Rabalais: Ex-LSU golfer Smylie Kaufman gets taste U.S. Open

It wasn’t exactly how former LSU golfer Smylie Kaufman scripted it, but he’s starting his professional career on one of the game’s biggest stages.

Kaufman tees off at 7:46 a.m. CDT Thursday in the first round of the U.S. Open at famed Pinehurst No. 2, his younger brother Luckie carrying his bag.

Luck is something they’ll probably both need.

Luck will be an even bigger factor than ever at this year’s U.S. Open. Course architects Ben Crenshaw, the two-time Masters winner, and Bill Coore ripped out 35 acres of Bermuda rough in a 2011 redesign, framing the green fairways with acres of native grasses and sandy waste areas.

“This course is like the one I grew up on in Florida,” 2014 Masters champ Bubba Watson said earlier this week. “Only we didn’t call the stuff alongside the fairways natural areas.

“We called them weeds.”

Pair those rough-hewn areas with Pinehurst’s infamous domed greens, a par-70 course stretched to 7,562 yards and equally infamous U.S. Open pressure, and it makes one think Kaufman maybe should have waited until a garden variety PGA Tour event to make his pro debut.

But the 22-year-old Vestavia, Alabama, native remains blissfully confident despite the formidable challenges facing him.

“It’s not so bad,” Kaufman said of the areas off the fairways. “It’s 50-50 you can get the ball on the green, so you take your chances.”

As for pressure, Kaufman knows all about dealing with that.

Last month he helped led LSU to the NCAA championships match play semifinals. The tie for third was the Tigers’ best finish in that event since 1967.

Earlier this spring, Kaufman advanced from local qualifying to a 36-hole sectional qualifier June 2 at Ansley Golf Club in suburban Atlanta. Thirty-one players competed for just two U.S. Open spots.

Kaufman started strong with a 5-under 67 but stumbled a bit with a 3-over 75 in his second round, putting him in second place. He had to sweat through nearly an hour of other competitors firing at his 2-under total before he knew the spot was his.

“I don’t think I’ve ever pushed the refresh button on my phone so many times,” Kaufman said, referring to his repeatedly checking the qualifying scores that day.

Along with his brother, who Kaufman said has caddied for him in several big events before, the entire family is on hand in North Carolina to watch him make his debut.

He has a plan of attack in mind.

“It’s really tough to keep the ball on the greens,” Kaufman said. “I’m going to try to land the ball right on the front of the greens. It’s all about the short game.”

Kaufman played several practice rounds with PGA touring pros, including fellow former LSU Tiger David Toms.

The 2001 PGA champion, Toms tied for fourth with former LSU player John Peterson in the 2012 U.S. Open at Olympic in San Francisco, but needed to make it through sectional qualifying in Memphis, Tennessee (he tied for third), to earn a spot in this field.

Toms’ group tees off Thursday at 6:40 a.m. CDT.

Former University High golfer Patrick Reed is also in the field, playing in just his second major after missing the cut in April at the Masters.

Reed, who tees off at 6:18 a.m., was able to skip qualifying because of his lofty world ranking (currently No. 26).

The three-time PGA Tour winner hasn’t finished better than a tie for 48th in six starts since his last win at the WGC-Cadillac Championship in March. But after the birth of his daughter Windsor-Wells in late May, Reed is ready to focus on golf again.

“The game is really close,” Reed told the Augusta (Georgia) Chronicle. “I’m sure by Thursday all the rust will be off and we’ll be ready to go.”

Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.