WEB.COM TOUR INSIDER
Why does Carter Kaufman go by Smylie?
April 22, 2015
By Kevin Prise, PGATOUR.COM
- Smylie Kaufman won the 2011 Alabama State Amateur with his father as his caddie. (Stan Badz/PGA TOUR)
Let’s start with the name.
Carter Smylie Kaufman’s middle name is a tribute to his grandmother’s cousin, Smylie Gebhart, who was an All-American defensive end for Georgia Tech in 1971, despite measuring a modest 6’1”, 180 pounds.
“Think about that one,” said Smylie’s father, Jeff Kaufman. “They don’t even have kickers that size anymore.”
Gebhart had a freak accident in 1979, in which a slipped disk ruptured his spinal cord. He became a quadriplegic and died at age 51. Jeff vowed that if he ever had a son, he would go by Smylie.
“He was one of those guys that was very straight-faced, the kind of guy that you wanted your daughter to bring home,” said Jeff of Smylie Gebhart. “An incredible working guy, and to think of what he went through … I just always knew that if I ever had a son, it was going to be Smylie.”
There’s a lot more to the story of Smylie Kaufman than the origins of his name, however. Particularly in the last few weeks, as the 23-year-old Louisiana State University graduate has caught fire in his rookie Web.com Tour campaign, recording back-to-back T4 finishes at the Chitimacha Louisiana Open and El Bosque Mexico Championship. In between, he Monday-qualified his way into the PGA TOUR’s Shell Houston Open.
Kaufman’s recent surge has vaulted him to No. 28 on the Web.com Tour money list. With a third of the Regular Season complete, it’s a fine position – but Kaufman knows there is a long way to go.
“I’m right where I want to be,” said Kaufman from his home in Birmingham, Alabama, on Monday evening, just after returning home from Mexico. “Obviously you’ve got so many events left in the year that it doesn’t matter where you are right now, but I like where I’m at on the money list. All it takes is another good week to get that PGA TOUR card.”
The ultimate goal, of course, is finishing inside the top 25 on the Regular Season money list, which would secure TOUR status for 2015-16. Just a few weeks ago, without even a spot on the money list after missing the first three cuts of the season, Kaufman was nowhere near that thought.
In early April, Kaufman had a tee time at the Monday qualifier for the Shell Houston Open, but upon the conclusion of play at the Web.com Tour's Chitimacha Louisiana Open presented by NACHER, he wasn’t sure if he was up for the three-hour drive. “I’m in between; I really don’t know,” he said at the time.
Kaufman opted to make the trip, then shot 65 and survived a playoff to earn one of four open spots in the field. He missed the cut at GC of Houston, but the week was highlighted by a practice round with Keegan Bradley – in which Kaufman and Bradley won a nine-hole match against Brendan Steele and Jon Curran.
“I like the way Keegan plays, so it was really cool getting to play with him, seeing the way he plays and goes about his practice,” said Kaufman. “I learned a lot from him. He’s a player that I kind of like to model my game after; you try to play your game, obviously, but there are guys’ games on TOUR that you like to watch, and Keegan is the guy I like to watch.
“He hits it far and is very competitive on the golf course, and that’s the way I am. So it was cool to watch him go about his business.”
Kaufman put lessons learned from Bradley into good use at last week’s El Bosque Mexico Championship, where his top-25 finish (T4) earned him a spot in next week’s United Leasing Championship Presented by PTI at Victoria National GC in Newburgh, Indiana.
His return to Victoria National has been long-awaited.
“Smylie’s got a great heart,” says Chuck Winstead, Kaufman’s college coach at LSU. “He genuinely cares about people and wants to do good.”
Kaufman’s desire to help others was illustrated at a young age. When he was a freshman in high school, Kaufman and his younger brother Luckie (now a junior at LSU, and named after their great-grandfather) started a fundraising campaign, Kids vs. Cancer, to support pediatric cancer research.
The Kaufman brothers organized a marathon day of golf, where they wrote letters asking for pledged donations per hole and then played 100 holes at Shoal Creek (from the red tees and in carts, which was critical as temperatures approached 100 degrees).
“One-hundred holes doesn’t sound like much; it’s just a number,” said Kaufman. “But once you do 100 holes, it’s a freaking marathon. My brother and I, we played the red tees, so we just kind of floated around, but it’s still a lot of golf.”
The next year, friends and fellow golfers from across the Birmingham area participated in the 100-hole marathon, which was moved to the par-3 course at the Kaufmans’ home club, Vestavia CC.
Golf marathons to support Kids vs. Cancer were also held in North Alabama and South Alabama, and the organization raised approximately $60,000 for pediatric (childhood) cancer over a three-year period.
In light of his efforts, Kaufman won the USGA-AJGA Presidents’ Youth Leadership Award in 2008, which brought a spot in the AJGA Rolex Tournament of Champions. That year, the event was held at Victoria National.
Kaufman shot 83-82, and next week will mark his first trip to Victoria National since.
“I wasn’t even close to ready for it,” said Kaufman of his first go-round at Victoria National. “To say that I’m very anxious to get back is an understatement. I want some revenge.
“It’s just a very intimidating golf course; it was long … just everything for me back then, it just seemed a lot more difficult. I’m sure it won’t be an issue now; I drive it a lot straighter than I used to. I probably just didn’t drive it straight enough, and I probably didn’t hit it a long way either.”
After an accomplished junior career, Kaufman could have played college golf nearly anywhere he wished. He had two logical options to choose from: the University of Alabama-Birmingham, where his grandfather Alan Kaufman was head coach; or LSU, where his parents Jeff and Pam played college golf.
Kaufman had always been an avid Tigers fan growing up, and LSU ended up as the clear choice (his grandpa was not offended).
When he arrived in Baton Rouge for his freshman season, Kaufman found two senior leaders ready and eager to aid in his development: John Peterson and Andrew Loupe.
Peterson quickly took a liking to Kaufman (whom he and Loupe had first met at the 2006 U.S. Junior in Rancho Santa Fe, California), describing him as “a salt-of-the-earth guy, a guy you want to sit down and have a beer with.”
Kaufman had a lot to learn, however, in his efforts to play golf at the highest level.
“He didn’t have it figured out when he got to LSU,” said Peterson with a smile at last week’s RBC Heritage, where he was keeping tabs on how Kaufman was faring in Mexico. “No one does, though; no one knows what to expect when they get to college their freshman year. They’re just ready to get over there and party, and they’re not really thinking about golf, especially at LSU.”
Kaufman soaked up the wisdom and actions of his older teammates, quickly growing to appreciate the work ethic of Peterson and Loupe, who were “first in, last out, every day of practice.”
“Freshman year, it was so long ago, but I just remember Peterson and Loupe hitting it so much better than I was,” said Kaufman. “They were just stronger, mentally better than I was. My freshman year, I learned what hard work really was, from those two guys.
“It didn’t matter if it was raining or if it was cold. They were always first there, last out, and I learned that from those guys. Their quiet confidence; that swagger on the golf course … it kind of rubs off on you. That’s kind of the LSU mode: we’re just tough dudes on the golf course.”
Kaufman also learned to be tough off the golf course, as well: Peterson admits that he and Loupe “hazed him a little bit.”
As a freshman, Kaufman and his peers was responsible for cleaning up the golf team’s tailgate parties before LSU football games. It meant they had to carry the equipment back to their apartment and then rush to make it to the game on time, although Kaufman is pleased to report that he never missed much past kickoff.
Kaufman didn’t mind cleaning up the tailgates, however. It’s the buffalo burgers that stick in his memory.
“I came into college at 150 pounds, probably – about 6’1", 150 lbs. – so I was like a little string bean,” Kaufman recalls. “Peterson had all this buffalo meat, and he made me eat like four buffalo burgers one night. I just threw it up. He was grilling and would be like, ‘Who wants buffalo burgers? Smylie, here’s your burger!’
“I probably gained about 10 or 15 pounds that semester, just from eating. He was always giving me crap about how much I weighed, so I just ate as much as I saw.”
Kaufman survived his freshman year in good spirits, and he went on to have a successful career at LSU, which was capped off by qualifying for last year’s U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2. Between practice rounds and competition, he played with Graeme McDowell, David Toms, Brandt Snedeker, Jonas Blixt and Graham DeLaet.
“DeLaet told him not to sell himself short, that he belonged out on TOUR,” said Jeff Kaufman. “I think that made a big difference, coming from somebody like that.”
“He reminds me a lot of Jordan Spieth, in a way,” said Peterson, comparing Kaufman to the reigning Masters champion. “He doesn’t really do anything that wows you, but everything is just really solid. He’s got a real good head on his shoulders. He doesn’t get upset; he’s just a smart player. His golf IQ is very high. I’m just impressed with the way he can manage himself around a golf course.”
From his beginnings as a junior golfer, it has been a long and interesting road for Kaufman, but in many ways, the path is just beginning to take shape.
It continues next week at Victoria National, where Kaufman will need a top-25 finish to assure a spot in the subsequent BMW Charity Pro-Am, after which he should reshuffle up to the point where tournament starts will not be a concern for the remainder of the Regular Season.
Kaufman played on a state championship-winning basketball team as a junior at Vestavia Hills High School outside Birmingham (where he was also student-government vice president), so he knows what it’s like to win something big.
He might experience that winning feeling on the Web.com Tour soon enough.
“I couldn’t be prouder of him,” said Jeff, summing up the prevailing sentiment of all who know his son. “He has worked very, very hard, and he has always been competitive in anything that he does. Golf is a funny game – you’ve got to get it when you’re hot – but right now, he is very confident.
“I think he feels like this is something he has always dreamt of doing, and he’s going out and pursuing his dream and working hard. And it seems like it has been paying off so far.”
Somewhere, Smylie Gebhart is smiling.
“The name stuck, and for what Smylie is like, I’m proud that he is kind of the same guy,” Jeff said. “It means a lot to me, to have been able to name him that.”