AUGUSTA, Ga. — Smylie Kaufman is playing in his first Masters, and he’ll tee off on Sunday alongside Jordan Spieth in the tournament’s final pairing. That’s remarkable bordering on miraculous in itself, but then there’s this: Kaufman learned to play Augusta National by playing the course on the Tiger Woods video game.
You know, just like Jack and Arnie used to do.
Though Kaufman, 24, is two years older than his Sunday playing partner, he’s one of the new generation of golfers flourishing in Spieth's wake. Young, smart, disciplined, and laser-focused, this crew idolized Tiger, but isn't slowing down to let him catch up.
“They all grew up watching Tiger,” Kaufman’s father Jeff told Yahoo Sports shortly after the Saturday round. “He was the catalyst for all of this.”
Kaufman carded a 69 for the day, the best score in the field on an afternoon when the wind turned pars into bogeys and simple putts into mind-wracking puzzles.
Before we go too far down that road, though, there’s this: What’s up with the name Smylie?
Kaufman is named for Smylie Gebhart, a family relation who was an All-American football player for Georgia Tech in 1972. Gebhart suffered a severed spinal cord in 1980 and was left a quadriplegic.
“He was a handsome guy, an amazing athlete, the kind of guy you’d like your daughter to marry,” Jeff Kaufman said, and after Gebhart died at age 51, Jeff pledged that he’d name a son after him.
Smylie Kaufman has so far held up an already noble family name with distinction. He played for college golf powerhouse LSU, winning a silver medal at the 2014 SEC championship his senior year. He qualified for the 2014 U.S. Open at Pinehurst but missed the cut by four strokes. After that, he turned pro and began working his way through the grind of golf’s lower tours.
He’s at Augusta thanks to a miracle round of golf: a closing 61 at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open in October 2015. Kaufman won the tournament by a single stroke, cashing a life-altering $1.1 million check and punching a ticket to the Masters.
He’ll be paired up with Spieth, a player who’s become something of a mentor to Kaufman despite being two years his junior. “We learned a lot from Jordan,” Jeff Kaufman said. “We’ve kept things calm this week. [Smylie's] played only nine-hole practice rounds in preparation. And he’s come over to our house for dinner every night.”
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Even if Kaufman is keeping things calm, his friends and family are reveling in the moment. A dozen friends and family members lined the back row of the media center as he handled his post-round press conference, sneaking furtive waves and whispering “good answer!” when Kaufman turned a particularly nice phrase
He’s also got a ready-made cheering section – “I’ve got my friends that are here that are taking advantage of the great prices Augusta offers on the beer,” he joked. “So I’ve got them kind of making the crowds [fired up], or making me get pumped up after I make some birdies.”
Kaufman has allowed that he gets more nervous about LSU football than golf—“LSU football is one of the most painful things to watch ever, really"— but is doing his best to keep a sense of perspective amid the pomposity of Augusta:
“The golf course fits my eye,” he said. “I'm not trying to overlook the situation. I know what's going on. I know it's the Masters. I know how important it is. But I'm just going to go out there and just do my best. I think that's all I can do tomorrow, and just not try to force it and just try to have some fun.” Plus, as Jeff Kaufman noted, Smylie has prepared for this course with countless Augusta rounds of Tiger Woods' EA Sports golf game.
The slow-and-easy style suited Kaufman well on Saturday; he opened the day at one-over, spent most of the afternoon at even par, and then birdied 13, 14 and 16. Merely keeping his head while everyone around him was losing theirs has put him into the final pairing at the 2016 Masters.
For all of his life, Kaufman grew up watching Tiger Woods here. Come Sunday, Tiger Woods will be watching Smylie Kaufman.