Smylie Kaufman’s long way back

Smylie Kaufman’s long way back

TULSA, Okla. — Today is the second round of the PGA Championship and Smylie Kaufman, over there in the distance, can see it all. He adjusts his headset, a big ol’ thing muffling his ears with an antenna pointing to the sky, sending his voice to the masses. He looks over the green where Rickie Fowler stands over a short 6-foot putt. “These are typically routine for this kid,” he says.

Fowler is 33. Kaufman is 30. Back when Kaufman was an undergrad at LSU, he once attended a PGA Tour event and snapped a selfie as Fowler, then a budding superstar on the tour, walked past in the background. A few years later, the two became great friends. Kaufman joined the tour and mounted the same kind of rocket ship Young Rickie already rode. He was on his way to the same orbit: a fresh-faced superstar millionaire of the gilded 2010s, when social media crowned kings and reality was reshaped.

That was then.

This is now.

Fowler rolls in the putt and Kaufman moves onto the next hole. This is Day 2 of what might be a new life for Smylie. Maybe. We’ll see. For now, he’s in the throes of his debut as an on-course commentator for ESPN+. It’s a job requiring a mobile perspective.

Smylie is part of a three-man team, but the only one on the property. Dave Feldman, handling play-by-play, and former five-time PGA Tour winner Mark Wilson, the broadcast’s analyst, are both working remotely. Kaufman has no monitor, no idea what the audience is seeing. There’s a third voice in his head, that of Bryan Jaroch, the coordinating producer. He tries to cue Kaufman when to speak, when to wrap up a thought, when the next commercial break is coming. There’s a lot more to a broadcast than what you see. There’s an entire orchestra behind that screen. It’s complicated and it takes experience.

And here is Smylie, trying this out at the PGA Championship.

“Yeah, to do this for the first time at a major championship is pretty nuts,” Feldman says later. If he’s out of position, he can’t do his job. How to do that — where to be, when to speak, what to say — he’s figuring it all out on the fly, but he’s learning pretty quickly. It’s actually been pretty incredible.”

While a broadcast’s analyst breaks down shots as they happen, the on-course commentator sees what’s coming next. Part of the job is being ahead of things, knowing what’s coming, anticipating what information will be needed.

In truth, it feels like satire to have a guy so tethered to the past serve in this role.

But this is Smylie Kaufman moving forward. Or trying to. Or thinking about it.

Soon after, Harold Varner III, another friend, flubs his third shot into the par-5 13th. “I don’t know why he hit a high shot there,” Kaufman says. “I just feel like, in this wind, you want to get it on the ground as much as possible.” Varner probably wouldn’t take any offense to the comment. He and Smylie were teammates in the 2016 Zurich Classic.

Kaufman takes a shortcut between holes, moving through some fans in a crosswalk. One hoists his tallboy into the air. “YOU THE MAN, SMYLIE!” Kaufman smiles and waves. He settles into position, looking back at the tee, then out into the fairway. He brings the microphone up and presses a button on his mic pack, tells everyone what he sees.

This week, Smylie will later tell me, is the first time in well over a year that he’ll go without working on his game or swinging a swing. In some ways, he took a week off from his job in order to go find work.

“I’m not uncomfortable with the antenna out there,” he says. “It’s not like I’m wearing it as a badge of shame. I feel as comfortable as myself as I ever have.”


Smylie Kaufman knows the version of Smylie Kaufman that you think of.

The one that came out of nowhere, won his second event after earning his PGA Tour card in 2016. The 24-year-old who finished the third round of the Masters in solo second that same year and, during an interview in Butler Cabin, told Jim Nantz that he was still living with his parents and owned a 2008 Nissan Murano. “It drives really nice,” he said. The guy with the weird name who went from Total Unknown to partying at spring break with Fowler, Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth, posting shirtless pics on Instagram and signing an endorsement deal with Natural Light. The one that climbed to as high as No. 48 in the world golf rankings.

Today, all these years later, Carter Smylie Kaufman, who’s long gone by a middle name that’s a tribute to his grandmother’s cousin, is now 30. He’s sitting here in a boutique downtown Tulsa hotel, where most of the ESPN crew is headquartered for the PGA Championship. Smylie still looks distinctively young. He’s the type who doesn’t sit still — fixing his shorts, tugging his shirt, stretching his back, sweeping his hair off his forehead. Tonight, though, he’s getting comfortable, retelling his story. The one about how this all happened. How he was once a so-so college player at LSU, then caught a heater, and rode it to bizarre levels of fame and more than $3.5 million in earnings.

He goes a little wide-eyed, lifts his right hand.

Snap.

“My life changed,” Smylie says in his Alabama drawl, “like that.”

A laugh.

“It was easy and I enjoyed all of it.”

That’s the first part of the story he tells. Both he and I know there’s the other part.

Kaufman says it’s been over three years since he’s sat for a print interview or participated in a story. For years, there’s been this perverse fascination: What happened to Smylie Kaufman? He didn’t want to talk about it, so he didn’t. Interviews were declined. He was still out there, popping up every once in a while at a Monday qualifier or mini pro event, but the state of his game created a quasi self-imposed exile from the public eye. While everyone was wondering, what happened to Smylie Kaufman?, he was busy trying to come back.

“In those three years I didn’t do any media, I just tried to stick my nose in the dirt and tried to dig my way out of it,” he says. “I wanted to stay consistent with my coaches and work my ass off. And I did. I worked my ass off.”

Still does, in fact. This is probably why, at this point, Smylie speaks of his career with unsentimental honesty.

You want to know about the 2016 Masters? Sure, fine, let’s start there. Kaufman was in the final pairing with Spieth, a longtime friend and the tournament’s defending champion. That Sunday was the biggest day of Smylie’s life and it played out like a Greek tragedy. Smylie nearly jarred his approach on No. 1, then birdied No. 2, and looked like Peter Pan, ready to take a few steps, lift off and fly circles through the sky above Augusta. Then he played the next 16 holes in 10-over par. An unthinkable undoing. He shot an 81, finished T29. Not only that, he had a front-row seat for Spieth’s all-time collapse, the one that handed the green jacket to Danny Willet. Yes, that was the 2016 Masters.


Everyone doesn’t know that Kaufman began that Sunday by talking to his trainer. He moved around his right wrist. Just didn’t feel right. It had kind of bothered him all week. But adrenaline is a helluva cure, so he played through it without a second thought.

By the next week, though, the wrist was an issue. Kaufman was told it was tendinitis. He tried to give it a go that Thursday at the Wells Fargo Championship, but WDd. Three weeks later, he played with Varner at Zurich and was plainly awful. Two weeks after that, he missed the cut at The Players. “My wrist was total dog shit,” he says now.

Then came elbow pain.

Then forearm pain.

Kaufman tweaked his swing — what was a beautiful, effortless but aggressive lash — to compensate. Problem was, in time, even on days the pain subsided, he couldn’t find those exact positions that fueled his play from 2015 through ’16. Major swing issues began with a big right miss with the driver. It got worse. And here came the psychological undercurrents. The miss went from impulsive to ingrained.

Smylie talks about this all now as if it happened to someone else, so matter of factly. He explains it all as if reading from a Wikipedia page. As the years went on, he changed coaches, changed sports psychologists, changed caddies. It got bad. He was given loads of information — good, valuable insight — but whether he knew how to apply it or if he could implement it with his wrist and elbow problems, was an entirely different story. Sure, he could go shoot 5- or 6-under at his home club with ease, but when it came to pro competition, he didn’t know where the clubface was when he swung.

In 2017, he missed 15 cuts with two top-10s in 27 events. In 2018, he missed 14 of 16 cuts. In 2019, 14 of 18. And that, essentially, was it.

He leans back in his chair. Now Smylie says some hard stuff.

“The game gets confusing sometimes,” he begins. “I got away from what I knew. I did it a certain way, and injuries kind of deterred me, forced me to do something different. I still wanted to be a better form of myself, and I felt like I was a good enough athlete to do anything, but you can’t trick your brain. I could do it on the range, but as soon as I got on the course, I was stuck thinking about how I did it. I was stuck. I couldn’t get the right feeling. It’s hard to play when you’re standing over the ball thinking, what shot do I have today? You’re kind of effed. I fought that for a long time.”

Kaufman played in three PGA Tour events in 2020 — Puerto Rico, Pebble Beach and Sony. Three missed cuts with a scoring average of 74.6.

Three tournaments in 2021 — Barbasol, Palmetto and Puerto Rico. Scoring average: 80.3.

Smylie vividly remembers the last time he played the weekend of a PGA Tour event. It was the 2019 Rocket Mortgage Classic. He began the week 5-under, leading the tournament through 11 holes. Then he made the cut on the number and shot a third-round 80 on one of the easiest tracks on tour. Because of an odd number of participants remaining in the event, Kaufman played that Sunday morning alone at Detroit Golf Club. Teeing off at 8:20, under a July sun on an empty course, he walked the course in solitude on his way to a DFL finish at 9-over.

That is, essentially, how a once-budding PGA Tour career came to a halt.

Smylie went to Korn Ferry Q School this past October. That ended in the Second Stage. His lone PGA Tour event of 2022 was the Puerto Rico Open in March. He shot 78-79.

Now he’s sitting here in this lobby, sounding like a guy who spent his 20s trying to lasso a career that was a comet. The good days he had should be cherished. Instead they’ve only been chased. But he’s never walked away. It was never really an option. If he’s already proven capable of playing at that level once, why shouldn’t he be able to do it again? That’s like touching heaven and being told there’s no afterlife. Smylie still works with professional coaches. He spends his days grinding on the range and on the course at Shoal Creek in Birmingham, Alabama, working toward something.

He tells himself that something is the PGA Tour.

But there’s no hiding from what’s in the mirror.

Back in winter, Smylie was talking to his wife, Francie. The two have been together since high school. She’s seen it all, good and bad, and Smylie isn’t sure if he’d have survived the last few years without a partner holding him up. This conversation — the time had come for Smylie to admit he could only take so much more of this. It wasn’t only the struggles on the course weighing on him. For some reason, whether it’s his name or the persona that was born back when he was that swaggy SEC frat-boyish tour rookie — an image that he now says was “basically a character” — plenty of people took an odd delight in watching him fail, witnessing his fall. Some voices on social media were particularly brutal. He devolved into a snarky punchline. Everyone, media included, had jokes. It only compounded his struggles.

“I was playing bad enough to where I wanted to prove people wrong, which is the worst thing you can do — to put that kind of pressure on yourself,” he says.

So this winter, for the first time, Kaufman considered doing something else.

“When you kind of fail over and over again,” Smylie says, “you just want to go be successful at … something. I think that’s what I told my wife at the beginning of the year. Like, ‘Hey, I don’t know if golf is, like, finished for me, but I just want to see what else I can do.’  The game had just beat me up. I still love to play, but trying to play on tour right now? That’s just so stressful. Golf is stressful.”


It was Thursday morning, the start of the PGA Championship, when Smylie stood off to the side of the driving range at Southern Hills Country Club, trying to listen to the question in his headset. Feldman, the ESPN+ play-by-play man, was asking him about players facing the distractions of playing in a major.

“Well, Dave,” Smylie said, “if you want to talk about distractions, Jordan Spieth is currently firing 7-irons at my feet.”

Over on the range, a delighted Spieth pressed his hands forward, hollowed out his club, and smacked punch shots at his old friend. Smylie rolled right with it. Good times.

“It was great,” Feldman said later. “He’s very authentic. He just talks like Smylie Kaufman.”

More and more, the golf-viewing audience of today does not want over-laundered dialogue disguised as analysis. Nor does it want cynicism disguised as wisdom. Nor does it want those who self-mythologize or take themselves too seriously.

What it wants is information. The golf audience of 2022, especially those who watch the game beyond the product pumped by the primary network feed, is more shrewd and informed than ever. It wants analysts that speak its language.

Kaufman, somewhat accidentally, could be exactly that. He never imagined broadcasting, but after telling his agent, Jimmy Johnston, that he might be looking for different avenues in golf, was presented with the possibility of doing some in-booth PGA Tour Live work. That didn’t interest him. It felt too far removed from the action. But then came a pitch to do some on-course work. His curiosity was piqued, and a deal was made to work the PGA Championship. In April, he returned to the Masters for the first time since 2016 to watch Thomas and Spieth. It was a look at what life is like being around the game, but on the outside, and he felt oddly comfortable. Smylie Kaufman walked around, was recognized by everyone, welcomed everywhere, stacked some cups, and, from the sounds of it, remembered what it felt like to be Smylie Kaufman again. As he puts it, “It was awesome.”

This trip to the PGA was different. Kaufman had never previously done live TV work. Last Wednesday night, he ironed his shirt for (maybe) the first time in his adult life. The next morning, he followed Viktor Hovland, Will Zalatoris and Cameron Smith for Thursday’s featured group. If there was a picture to be painted of how far his game is from being tour-ready, this was unfortunately a graphic close-up of it. All three are so good. Smylie’s maiden voyage in broadcasting was a stripe show.

But his brand of commentary began to take shape. A high IQ. An understanding of when to allow on-course mics to pick up player-caddie conversations versus when to jump in. Self-deprecating, to draw a laugh, but not self-lacerating, to make you sad. Day 1 went well. In truth, he never worried about it going any other way. For good reason.

“I already experienced the highest (level of) golf and the lowest. What else is there?” he said that night. “Once you hit rock bottom of whatever you do, you kind of figure out who you are again as a person. I think that was a big key for me, and I think it’s why I’m comfortable doing this.”

Smylie Kaufman, left, and Justin Thomas became friends in their early days on the PGA Tour, part of a group of young guys that came up at the same time with similar attitudes about golf. (Stan Badz / PGA Tour)

The next day Smylie followed Fowler, Varner and Jason Day. He got more comfortable. He explained each shot from his mind’s eye. As a camera panned across a tee box with Day standing behind the ball, Kaufman began …

“This is a back-left pin location today, guys. There’s a ridge that runs through the middle of the green from the front right all the way to the back left. It all slopes to the front left part of the green. His eyes are going to take him over to the right edge of the green. He’s probably looking to land this 20 feet right. That first bounce should go a little to his left for him and trickle toward the hole.”

With Varner standing over a long birdie on 16 … 

“This putt is going to be downhill, maybe a little left to right,” Smylie said. “Probably about a foot or two of break here? This is one you’re potentially looking to make.”

Varner’s ball rolled, picking up some speed, slightly left to right, and fell.

“Wow!” Feldman said. “Good call there, Smylie. You had a feel for that one.”

The next day, it was Hideki Matsuyama and Patton Kizzire. On Sunday, it was Jon Rahm and Justin Harding. Kaufman’s voice got more comfortable, more in command. The progression was obvious. It all affirmed something he told me back on Thursday night.

“I think that I can call golf exactly how these guys who are playing this week would call it themselves — the shots they’re hitting, the numbers they’re thinking, the shot shapes, where they’re looking off tee boxes,” Smylie said. “It’s because I’ve played with them and I know what their shot shapes are, and I know where I would hit it and try to land it. So while parts of this are hard, having that perspective is easy.”

This might be a voice the sport could use. And for Kaufman, there are worse things than billable hours talking about golf. Word is, there’s a strong possibility he works the U.S. Open. Other opportunities could be quickly coming down the pike.

There is, though, the issue of Smylie Kaufman, the professional golfer. Yes, the game has been cruel. Yes, it’s beat the ever-living hell out of him. Yes, it’s wildly unlikely that he magically regains his previous form. But, like he said earlier, you can’t trick your brain, and Smylie Kaufman’s brain will always believe he’s supposed to be back on the PGA Tour.

“I don’t have it figured out,” he told me. “No, furthest thing from it. I still would love to continue to try to play golf and I still kind of want to see what this (broadcasting) stuff is all about. So I’m just kind of testing the waters.”

Asked if he still considers himself a player, Smylie paused, winced, and replied … “-ish.”

That’s fine, but among his friends, Smylie is still, first and foremost, a player. Outside the Southern Hills clubhouse on Sunday, Spieth wondered if broadcasting could “ignite” Kaufman.

“Part of me hopes that this pissed him off,” Spieth said, “but also part of me hopes that it frees him up, because maybe he now feels like he has a good fall-back plan.”

Hey, weird things happen when you don’t care what happens. Kaufman planned to be back on the range first thing Monday morning. He’ll spend the next two weeks practicing and playing, then head to Atlanta for U.S. Open sectionals on June 8. As they say in this game, all it takes is one swing.

Before he left Tulsa, I asked Smylie if he’d thought at all about practice while at Southern Hills. He cocked an eyebrow and said, “You know, the first time I thought about it is right now when you asked me.”

Oh? Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

“I think it’s a great thing. It’s a refresh. I’m excited to get back, touch the clubs again.”

But, not missing it — doesn’t that say something?

“Every day here has been a new challenge,” he said, “It was nice having this to focus on and being, I think, pretty good at it.”

The week ended on Sunday afternoon with Smylie among the crowd behind the 18th green, arms raised, pumping his fists. What a scene. Back on Tuesday, he had dinner with JT and Spieth at their rental house. Now here was Thomas tapping in his final putt to win the 2022 PGA Championship. Smylie was ear-to-ear. JT spotted him amid the celebration and came up the hill to share a huge hug. Two old guys embracing. Thomas slapped Kaufman and joked, “Gonna have to get you out here announcing more often!”

I sidled over and tapped Smylie on the arm. Hey, how about that?

“Dude, so happy for him,” Smylie said. “This feels so good.”

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