Smylie Kaufman surprising Masters contender - to some
AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) Smylie Kaufman still lives at his parents' Alabama home, has a loyal following at tournaments that often consists of mom or dad and has eaten dinner every night this week at his family's Augusta rental.
He plays the Masters on Xbox, but now Kaufman is challenging at the actual Augusta National. Seriously.
The 24-year-old rookie - yes, he's two years older than Jordan Spieth - was beaming after Saturday's 3-under 69 shot him up the leaderboard heading into the final round. It was the low score of the day and now he's just one shot behind Spieth.
Nobody's won in his first Masters since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979.
While there are probably more than a few who don't know of the Birmingham, Alabama native, neither Kaufman nor his family seemed the least bit taken aback that he's in in position to actually when the green jacket.
''The golf course plays really hard,'' Kaufman said. ''I tend to play well on hard golf courses. I'm driving the ball really well right now and if I'm going to get on the greens just as much as everybody else, I think that I'll have a pretty good opportunity to be in contention, which it doesn't surprise me.''
It is a surprise to the golf world Kaufman will tee off in Sunday's final group with the defending champion. Mom and dad will be joined by thousands more following his every shot, not counting the millions on TV.
It'll be a slightly different atmosphere than Kaufman's mother is used to.
''Usually it's like me walking down the fairways by myself or my husband,'' Pam Kaufman said.
She slipped under the ropes above the 18th green just in time to see her son finish his round. Kaufman narrowly missed a birdie from just above the green. He placed his hands on his hips, flashed a grin toward the spectators and mouthed, ''Oh, man.''
Had he made it, Kaufman would be tied - that's right, tied - for the lead. Unbelievable? Depends on who you ask.
''This doesn't surprise me,'' Jeff Kaufman said matter-of-factly, much like his son. ''The key is he got to come over and play four or five times before the tournament. I think for this place you've got to be able to do that. He's felt comfortable. Even his college coach, (LSU) Chuck Winstead, said if there's a place Smylie's going to succeed, it's going to be this place. It's made for him.''
Kaufman, who still planned to eat at his parents' as usual Saturday night, secured a spot in the Masters with a victory in the Shriners Open in Las Vegas. He needed a 10-under 61 in the final round while six players were one shot back. It was the lowest score ever in a final round for the tournament.
This stage is much bigger.
He's matched up with Spieth, who dominated their junior golf matchups. Kaufman describes himself as a late bloomer who buckled down more when he realized how good he could be.
''He's probably 1,000 to zero,'' Kaufman said of Spieth. ''He's always beating me. Granted, he was so much better than I was as a junior and amateur.''
Kaufman didn't look daunted on Saturday. He worked his way out of the pine straw after an errant drive on No. 11 to start Amen Corner before saving par. He made an 18-foot birdie putt on No. 16, and finished the round with back-to-back pars.
''I gave a little fist pump after, so it was good to see that drop,'' Kaufman said of the birdie on 16.
Now, plenty of people are learning about ''Smylie'' - who turned down an invitation to Augusta National in junior high school because he'd already missed too much school because of golf.
Here's a little more insight.
Kaufman was named after his grandmother's cousin, Smylie Gebhart, a 1971 All-America defensive end at Georgia Tech. Gebhart was a Georgia Tech and Mississippi Sports Hall of Famer who was paralyzed in an accident and died two decades later in 2001.
Kaufman figures he's had 20 or 30 friends and family members rotating into the course each day.
His family members are enjoying the show, including grandfather Alan Kaufman, who retired two years ago as the golf coach at UAB. His star pupil at the Birmingham school was PGA Tour veteran Graeme McDowell.
The reality of what was happening sunk in for Alan Kaufman when he soaked in the scene on the 15th hole and thought: ''That can't be my grandson.''
Then he added, ''Just mighty proud of him.''