ORLANDO, Fla. – By the time Smylie Kaufman approached the 12th green Friday at Bay Hill, the few fans following him were already snickering.
Six bros in tropical polos looked at the black 14 next to Kaufman’s name on the standard and scoffed at how bad he was playing, joked that even they could do that. Then Kaufman made a mess of the 12th, leaving his third shot in the bunker, barely blasting out onto the green with his fourth and flipping his wedge into the air en route to another bogey. Only then did the group finally decide it had seen enough, falling back to watch another three-ball.
It’s become an all-too-familiar scene lately for Kaufman, who is mired in one of the worst slumps on the PGA Tour.
After rounds of 77-81 here at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, he finished last for the third consecutive week. He has missed 10 of his last 11 cuts overall – the lone exception a tie for 69th at the CareerBuilder – and is a whopping 86 over par this season.
Perhaps not surprisingly, he is ranked outside the top 150 in every major statistical category. The torrent of bad play has threatened his job security – and the social-media heroes won’t let him forget it, not after he became a pseudo-celebrity following those well-chronicled spring break trips in the Bahamas.
“It’s been frustrating these last three or four weeks with fans – they haven’t been too kind to me,” Kaufman said Friday.
“But I know how talented I am. I’ve got gears that other guys don’t have; I’ve got shots that other guys don’t have. It’s just a matter of getting over it and getting through it.”
Kaufman explained that he’s gone through a “lot of changes” over the past few weeks, but he only wanted to discuss his swing. He’s in the midst of a major overhaul, changing coaches two weeks ago, to Mark Blackburn, and trying to create more depth in his backswing instead of just lifting the club.
The range sessions, of course, are great. That’s the most frustrating part. He can shape shots both ways. Hit them high and low.
Even this week started encouragingly – he was 3 under through four holes. “Then it was like I got hit by a bus,” he said.
He fell into bad habits. Got needlessly aggressive. Made 10 bogeys, four doubles and a triple the rest of the way. It added up to another DFL, to another lost week.
“I’ve tried not to focus on it,” he said, “but it sucks. I’m such a tough competitor that it’s hard to see my score. It’s one of those things that I’m not letting it define me. I know good golf is in front of me.”
For inspiration, he needed only to look at one of his fellow playing partners this week.
Before the 2016 Wells Fargo Championship, James Hahn had missed his previous eight cuts, failing to shoot in the 60s in each of those 16 rounds. After another trunk slam in New Orleans, he sat down at an Outback Steakhouse with his caddie, Mark Urbanek, about talked about “tearing down the fort,” perhaps even walking away from the game.
“Maybe I’m just not that good,” Hahn told him. “Maybe my good is missing cuts.”
At dinner, they decided to analyze each of his rounds and find the defining moment, when his score turned for the worst. Seventy-five percent of the time it was a bad break – a mudball, a plugged lie, a spike mark – but all of those bogeys altered the momentum of the round.
“That night my caddie said, ‘Your season starts next week – it’s your first tournament of the year,’” Hahn recalled. “Let’s go have a great year.”
The following week, at Quail Hollow, Hahn was five shots inside the cut line as he played his final hole in the second round. He found the green with his approach, then turned to Urbanek and hugged him.
“We’re gonna do this!” Hahn said excitedly.
He was guaranteed his first paycheck in three months.
“Chill, chill,” Urbanek said. “We’re in the top 10. Let’s go win the golf tournament.”
And two days later, they did, in a playoff over Roberto Castro, one of the most unlikely victories in recent memory.
Watching Kaufman struggle over the past two days, Hahn couldn’t help but relate.
“You almost feel like the world is against you,” he said. “It feels very lonely. No one in the world can relate to how you’re feeling in that particular situation when you’re missing that many cuts in a row and you feel down on yourself.
“Everyone is quick to say, ‘Oh, you’re gonna win next week,’ but golf is a tough game, so when s--- hits the fan, when things go very wrong on the course, especially early on, it’s very easy to get ahead of yourself and say, ‘Well, here goes another missed cut.’ It’s very difficult.”
What helped pull Hahn through was a supportive caddie. He hopes Kaufman finds that same positive influence in his new looper, Will Davidson.
“The person who needs to step up in his life right now is his caddie,” Hahn said. “The caddie is the one who you pay to put you in a good attitude. The caddie is with a player six hours a day, and he has the opportunity, every minute, to tell him how good he is and how quickly things can jump back.
“It’s not a weekly thing. It’s not a daily thing. It’s an every hour thing: ‘Tell me how good I am, please, just tell me, because right now I feel like I’m the worst golfer on Tour.’”
If Kaufman has sunk that low, well, he’s not letting on. He says next week’s course in the Dominican Republic suits his game. He’s getting married next month. He has a supportive family and a great group of friends.
And despite his newfound social-media fame, Kaufman is the first to point out that he’s not like Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas. They’ve always been winners, at every level.
Kaufman was an afterthought in college, in and out of the lineup for his first three years at LSU. His career just so happened to take off, first handling a tough track to win on the Web.com Tour and then, a few months later, torching TPC Summerlin with a closing 61 to steal the Vegas event and earn a two-year exemption.
“I’m pretty tough,” he said, “and I’ve been through the cycles of golf. Once it comes around, I’m not scared to go get it. It’s just a matter of time.”
And maybe, like Hahn, just a week away.