By CODY WORSHAM
Tiger Rag Editor
Editor’s note: This interview from March appears in the upcoming issue of Tiger Rag Extra, out on newstands across Baton Rouge in mid-April.
There’s been plenty of reason for Smylie Kaufman to smile this past year. The former LSU golfer has hit the ground running in his first season on the PGA Tour, with $2 million in winnings, seven top 25s, three top 10s, and his first win as a pro. Currently, he’s sitting at seventh in the FedEx Cup standings, 48th in the World Golf Rankings, and, before press time, was gearing up for his first ever Masters.
Kaufman took the time to talk with Tiger Rag about his rapid rise in professional golf, his roots at LSU, buffalo burgers, unfulfilled collegiate hopes, the $15,000 he never got paid, and how the Louisiana Open changed his career.
Tiger Rag: You’re about to play the most famous golf tournament in the world. What’s your mentality entering the Masters?
Smylie Kaufman: I’ve been thinking about it for a while, as far as getting there, since my win in Vegas. It’s going to be pretty cool to go and play there. It’s going to be fun. I’m looking forward to the opportunity.
TR: How do you prepare for Augusta, especially since this is your first time playing there?
SK: I’m already starting to think about the golf shots I’m going to have to hit. I’ve been there once, and I’ve asked around guys on different shots and different ways to prepare for the golf course. By the time April comes around, I’ll be ready to tee it up.
TR: What’s unique about Augusta, purely from a golf perspective?
SK: Augusta makes you be extremely precise with where you need to hit it. Hitting into the greens, second shots, you have to be conscious of where your leads are, based on certain pins on the greens. You have to control your golf ball, because there’s places out there you can’t hit it. If you hit it there, you’re just trying make a bogey rather than making a double. It’s about knowing where you are, where the pins are relative to where your ball needs to be left around the green. From there, it’s just about having good touch around the green and being able to pull off certain shots around the green.
TR: You’ve played there before, right, just not in competition?
SK: Right, I played there in December. Just got a taste of it, got my bearings around the place. Just kind of get the Augusta feel out of the way, so the next time I go out, it will be more business related, preparing to win a golf tournament.
In December, it’s not near what it will play like in April, when it’s a lot firmer and faster. The greens get quick. The greens are already quick this year, so apparently, what guys are telling me is that the greens have never been this quick this fast. So, it will be interesting to see how much more difficult it plays this year in comparison.
TR: Let’s go back a little bit. Both of your parents were LSU golfers. Did they meet on the course?
SK: Yeah, they met their freshman year at LSU on the golf team. So I’m an LSU golf baby.
TR: You grew up in Birmingham. I guess the natural question there is: what was it like growing up in Crimson Tide and War Damn Eagle territory as an LSU fan?
SK: I enjoyed it. Every year, LSU would play either at Alabama or at Auburn, so I would be able to go to at least one game. And I’d always try to make it to at least one game at home, whether it was the Auburn game, the Alabama game, or the Florida game. All my friends were Auburn or Alabama fans, so I enjoyed being the oddball. Anytime LSU won big games, I would wear LSU gear to school. I wore LSU gear to school almost every day, actually. Everybody knew I was a big Tiger fan.
TR: Who were some of your favorite Tigers growing up?
SK: The normal guys. Shaq. Pete Maravich. I obviously didn’t watch those guys, but I knew they were legends at LSU. I’m actually buddies with Matt Flynn now. It’s funny, we went to watch LSU play Miami in the Peach Bowl in 2005. Flynn was going to be the quarterback for that game. He was a sophomore that game, and JaMarcus Russell was out, so Flynn played. Miami was heavily favored, and we beat the crap out of them. We got a picture with him at the hotel, and my dad said to all his buddies, ‘This is the last time you’ll see Matt Flynn.’ We thought he was just going to get crushed by Miami that day. But he smoked them. Then Matt Flynn went on to lead us to the national championship and had a great pro career. I ended up meeting him at school, and I think we’re going to play the week before the Zurich when we’re both in town. It’s a small world, full circle.
— Matt Flynn (@mflynn3) March 7, 2016
TR: When you got to LSU, you came in on the heels of guys like John Peterson and Andrew Loupe, who are now doing well on the tour. How did your game compare to theirs when you arrived at LSU?
SK: Physically, I was way behind. They were a lot stronger than I was. They were seniors. They had a better understanding of what their golf game was at the time, and they were a lot better than I was. Talent-wise, I didn’t think they were better than me, but they understood their game a lot more than I did at that age, which is the case for most freshmen coming in. I learned a lot from them, the hard work they put in and their dedication to the game and how hard they worked out and practiced. That rubbed off on me. The guys we had on that team, we embraced the tough golfer mentality. College golf is all about grinding out pars so that your team has a better chance. Every shot matters in college golf. The guys on our team were tough dudes who were fun to play with every day.
TR: I read a story that Peterson went out of his way to stuff buffalo burgers down your throat when you arrived. What’s the story there?
SK: (laughs) I came in school at about 150 pounds, 6-foot-1. I was a string bean. We were watching the LSU-North Carolina game at his place, and he had a buffalo that he’d killed hunting somewhere. Every time a burger would come out of the grill, he’d tell me to come up and get my burger. That was an interesting night.
TR: I know it’s hard to sum up a college career in a few words, but when you look back on your time at LSU, what stands out? What changed about your game, and not just your game, but about yourself, the most?
SK: For me, I ended up putting a plan together, but it took me too long to put a plan together for how to be successful. I was always a very hard worker. I was never lazy with the way I worked. I just wasn’t working the right way. I was putting in as many hours as everyone else, but I was in search mode. Once I owned my golf game, my senior year, that’s when I started getting results and started seeing myself playing professionally rather than going to sell insurance somewhere.
TR: So playing professional golf was never a realistic part of the plan until you were a senior?
SK: I knew I had to get a lot better. I wasn’t going to be stupid about it. I remember the summer before my senior year, my dad was asking about getting everything organized if I wanted to turn pro. I said, “I gotta get a lot better if I want to do that.” I was realistic about the situation. If I wasn’t improving or I didn’t have the confidence that I could go do it, I wasn’t going to do it. It was tough. My first three years were tough, being in and out of the lineup. I made postseason my junior year through NCAAs and nationals, but it was a fluke thing. I didn’t deserve to be there. The only real year of postseason I had was my senior year. I missed out on three years of experience.
But I think it was the best thing that could have happened to me. When I graduated, I was ready to go, rather than waiting and thinking about turning pro. When I finished my senior year, I wanted to come back for another year, because I felt like I had unfinished business at LSU. Unfortunately, I had done four years and I couldn’t come back. I was ready to come back and do some great things at LSU. I felt I was good enough to be a first team All-American the next year and win a bunch of golf tournaments. But at that point I was graduated and on to pro golf, which was the best thing that could happen to me. I definitely wanted to be successful at LSU, and I think I was at the end of my career, but never enough to be All-American or All-SEC. No awards, really, which I wish I would’ve accomplished.
TR: What are your memories of getting your pro career started? You played in the ’14 U.S. Open. How did you get there and what did that do for your pro career?
SK: Qualifying for it came pretty close after NCAAs. I remember getting that done and driving over to Atlanta. I wasn’t excited about it. I was pretty worn down from the end of our spring season. We made a great run late into postseason, so I was wiped. But I was playing good. We went over to Atlanta, my brother caddied for me, and we played really well in the first round of the qualifier. Second round, I was literally just trying to par everything down the stretch to give myself a chance. I was super nervous, but I ended up holding up by one shot. Next thing I know, I was going to the Open. It really just brought some perspective. I thought, I can actually do this.
“It was a dream day. Golf was easy that day. Golf is normally not easy. I’m just happy it was on a Sunday rather than a Thursday.”
That was big for me, actually getting to the U.S. Open and playing in that environment. There’s no better thing that could happen, to get there and see what the highest level is played at and to know I could play at that level. I missed the cut, but I actually played good. I just didn’t putt very good. My brother caddied for me again, and it was a fun week, just to see I could play at the highest level. The guys I played with and in practice rounds, top players, I felt my game was just as good as theirs. Theirs was more polished, but I felt like I could hit shots they could hit, I could hit shots they couldn’t, I could drive the ball farther than them. Just a lot of things that gave me confidence moving forward.
TR: You spent 2015 on the Web.com Tour, which is sort of the stepping stone to the PGA Tour. How’d you earn a spot on that tour?
SK: You have to go through Q School. Q School used to give you status on the PGA Tour, but now Q School qualifies you for the Web.com Tour. I had to wait until October to start Q School. I got a back injury right around August, so I didn’t do a whole lot in August. But I went down to Baton Rouge to work out with Kolby Tullier. He works out at Traction Sports. He works out a bunch of NFL guys, Andrew Loupe, Peterson and I. I started working with him that whole month, and I have been ever since. It changed my game, as far as being healthy and being strong enough to last a whole year. If I didn’t start working out with him, I would have tanked out by the end of the year on the Web.com Tour last year. When I started working out with him, my first event out, I won a mini tour event in Georgia, but I didn’t get paid for it. The tour – it was the Hopkins Tour – went bankrupt. So I never got payed out. They still owe me $15,000.
A month later I went to Q School, first stage. I won the first stage of Q School by a shot. A month later in November, I went to the second stage of Q School and breezed through second stage, got fourth there. Then I went to the finals of Q School at PGA National, where the Honda Classic is, and actually double bogeyed my last hole to have conditional status on the Web.com Tour. I needed to birdie that hole to have full status. At that point, I thought it was going to be another year before I had my opportunity on the Web, unless I got a sponsor’s exemption or took advantage of something.
That break came in Lafayette. Through the Web.com Tour, I got an exemption there, and I finished fourth. A top-25 finish on the Web.com Tour gets you to the next week. That got me into Mexico, and I got fourth again in Mexico. That got me into the next week, in Indiana. Evansville. I won that week. So three weeks in a row, I went fourth, fourth, first. At that point, I had almost made enough money on the Web.com Tour to be on the PGA Tour. I had a couple other decent finishes the rest of the year to finish sixth on the money list and roll right into the PGA Tour.
TR: Before you had the string of results that started with the Louisiana Open in Lafayette, you got cut in three straight events. What’s your mentality going into that Louisiana Open after three straight cuts?
SK: That was my last opportunity. Everybody knew it, too. I had to make something out of it. I had played good in all of those cuts. I just didn’t know how to handle myself to make a cut. I was getting in my own way. I made the cut in Lafayette by one shot, and I think I made a 10-footer on the last hole. I thought that was to make the cut. Turns out I made it by one, but I shot a pair of 66s on the weekend after that. I was just so happy to be playing on the weekend that I wasn’t nervous at all. I knew, just get me there, and I was going to play good. And that’s what happened.
TR: The career changer for you, so far, was the PGA Tour win in Vegas last October at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open. One of your first PGA Tour events as a pro, and you win. You shot 29 on the back nine. What’s going through your mind during that stretch?
SK: I was just playing golf. My preparation for the back nine that week was the best I’ve had all year, just knowing where the pins would be and where my ball had to be. There were certain shots I had to execute, and I think my preparation led me to believe I could pull off what I did. On that back nine, I knew I needed a low number, but I wasn’t thinking about a low number. I was just hitting my shots, and hitting them to spots I knew where to hit it. I just happened to make a couple of putts. It was a dream day. Golf was easy that day. Golf is normally not easy. I’m just happy it was on a Sunday rather than a Thursday.
TR: So how was your life changed since that day?
SK: I got into a WGC (World Golf Championships) event as a rookie on tour. That’s pretty remarkable and something I could’ve never imagined, getting into all these WGC events. Having a chance to get into all the majors is hard to believe. I get into every big event, just about. I’m going to have plenty of opportunities to be in front of a big market and, hopefully, have a chance to win some golf tournaments. I feel like my game is continually improving. I haven’t had a week where it’s been all my A stuff that week. I think I’m trending toward some really, really good golf here. We’ll see. I’m starting to get control of my golf ball. I’ve been putting well all year. You never know. Hopefully I can win another big event under the big lights. We’ll see where that takes me. A year ago, I was playing a mini tour event. It’s hard to believe all that can happen that quickly. It’s pretty cool.