AUGUSTA, Ga. — Smylie Kaufman drives an eight-year-old SUV, has lived back at his parents’ house near Birmingham, Alabama, since he graduated from LSU two years ago and is the biggest 18 holes of his life away from winning the most prestigious tournament in golf.
If this all sounds a bit surreal, that’s because it is.
I put it to you, golf fans of the world: Can a guy named Smylie win the Masters?
“I don’t know,” said father Jeff Kaufman, himself a former LSU golfer, the man who named his oldest son Carter Smylie for his late cousin Smylie Gebhart. “But I like that they’re thinking about it.”
They’re more than thinking about it, like some arcane decision on the rules of golf. It is a very real possibility that Smylie Kaufman — who travels too much for his job to have time to find a house he likes, his dad said — will be hanging a green jacket in his closet back in Vestavia Hills, Alabama, the same closet where he probably still keeps his sneakers from the state championship basketball team he played point guard for in high school.
High school titles are great, but this is the Masters, one of the biggest sporting events in the world. And Masters rookies aren’t supposed to win at Augusta National. Only three of them ever have.
There was Horton Smith, who couldn’t help but be a rookie winner since he claimed the first one in 1934. There was Gene Sarazen, who threw away his invitation to the ’34 tournament but won it a year later thanks to his double-eagle 2 at No. 15, and there was Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979.
Those guys. That’s it.
Of course, pairing a Fuzzy with a Smylie sort of goes down smoothly, doesn’t it?
It won’t be easy. Kaufman talks like he was inoculated against feeling pressure somewhere around the time he was serving as SGA vice president at Vestavia Hills High, but it will be hard to be immune. All of us who cover the Masters wax rhapsodically about the azaleas and dogwoods and lush green grass, but in truth this place is a velvet cauldron that will test the competitors’ physical and mental mettle.
As golf commentator David Feherty once aptly put it, “The green jacket feels like a suit of armor on Sunday afternoon.”
The storylines going into Sunday are as thick as the throngs of patrons packing the souvenir shops here, where they probably do sell a suit of armor with an Augusta National logo on it.
Jordan Spieth, who leads Kaufman by one stroke, is trying to become just the fourth man to win back-to-back Masters titles.
Bernhard Langer is trying to win his third Masters and be the oldest major championship winner ever at 58.
Hideki Matsuyama of Japan is trying to bring home the biggest win ever for Asia, golf’s biggest new frontier.
There are a host of others, too. Thanks to Spieth’s bogey-double bogey crash landing on No. 17 and 18, 15 players sit within six strokes of the lead.
Still, none of them played Saturday as well as ol’ Carter Smylie.
He birdied the par-5 second, like most do, then started grinding away pars as the wind roared through the tall pines and sent scores soaring yet again. He found those pines right of the 11th fairway, pitched out, lobbed onto the green and coolly kept his only bogey of the day from getting worse.
Now 1-over for the tournament, he cut a drive to the center of the 13th fairway and had a fateful decision to make. Go for the pin from 227 yards out over Rae’s Creek, or lay up and likely play for par.
He gambled. The sun flashed off the face of his 4-iron as his ball arced over the creek and nestled on the green. Two putts for birdie from 40 feet had Kaufman quickly back to even for the tournament.
That started a run that vaulted him up the leader board. Kaufman nearly holed out on 14, tapping in for birdie from a foot away, then curled in an icy snake of a putt from about 15 feet on No. 16 to get to 2-under.
Rock-solid pars on No. 17 and 18, the same holes that had Spieth upchucking about an hour later, secured Kaufman a spot in Sunday’s final pairing.
When you get to this spot, the ever-smilin’ Smylie had to admit a little denial goes a long way.
“What I’ve done all week (is) treat it like a regular tournament,” said Kaufman, who added that contending to win the Masters didn’t feel as stressful as watching an LSU football game.
Eventually, he admitted the truth.
“I know what’s going on,” Kaufman said. “I know it’s the Masters. I know how important it is. But I’m just going to go out there tomorrow and do my best. That’s all I can do.”
If Saturday was his best, on Sunday it might be good enough.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twtter, @RabalaisAdv.