Smylie Kaufman and Stewart Jolly are roommates. A senior and junior, respectively, they are also two of LSU’s most experienced and talented players. And their names are a good indication of how the Tigers are feeling heading into NCAA Regionals.
“We’re a happy team,” Jolly said with a smile.
LSU has plenty of reason to celebrate after a runner-up finish at the SEC Championship Sunday at Sea Island Golf Club in St. Simons Island, Ga. The Tigers carded a final-round, 17-under 263 to finish at 18-under 822, second only to Alabama’s 806.
Kaufman also closed strong for a runner-up finish, capping his 11-under 199 total with a 6-under 64.
“Smylie is our secret weapon,” Jolly said. “He’s awesome and he’s playing some great golf now, and it’s good to see.”
Said LSU head coach Chuck Winstead: “He played great all week, but (Sunday) was something special.”
The second-place showing was Kaufman’s best performance of the season while the Tigers, who have also gotten good contributions from juniors Ben Taylor and Curtis Thompson, now have five finishes of fourth or better in six spring events.
“We’ve been putting a ton of hard work in,” Kaufman said. “We have a ton of talent. Coach has really challenged us to be the best that we can be and it’s starting to show.
“We have a lot of momentum going into regionals.”
While LSU is playing at a high level this spring, the Tigers had few reasons to be happy about their fall season. After opening the season with a third-place finish at the Carpet Capital Collegiate, LSU was fifth at the Golfweek Conference Challenge, seventh at the David Toms Intercollegiate and 10th at the Isleworth Collegiate – the Toms performance was especially deflating considering it was the Tigers’ home event.
“That’s kind of when (we realized that) everything was not the way it should be,” Kaufman said. “We were a preseason top-10 team, had all these high expectations, and we just weren’t playing very well.”
For Winstead, the struggles came down to work ethic. So after the fall, he had a conversation with his team and decided to switch a few things up, including the way he selected lineups for tournaments. Instead of qualifying, Winstead chose his five players for each event based on who was working the hardest to get better.
“From my perspective, the culture of the program is more important than who we take on the road,” Winstead said. “We didn’t work the way I expected us to work this fall, and we’ve done that this spring. The guys will tell you that they feel better about themselves and they feel better about their games.”
Said Kaufman: “It’s just been about who’s worked the hardest and who’s really putting it all on the line for LSU every day.”
The changes have paid off for the Tigers, who are 17th in the Golfweek/Sagarin rankings and are coming off their two best finishes of the season. LSU’s strong spring has taken the Tigers from the list of underperformers and moved them onto one of potential sleepers, the same list where many thought they belonged coming into the season.
“More importantly, we’re more where we expect to be,” Winstead said. “We did struggle in the fall, but the guys rallied with good, hard work over the winter break, and I think we got focused in the right direction and we’ve been building ever since.”
Said Jolly: “We’ve been definitely trending in the right direction. We have a lot of confidence right now.”
And one happy LSU team, too.