Smylie Kaufman Ends Toughest 18 Months of his Golf Life
GOLF can be a cruel game. Just ask Smylie Kaufman. Three years ago the American won the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open in Las Vegas at the age of 23. His star was well and truly on the rise.
Since then, the 26-year-old has crashed back to earth with a bang and his 2018 season is over after he filed with the PGA Tour for a medical exemption. It means that when he comes back out to play next season he will have five starts to earn enough money to keep his tour card.
It is all down to an elbow injury that has left him in agony for months, restricting his range of motion and, thus, his swing. Kaufman, who has missed the cut in all but two of 16 starts this year, hasn’t touched a club since pulling out of the Greenbrier Classic in July after an opening round of 79, and he doesn't expect to play for the next two to five months.
“It has been the toughest year, year-and-a-half of my life, golf wise,” said Kaufman in a Golf Digest interview with Brian Wacker, whose exempt status from his Shriners victory was set to run out at the end of this season. “It sucks being really good for so long and feeling like I forgot how to play.”
In his fifth career start on the PGA Tour, he shot a final-round 61 that included seven birdies and an eagle over his final 11 holes at TPC Summerlin. He waited a couple of hours to see if it was good enough. It was, and he won by a stroke.
The following spring, Kaufman, entered the final round of the 2016 Masters a stroke behind leader Jordan Spieth after having recorded the day’s best score, a three-under 69, the previous afternoon. The moment proved too big a challenge for the then-24-year-old, who tumbled out of contention with nine bogeys and a double en route to an 81 and a T-29 finish.
Still, Kaufman seemed on his way to becoming a star. In just 15 months, he had won on golf’s biggest tour, wrote the underdog story at Augusta National and enjoyed the spoils of newfound fame and fortune with buddies Spieth, Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler. He also signed a lucrative deal with a beer company. Life was sweet.
With all of it came 100,000 followers on Twitter and more than twice as many on Instagram, as Kaufman lived out his life on both for all to see.
Yet just as quickly as his star rose, it flickered and died in even more spectacular fashion. Since the 2016 Masters, Kaufman has missed 38 cuts in 60 worldwide starts. The only cut he made this year was in January at the CareerBuilder Challenge in Palm Springs.
Eight times this year he has shot in the 80s. His 74.89 scoring average ranks 203rd on the tour, and he ranks outside the top 200 in every major statistical category in the game, except for one: he’s 198th in strokes-gained/putting.
Along the way, Kaufman changed coaches, changed caddies and found himself unable to cope with all the advice that was coming in from all directions.
“I never had to fight for my card before,” he said. “I overdid it. I was trying too hard, which is easy to do. You always run into the same guys on Wednesday afternoon on the range, and you almost never see those guys play well.”
And the harder Kaufman tried, the worse his problems became as the pain in his forearm, wrist and elbow became unbearable. “I was icing them since February, twice a day, just to be able to play the next day,” he said. “It finally gave out on me.”
It didn’t help any social media turned against him. “That place sucks," Kaufman said. "It was so great for me for so long, but it was never anything good the last six months. When I go to Twitter, it’s like reading the newspaper for me. Well, I don’t wanna see Tom or Joe telling me how bad I suck when I read the newspaper.”
Kaufman took a two-month break from Twitter and Instagram and has tried to be more low key with each since, though he shared pictures from his April wedding to high school sweetheart Francie Harries. The one blessing is that his injury woes have allowed him to settle into married life and work with sport psychologist Dr. Bhrett McCabe.
“It was great to just be able to focus on what I’m trying to accomplish,” said Kaufman, who admits that he doesn’t watch much golf. “A lot of things about social media are great. I love that I can interact with fans and other players. It’s the way things are moving and a way that you can market yourself. But I need to focus on my golf.”
As he attempts to regain his fitness, does Kaufman have any regrets? "If I could do it over again, I wouldn’t have played as much when I was struggling. My bad golf is a lot worse than other guys’ bad golf because I’m an aggressive player. But with the time off I’ve been able to remember all the good golf I have played, and I realised my best golf is in front of me.”
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