10/25/2015

Rarely, if ever, has there been a more appropriately named winner on the PGA Tour. Smylie Kaufman finished at -16 to take the Shriners Hospital for Children Open by one shot over a sextet of golfers at -15.

Kaufman had good reason to smile. He fired a staggering 61 on Sunday to become the second consecutive 23-year-old rookie winner in this (absurdly) early season.

The former LSU Tiger closed with one of the finest back-nine’s in recent memory. He birdied five holes, including the par-four 18th, and eagled another. The highlight of his afternoon came at the drivable 15th. Kaufman found the green then drained the putt.

When you’re hot, you’re hot. When you’re Smylie, you’re happy.

Still, the rest of the day made for some nervy moments. A collection of rivals threatened the 16-under-par mark. William McGirt nearly matched Kaufman, but his birdie effort on 18 grazed the edge of the cup. He settled for a 62, tying a career-best, and third place.
Ahead of McGirt were six golfers who epitomize October golf. On one hand there were tour regulars Kevin Na, Alex Cejka and Jason Bohn. On the other were youngsters and rookies fronted by Cameron Tringale.

Patton Kizzire, the 2015 Web.com Tour money leader and a good friend of Kaufman (so much so that he watched the drama play out alongside the eventual winner), birdied 17 but couldn’t equal his buddy on 18.

Tringale came undone down the stretch. The back-nine was playing easy for everyone except the Georgia Tech product. He offset four birdies with three bogeys.

But the real threat came from the beleaguered Na and upstart Brett Stegmaier. Last week, Na came up short when he tried to hit a driver off the deck in a playoff with Emiliano Grillo. On Sunday, it was his short game, normally a strong suit, that betrayed him.

Na sank a long birdie putt at the par-five 16th to catch Kaufman. Seventeen, however, was a disaster. The veteran came up short with his tee shot and landed in the fringe. He flubbed his chip and ran his par putt past the hole. Again, he was left to reflect on a defeat that effectively came down to one shot.

Kaufman watched as his closest rivals faltered.

Stegmaier was the last to make a run. The former clubhouse worker nearly gave up golf this summer. He was outside the Web.com Playoff race before making a run all the way to a PGA Tour card. This weekend was his fifth career start and first top-10. Stegmaier came within inches of draining a birdie putt from off the green on 18.

Instead of a win, he accepted the biggest paycheck of his life as well as affirmation that he belongs out there with the big boys.

Or at least some of them. The October slate of the 2015-16 season is all about opportunity. Without the Jason Day’s, Jordan Spieth’s or even Zach Johnson’s of the world, the fields allow for some lesser-known golfers to play into contention.

Kaufman seized the chance to earn a wonderful prize-package: a two-year exemption on tour, trips to the Masters, Players, and PGA Championship, and a nice, big check coming out of Las Vegas.

No one knows if Tiger will win this season. But a Tiger already has.

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