This is the tale of two guys named Smylie, one a 23-year-old PGA Tour rookie sensation who shot 61 in the final round of a recent Las Vegas golf tournament to win fame, fortune ($1.15 million) and a spot in The Masters next April.
He’s Smylie Kaufman, and, he tries to make it two straight in the Sanderson Farms Championship at Country Club of Jackson this week.
The other is the late Smylie Gebhart, the Mississippi Sports Hall of Famer, a Meridian native and Georgia Tech football All-American, who inspired more folks in his 51 years than now seems possible. Smylie Gebhart died 14 years ago this month.
Smylie Kaufman is named after Smylie Gebhart, and, of course, there is a story behind that.
Smylie Gebhart was Smylie Kaufman’s grandmother’s cousin, and Jeff Kaufman’s friend and inspiration. Jeff Kaufman is Smylie Kaufman’s father.
Says Jeff Kaufman of Smylie Gebhart: “He was the guy you’d want your daughter to marry or your son to be like — just the nicest, most modest, unassuming guy. I always said that if I had a son, I would name him Smylie.”
And he did.
A quick history lesson for Mississippians not old enough to remember the great Smylie Gebhart: He played defensive end at 185 pounds and led the world in tackles, sacks and smiles. He was more than a football player. He was a scholar and a leader, one of those few players chosen to go entertain the troops in Vietnam. Too small to play professionally, he became a coach, first at Tech and then at Mississippi State. In 1979, he suffered a freak disk injury that left him paralyzed from the neck down. He lived his last 22 years as a quadriplegic.
“Smylie never lost that smile,” Jeff Kaufman says. “The same courage that made him an All-American defensive end at 185 pounds helped him face that tragedy. Smylie was the best.”
Jeff Kaufman, who raised his family in Vestavia Hills, just outside of Birmingham, made sure Smylie Kaufman knew Smylie Gebhart. Meridian was a regular stop on the way to and from LSU where the Kaufman’s regularly attended football games and other sporting events.
Smylie Kaufman was 10 when Smylie Gebhart died.
“I just remember my Dad always telling me what a great player and man he was,” Smylie Kaufman says. “Dad wanted me to know why I was named after him. I remember he (Gebhart) would have a smile on his face and a bible in his lap.”
Jeff Kaufman says he sees many similarities in the two Smylies.
“Their personalities, the way they approach life, are a lot alike,” Jeff Kaufman says. “Both are really giving people.”
When Smylie Kaufman was 14, he and his younger brother noticed too many friends and neighbors stricken with cancer and decided to raise money to fight the disease. The two Kaufman boys raised $65,000, using marathon golf as the tool in their Kids vs. Cancer campaign. Smylie Kaufman went on to LSU, where both his parents had played golf, and finished second in the SEC as a senior.
There seems little doubt Smylie Gebhart would take great pride in his namesake. Smylie Kaufman is first and foremost an athlete. He was the point guard on his high school’s state championship basketball team. He excelled at all sports, before specializing in golf.
At 6-foot-1 and 175 pounds, Smylie Kaufman has instantly become one of the PGA Tour’s longest hitters. One example: He used a 3-wood to drive to within 15-feet on a 290-yard hole in the last round of the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open. He then sank the putt for an eagle en route to his final nine 29 and the one-shot victory. He averages 315 yards per drive.
In a phone conversation last week, Smylie Kaufman said he is still trying to wrap his mind around the 29, the 61, the victory, the seven-figure paycheck and invitation to his dream tournament, The Masters.
He has never played the Country Club of Jackson course where Jeff Kaufman’s parents and grandparents were once members. A gallery filled with family and friends will watch when the great Smylie Gebhart’s namesake tees it up Thursday for the first time as a PGA Tour champion.
Rick Cleveland (email@example.com) is executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.