PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — If Smylie Kaufman comes out with a clever line during an NBC/Golf Channel telecast of a PGA Tour event, thank a gang of cronies he plays golf with at the Vestavia Country Club in Birmingham, Alabama.
“Most of my good bits come from this group,” the 31-year-old Kaufman said a few days before the beginning of Players Championship week. “We do a lot of trash-talking, bet a lot and never pay each other.”
More importantly, golf is fun again for Kaufman.
The LSU graduate was a PGA Tour winner in Las Vegas in 2015 with a final-round 61, played in the last twosome with Jordan Spieth in the 2016 Masters, tied for 12th in the 2017 Players Championship (and played with winner Si Woo Kim in the third round) yet found himself off the Tour by 2021 after injuries to his wrist and elbow caused yips with the driver and a series of poor performances that defied belief.
Kaufman got as high as 48th in the world, was in demand by sponsors and was part of the spring break posse that include Spieth, Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler.
Life was good but Kaufman said he now realizes that he didn’t have the Thomas or Spieth type of game. He eventually came to peace with that and knows what’s important now: his wife Francie, who has been with him since they were in high school in Birmingham, and a two-month baby daughter, Anna Carter.
“I still love being on a golf course,” the former LSU player said. “I love being with so many of the guys I played with on the Tour. I really did miss those guys.
“I’m on a different journey now.”
Kaufman is part of a new announcing crew that will work The Players Championship this week at the Players Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass.
A mix of veterans and new voices
The NBC/Golf Channel crew will be a mix of familiar faces and voices and like Kaufman, some new blood. Mike Tirico continues with his host duties, Dan Hicks is back as the play-by-play announcer for a 24th year and Paul Azinger is the lead analyst.
Faxon and Paul McGinley are analysts, Curt Byrum and Steve Sands will be in the tower and Notah Begay III and former Tour caddie John Wood join Kaufman as on-course analysts.
Jimmy Roberts will do essays during the week and Damon Hack will do post-round interviews. Tommy Roy, a Ponte Vedra Beach resident, is in his 31st year overseeing The Players coverage.
There will be live streaming on Peacock, NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app. Network coverage will be Thursday and Friday from noon-6 p.m. on Golf Channel and Saturday and Sunday from 1-6 p.m. on NBC.
Kaufman wanted on-course work
When Kaufman started to realize his golf career might have flamed out, he asked his agent to inquire about TV gigs. If Kaufman couldn’t hit shots he wanted to watch them and bring a player’s perspective to viewers.
But he didn’t want to start out in a studio setting. Kaufman wanted to walk the course, in heat of cold, wind and rain.
His first gig was a big one: the PGA last year at Southern Hills in Tulsa. His combination of a dry wit, delivered with an aw-shucks Southern drawl, charmed viewers and eventually the leadership team at Golf Channel.
Golf Channel executive producer Molly Solomon call Kaufman one of the “fresh, new faces,” along with Brad Faxon and Curt Byrum, as the network replaced Gary Koch, Roger Maltbie and David Feherty.
Former Golf Channel host Gary Williams said on his podcast that Kaufman “has a savant-like ability to talk like himself and give a thought in 12 seconds.”
Kaufman prefers to think of it as being himself — with some help from his Vestavia posse who supply him with fresh material.
He prepared for the PGA (where he worked on ESPN’s streaming of feature groups) by going to the 2022 Masters and watching his old pals Spieth and Thomas play. While he was there, Augusta National patrons spotted him and offered encouragement.
“I was shocked by how many people recognized me and gave me support,” he said. “I thought that maybe there is a place for me in the game of golf, and if playing golf wasn’t working out, maybe I find a way with the media. My wife thought there would be some legs to this.”
Kaufman ‘really inquisitive’
Kaufman was given a tryout of sorts by NBC at the U.S. Junior Amateur. It was there that he endeared himself to First Coast golf fans when he praised Jacksonville Beach resident and junior high player Miles Russell on social media when Russell was eliminated on the 16th hole of an opening-round match Kaufman was following. Russell noticed there were no groups behind him, went ahead and played the final two holes, just for fun.
Kaufman tweeted two videos of Russell playing, crediting him with giving a strong effort against a college-bound that “outweighted him by 75ish pounds” and for playing the final two holes.
“#Nails,” Kaufman tweeted.
“He was a fighter out there,” Kaufman said. “I loved it.”
Kaufman said he has an even greater appreciation for the talent of his former PGA Tour peers watching them up close as an analyst.
“One of my takeaways is that they do things I couldn’t do,” he said. “I always felt like my game, at its best, could compete with anyone but it’s incredible how often I see the consistency they’re able to pull off these shots.”
Hicks said Kaufman didn’t come to the job with the idea that he had a built-in advantage because he was a PGA Tour winner.
“He’s really, really inquisitive,” Hicks said. “Sometimes you get players that come over to this side of the broadcast and they may think they have it all figured out. But Smylie has been asking me, the rest of the guys good questions about how he can get better. That’s a great sign.”
Kaufman said he will try not to be away from home for longer than three weeks at a time. Besides, he’s got to brush up on learning to “swaddle” his daughter.
“I can change diapers,” he said. “That swaddling? It’s like Oragami.”
And Kaufman is more than content with playing golf on a recreational basis, where he has rediscovered the joy of a well-hit shot without worrying about the consequences of a bad one.
“We love the game … it’s fun,” he said of his games with friends. “I don’t put much emotion in golf shots anymore. The game’s become more fun and less stressful. Before I’d hit a bad shot and it would send an alarm … ‘we have to fix that.’ Now we just laugh.”