No need to call him by his birth name, Carter. His longstanding nickname, Smylie, is what he prefers and given the way things unfolded Monday at Ansley Golf Club in Roswell, Ga., he’s certainly got plenty of reason to live up to the name.
Though he stumbled early in his afternoon round on the Settindown Creek course, then had to anxiously wait and see how costly it was to play his last 13 holes in 5 over, the recently-graduated-from-LSU Smylie Kaufman can make plans to tee it up in the U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2.
That’s right, a successful USGA test.
“I’ve had some bad luck in USGA qualifiers,” Kaufman said. “The last time I made it through was when I was 14 and got into the U.S. Junior Amateur. It’s been a long time. I can’t believe I’m in the U.S. Open without having gotten into the U.S. Amateur.”
Kaufman’s improbable berth in the 31-for-2 competition was fueled by a torrid morning stretch as he birdied the 17th and 18th holes, then went to the front and added birdies at Nos. 2, 3, 4, 5, and 7. The 5-under 67 was the morning’s best score “and it really set me up nicely,” Kaufman said.
While he clearly had reason to smile, Kaufman didn’t post the lowest score. Medalist honors went to 27-year-old Swede Henrik Norlander. The former Augusta State standout ran off five birdies in the morning, added four more in the afternoon, and with matching 70s to finish at 4-under 140, he qualified for his first major championship start.
Norlander struggled in his rookie season on the PGA Tour in 2013, finishing 229th in the FedEx Cup standings. But he’s got one top 10 and sits 43rd on the money list this Web.com Tour season.
It was, however, the battle for the second available berth that was the story of the day and the fact that it went to Kaufman left the young man from Birmingham, Ala., needing to be pinched.
“You have no idea (how great) this feels. Unbelievable,” he said after watching the final scores get posted.
At 75 – 142 for a 2-under day, Kaufman finished one ahead of Trevor Cone, a junior at Virginia Tech who finished at 72-71.
Clearly, Kaufman had a nice springboard into his afternoon round, but he concedes he needed help. So he turned to a kid who wears many hats – caddie, brother, and college roommate – and said: “I need you out there, because at some point I’m going to get punched and face not making it. I really need you to help me gather my thoughts and make it through.”
The fact that he was saying this to a kid who goes by the name of “Lucky” was quite a break. Whereas Smylie Kaufman is named after his grandmother’s cousin, Lucky Kaufman is named after a great-grandfather, but both names were true to form this day. “(Lucky) did a great job, especially over the final nine, which were very stressful,” Smylie said.
Watching the scores go up and knowing his rocky back nine still provided him with the slightest cushion, but enough to get into Pinehurst, Kaufman knew it helped take a little of the bitter taste out of his mouth that lingers from last week. He’s proud of his Alabama roots, but his parents went to LSU and “I was raised purple and gold.”
That’s tough in Birmingham, isn’t it?
“It depends on what time of year it is. In the fall, we have some enemies,” he said with a laugh.
But last week when LSU drew Alabama in the semifinals of the NCAA Championship, it was a tough thing to swallow. ‘Bama cruised, 4-1, then beat Oklahoma State in the final for a second, and Smylie is still shaking his head at his match-play opponent in the semifinals. He drew his good friend from Birmingham, Tom Lovelady.
“We play at the same club all the time in Birmingham and we had to go all the way to Kansas (Prairie Dunes) to play a match,” Kaufman said. “It was tough going up against a good friend in match play. It wasn’t too much fun.”
But this day at Settindown Creek? Ah, it helped wipe away memories of Prairie Dunes and all those past disappointments in USGA qualifiers. Smylie and Lucky were settling into their car for the long drive from Roswell to Birmingham, and most likely, the next trip they’ll make is Birmingham to Pinehurst.
“As of now, we’ll do it again (as player and caddie). At least, that’s the play,” Smylie said.
Short shots: It was a disappointing day for Georgia Tech’s Ollie Schniederjans, the recent runner-up to Cameron Wilson at the NCAA Championship. Unable to ride that momentum, the All-America opened with an 83 and was never a factor . . . . . Two potential storybook tales came to a halt, too, as both Sean Moore (72-81) and Andrew Orischak (77-70) fell short. Moore is an assistant professional at Pinehurst No. 8 and was vying for the ultimate “home” game. As for the 15-year-old Orischak, the day halted his run of great success. In early May he won medalist honors at the local qualifier, then he finished second in the South Carolina Class 3A state championship . . . . . Tee Opperman, an amateur from Pawley’s Island, S.C., opened with a 70, but came back with 79 . . . . . Reigning U.S. Senior Amateur champion Doug Hanzel, 57, shot 85-79.