“The thought of ‘when is it coming’.”
It is a familiar feeling for club golfers going through a rough patch with their game. That dreaded shot that shows up completely unexpectedly and never leaves your mind for the rest of the round or even multiple rounds.
For a former PGA Tour winner just 28 years old, it is an even scarier concept. However, that has been the reality for Smylie Kaufman over the past two years where he made just three cuts from 31 starts.
The former World No. 48, now 2,063, makes his first start in Australia at this week’s Emirates Australian Open then takes a quick sojourn to Indonesia next week, before finishing his year at the Australian PGA Championship on the Gold Coast. And the 2015 Shriners Hospital for Children Open champion is not here for a holiday.
“I think just with my schedule right now, I’m starting to play a lot better, I just need more a bats at it, so the more I can play the more confidence I’m gaining, you’ve just got to play your way into tournament shape,” Kaufman exclusively told Golf Australia magazine.
Missed cuts are a part of playing golf for a living. And the concept of an American player trying to find their game in tournaments around the world is certainly not a foreign one to our country. But it is the extreme disintegration of Kaufman’s game in recent times that make his an interesting and noteworthy case.
Part of the social media famous ‘SB2K’ crew, including major champions Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas, as well as Rickie Fowler, Kaufman seemed destined for a long career at the top of the game after taking out his first PGA Tour win in just his fifth start on the world’s biggest stage. However, injuries to his right wrist and left elbow led to his slightly homespun golf swing becoming unreliable and a confidence shattering run of scores and social media criticism.
“The ball striking is what got me off, then with injuries kind of got my swing off and I couldn’t make the same swing anymore, so I am using a lot more body rotation now, I am actually hitting it harder, I’ve got more shots. It’s just about trusting it in competition, which I am starting to do and this golf course fits my game pretty good too,” he said at The Australian after spending over an hour working on his short game.
“The first year I started playing bad I was really bothered by it (social media), but I have grown and matured and I mean its golf, it’s just a hard game and I went through a funk, but there has been plenty of guys who went through a funk and get out of it and have really nice careers, so that’s kind of how I am looking at that.”
Kaufman remains close with his fellow spring breakers renowned for playing golf shirtless and enjoying a few beers along the way, regularly playing with Spieth, Thomas and Fowler.
“I played with JT and Rick recently, and just kind of hearing from them, they were complimentary of my game and knowing that ‘Hey, he is starting to get his stuff back’, so just get a nice little boost of confidence through that.”
RIGHT: Winning so early in his PGA Tour career has brought added attention to Kaufman's recent struggles to break 70, let alone add a second win on the game's biggest stage. PHOTO: Scott Halleran/Getty Images.
The three top-50 players also helping to guide his practice and preparation as he seeks to find his game.
“Obviously, those three are world class players and I have played world class at times in my career, but those parts were very inconsistent, so there is a lot to learn to play at the level they play at week in and week out, so I think I have kind of glimpse of how they do it. I have been working extremely hard and had the same type of processes so eventually I am going to get over this hump and start playing some nice golf.”
For many, the thought of simply not playing competitively while battling your mental game would have been the easy way out. But for Kaufman, the idea of walking away from the professional game, or even taking a hiatus, while he battled what could almost be described as a version of the full swing yips was never an option he entertained.
“You’d like to not have to play, but when it’s kind of your career and your job, you’ve got to just to do your best. But when it’s not right you don’t really know what game to trust out there. I think that has been the hardest thing.
“I don’t believe talent goes away. For me, I’ve gotten better through this process, I think I’m hitting a good club and a half to two clubs longer from an iron perspective, so I am finally starting to swing it like an athlete. I just knew where the clubface was and then injuries got me to where I was just not trusting it as much and I couldn’t do it, so I feel like more of an athlete now, and I never stopped believing in myself and I just wake up every day with a positive attitude that I can go do it.”
A positive attitude will certainly go a long way on his difficult road back to the top tier of the game after breaking 70 only seven times on the PGA Tour since the start of the 2018/19 season compared to recording scores in excess of 80 on 10 occasions in the same period.
However, putting what he has worked on in practice in to play has proved among his biggest struggles of late, even after a return to his previous coach, albeit with a new swing.
“Just not having full control of the golf ball … after the first six holes you just are completely mentally like you gave it your all and it is like ‘get me out of here, get me back to a range, it’s not worth me being out here any longer’. I have had to fight through a lot of rounds.”
After his initial burst of good play that earnt the uniquely named American notoriety and a number of lucrative sponsorship deals and a spot in the final group at The Masters, it would be brave to bet against him making it back to the top of the competitive golf tree. And Australia could be crucial to Kaufman’s hope of not becoming another of golf’s long list of breakout young stars who disappeared far too early only to become trivia questions, such as Ty Tryon and Anthony Kim.
“It just gets me away from everything,” Kaufman said of his trip down under. “These next three weeks kind of give us an idea how close I am to playing at a top level and I have a lot of confidence heading into these three weeks, so we are going to see. There is still a couple of things I need to sharpen up on, but I feel over the next three weeks I should be able to put some rounds together hopefully and shoot some low ones.”
For Kaufman’s sake, let’s hope he is right.