Smylie Kaufman is not a name anyone expected to see on the tee sheet next to that of defending champion Jordan Spieth in the anchor spot on Masters Sunday.
In fact, a 300-1 longest of long shots to win the green jacket in his Masters debut, his is a moniker unknown to virtually all casual golf fans before he made a charge late on Saturday, coming in with three birdies in his final six holes.
And yet, here he is, a 24-year-old PGA Tour rookie, whose 3-under 69 — the lowest score of the third round and one of only five under par on a wind-blown Saturday — put him in the final pairing with last year’s wire-to-wire winner. An unlikely spot (and one that Spieth’s Saturday opponent Rory McIlroy expected to be in) for the Alabama native who started out with a 1‑over 73 and a 72 in his first two Masters rounds.
Today, Smylie Kaufman could become only the third Augusta first-timer, and the first since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979, to earn a green jacket. And that, thanks to a 10-under 61 in the final round of last October’s Shriners Hospital for Children Open, which gave him a one-shot victory and a ticket to Augusta.
First a little background, especially about that name, which, of course, inspires (too) many a wisecrack (he's also got a golfer brother named Luckie).
Carter Smylie Kaufman’s parents named him for his grandmother’s cousin, Smylie Gebhart, an All-America football player for Georgia Tech in 1971 who suffered a spinal cord injury that paralyzed him. Gebhart died at 51.
While he is from Alabama, Kaufman is a diehard LSU alum and fan. He even tweeted with running back Leonard Fournette, the inspiration for some of the stamping on his wedges, on the eve of the most important round of his life.
Kaufman is also one of the many up-and-comers who, as a pack, are taking over where Tiger Woods left off. As a junior in high school, he spurned an invitation to play Augusta National because he believed he had already missed too many classes playing golf. He's a pretty unassuming rookie, who has had success in his rookie year but, uh, has yet to embrace the glamorous life that comes with being a tour pro.
Smylie Kaufman, proud owner of an '08 Nissan Murano, lives with his parents, hero to us all. #TheMasters— Chad Mumm (@chadmumm) April 9, 2016
So while his Sunday opponent evokes a slew of comparisons to Woods, whose 72-hole scoring record he tied while running away with last year’s Masters, Kaufman played the Tiger Woods Masters video game to become familiar with the iconic course.
Apparently, the Xbox experience worked. Kaufman started Saturday at 1-over and, while one challenger after another took turns trying to knock Spieth from his first-place spot, tread water until he got hot down the stretch.
Birdies at Nos. 13, 14, and 16 put him in a position that amazed just about everyone in the golf world but himself and the many friends and family members cheering him on this week.
"The golf course plays really hard," Kaufman said after Saturday’s round. "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."
Now a 15-1 favorite to overcome Spieth’s shot at becoming the fourth player to win back-to-back Masters, Kaufman understands the odds are against him outlasting his junior golf opponent, and now good friend.
"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."
Not that Kaufman was intimidated. He made par at the start of Amen Corner on Saturday by escaping the pine straw after a wayward drive. He finished with two pars but was psyched after his birdie on 16.
"I gave a little fist pump after," he said about the 18-footer on 16.
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Watch Ernie Els' putting disaster from six feet out
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