For the second week in a row, the second time in the nascent PGA Tour season, a first-time winner ascended to the top step of the victory stand – and once again Kevin Na was standing one step down, looking up at the winner. The winner, a young man from Birmingham, Alabama with the improbable name of Smylie Kaufman, claimed his first PGA Tour victory Sunday, October 25, at the 2015 Shriners Hospitals for Children Open at TPC Summerlin in Las Vegas.
Kaufman, who finished the 2015 Web.com Tour season 6th in the overall standings, was making his fifth start on the PGA Tour this week, which includes playing in the Frys.com Open last week in Napa. With only one made cut to his credit before the advent of the 2015-2016 season, at the opposite-field Barbasol Championship last July, Kaufman is making a real statement with his play so far this season, with this win coming fast on the heels of a T-10 finish at the Frys.
Playing 35 minutes ahead of the leaders, Kaufman posted a 54-hole total of 6-under 207, going out in a respectable 3-under 32. The youngster from Birmingham then caught a gear that left the rest of the field gasping to try and catch up, coming back with a back-nine 29 for a 10-under final round of 61. The 2014 LSU grad carded five birdies on the back side, plus an eagle at the drivable par-4 fifteenth hole. The win put $1.15M into the 23-year-old Kaufman’s bank account, punches his ticket to the year’s majors, and most importantly, gives him full status on the PGA Tour for the next two years, assuring him of plenty of chances to play.
Eventual T-8 finisher William McGirt, an 11-year veteran who is still seeking his first win on Tour, posted a 9-under 62, with three birdies on the front nine and a near-duplicate of Kaufman’s back nine – six birdies and an eagle – his big bird coming on the par-5 sixteenth hole. Only a bogey on the fourth hole kept him from equaling Kaufman’s final-round feat – a valiant effort, but too little too late coming off of a 5-under 54-hole total, eight strokes and 37 places behind 3rd-round leader Brett Stegmaier. McGirt’s 270 total was two strokes shy of Kaufman’s finish, and one stroke out of the eventual six-way tie for 2nd place.
Kevin Na’s pursuit of Kaufman pulled him even with Kaufman’s 16-under total at the par-5 sixteenth hole thanks to a 26-foot birdie putt, but a bogey at the par-3 seventeenth – a hole he had birdied in all three previous rounds – dropped him back to 15-under. A short tee shot to a severely close front flag, followed by a duffed chip from just short of the green, left Na with a 13-foot putt for par, but the putt slid by a hairs-width to the right of the hole, leaving Na with a 18-inch comebacker for bogey.
Another long putt at the 18th hole, this one for birdie and a playoff spot, failed to drop, scotching the Las Vegas resident’s hopes for a second consecutive week in a playoff. The 15-footer was tracking so well that Na raised his putter in a salute when the ball was a good three feet from the hole, but it slid past cruelly close – again – relegating Na to no better than a tie for second.
The last hope for a challenge to Kaufman’s early number was 54-hole leader Brett Stegmaier, who pulled to within a stroke of Kaufman after back-to-back birdies at the 15th and 16th holes, but he couldn’t summon the birdie magic again in the closing holes to nab the win or a tie for a playoff spot. Stegmaier pulled off a daring second shot to the tucked-left flag on the 18th green, but his ball bounded just off of the putting surface, and his putt from off the green pulled up a little over a foot short of the hole, handing the win to Kaufamn and making Stagmaier the last member of the six-way tie for second.
Among NorCal-connected players, Sacramento’s Nick Watney posted the best finish at T-11. Watney made a run on the back nine on Friday with a string of four consecutive birdies after a 3-under 32 on the front, but a pair of bogeys on 16 and 17 pulled him up short, leaving him to settle for a 5-under 66. A 1-over 72 on Saturday – when the scoring average for the members of the final field was nearly two strokes higher than the previous day, and an even three strokes higher than Thursday’s opening round – dropped Watney from T-5 to T-11, where he finished after coming back with a 4-under 67 in the final round.
Next for Northern California was another Sacramento-area native, Spencer Levin, who rode the porpoise with rounds of 71-65-74-65 to post a 275 total, good for T-25 – a 29-place improvement over his 54-hole position. Stockton’s Ricky Barnes joined Levin at T-25, improving 13 spots with a final-round 67 after rounds of 65, 71, and 72. San Jose State alum Mark Hubbard finished T-35 with a 276 total; he was unable to follow his opening round of 64 with another round below 70. Fresno’s Kevin Chappell likewise fell into the 70s after an opening round of 69, finishing T-62 with a 282 total.
Next week the PGA Tour moves overseas for the CIMB Classic in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – and players are already being cautioned about a typhoid outbreak in the area.