Smylie Kaufman keeps learning, building on rookie success

Forgive Smylie Kaufman if distractions get the better of him this week at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open.

He’s the defending champion, which brings extra commitments to the table inherent with being the reigning title holder. Add his home for the week — Las Vegas, where the bright lights and potential riches tug at the soul in America’s Playground. And then there is the countdown to his beloved LSU Tigers facing powerhouse and No. 1 Alabama on Saturday.

One thing that won’t distract Kaufman, however, is his right wrist — the one that plagued him during an otherwise fine rookie campaign last season.

“It’s actually good,” Kaufman said. “It’s actually healthy.”

It wasn’t for most of his rookie season when he won his first Tour title and $2.5 million. He became an instant fan favorite with a star-turning performance at #SB2K16, a spring break romp in the Bahamas alongside Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler and Justin Thomas that played out on Snapchat and Twitter. He also had a burger named after him at Jack Brown’s Beer & Burger Joint in his hometown of Birmingham, Ala., a concoction named The Smylie that features a wagyu beef patty, macaroni and cheese, American cheese, bacon, barbecue sauce and barbeque potato chips, all on a potato roll.

His best moment last year occurred at TPC Summerlin in the Shriners when he overworked his right wrist — with fist pumps. In just his fifth PGA Tour start, Kaufman started the final round seven shots behind but made seven birdies and an eagle over the final 11 holes, including a birdie from 20 feet on the 72nd hole, to shoot 61 to win by one.

He took hold of a $1.15 million check and earned playing spots in the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, The Players Championship, PGA Championship and Masters. He added a tie for eighth in the first World Golf Championships event of the year and then tied for 12th at the Arnold Palmer Invitational before driving down Magnolia Lane.

At the Masters, his third-round 69 during the week’s toughest conditions got him into the final group for the final round alongside good friend and defending champion Spieth. By this time, however, his wrist was acting up. Coupled with the pressure between the pine trees, Kaufman, who started the round one shot behind, shot 81 and tumbled to a tie for 29th.

Kaufman, 24, had developed tendinitis in the wrist and was never the same, missing three tournaments and eight of 13 cuts the rest of the year. There was no structural damage and doctors prescribed anti-inflammatory medication and rest.

Be it his youth or love for the game, Kaufman didn’t rest and opted to tape his wrist and keep on playing. He kept looking for answers despite the pain.

“I’m not using it as an excuse. I was able to play through it, but I probably shouldn’t have played,” Kaufman said. “Where we screwed up is we were trying to put a band aid on it — not only the wrist but my game.”

Being somewhat of a perfectionist, Kaufman spent long hours on the range trying to make matters better and instead made them worse. He developed bad habits because of the pain.

“Your body, it’s like a defense mechanism and you try to make things not happen. You do things to try and alleviate pain,” he said. “And that got my timing off and hurt my consistency in driving the ball. There were times where I just kind of lost my swagger.”

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