seen.
After driving the ball beautifully off the tee for 54 holes, high and long with just a touch of a controlled fade, Kaufman couldn’t keep the ball out of the clutching branches of Augusta National’s towering pines.
The result was a 9-over-par 81 that elevator-shafted Kaufman from second place at the start of Sunday’s round to a tie for 29th, a dozen strokes behind Willett.
“That was some heat,” Kaufman said afterward, still exhibiting a refreshing measure of buoyancy while completely owning the result. “Obviously I’ve never felt something like that before. I think I got in my own head a little bit with the putter.”
For a sport devoid of pads and helmets and crack-back blocks, golf can be a vicious game. You can get on an unbeatable roll — like Kaufman did when he went supernova with a final-round 61 to win at Las Vegas in just his fifth PGA Tour start — or the giant stone ball of Indiana Jones fame can come rolling down the hill to pulverize your dreams.
For Kaufman on Sunday, it was the latter. By the time he made the clubhouse turn to the back nine, he was already 3-over for the day and seven back of Spieth, who looked for all the world like a repeat champion.
Spieth’s anguish was even worse than Kaufman’s, in a sense. His was more concentrated. While Kaufman was carried off helplessly by the bogey train, Spieth was playing U-boat commander on the historically pivotal par-3 12th. He submerged two shots in Rae’s Creek en route to a quadruple-bogey 7, ultimately handing Willett a green jacket neatly pressed on a hanger and draped in plastic.
Kaufman and Spieth are supposed to take a vacation together in a couple weeks, just before Kaufman comes to play in the Zurich Classic of New Orleans.
They probably both need it. Perhaps they can split a six-pack on a beach somewhere, watch the sunset and remember that playing golf for a living isn’t completely tragic.
“This one will hurt,” Spieth said. “It will take a while.”
For Kaufman, the rebound should be easier.
This was his first time even making the cut in a major championship. This was his first time facing that kind of stress. This was, for the love of Pete Dye, just his 18th career PGA Tour start.
For Spieth, there is mainly an empty hole in an already stunning résumé.
For Kaufman, there is a learning experience, summa cum laude.
“I loved the atmosphere,” he said. “It was cool. It’s something I think I’ll thrive in one day.”
Especially if he can focus on his positive Masters moments and erase the bad ones.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter, @RabalaisAdv.