AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) - Six months after winning his first PGA Tour title, the unlikely figure of Smylie Kaufman shone on a much bigger stage as he played "stress-free" golf to move into contention at the Masters on Saturday.
The 24-year-old rookie from Alabama, who stills lives with his parents and drives a 2008 Nissan, birdied three of the last six holes at a blustery Augusta National to card a three-under-par 69, the best score in the third round.
That left Kaufman at two-under 214 and alone in second place, just one stroke behind defending champion Jordan Spieth, who was four ahead of the chasing pack until he finished bogey, double-bogey.
"Today was a good day," said a beaming Kaufman, who mixed four birdies with a lone bogey on a difficult day for scoring on a firm, fast-running layout buffeted by strong gusts.
"I knew it was going to play extremely difficult ... I just went out and tried to stay as committed as possible to all my golf shots.
"My birdie putts were good. I had a lot of tap-in pars, easy pars. Most of the holes it was pretty stress-free. Overall, really excited about today and look forward to tomorrow."
Asked whether he was at all surprised to be contending for the year's opening major, Kaufman replied: "Not really. The golf course plays really hard. I tend to play well on hard golf courses.
"I'm driving the ball really well right now and if I'm going to get on the greens just as much as everybody else, I think that I'll have a pretty good opportunity to be in contention.
"That was the goal coming into the week, just get in contention. And now that I'm here ... kind of re-adjust the goals a little bit and try to win tomorrow."
Kaufman is aiming to become just the third first-time participant to win the Masters, after Gene Sarazen in the inaugural 1935 edition and Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979.
The young rookie rocketed into prominence by winning the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open in October, storming from seven strokes behind with a bogey-free 10-under-par 61.
That win, which he described as being more stressful than watching his beloved Louisiana State University football team, earned him a cheque for $1.152 million and a spot at this week's Masters.
"LSU football is one of the most painful things to watch ever, really," Kaufman grinned. "This is going to be different obviously. I played the (2014) U.S. Open at Pinehurst, but I was a completely different golfer than I am now.
"I'm just going to go out there and just do my best. I think that's all I can do tomorrow, and just not try to force it and just try to have some fun."
(This story corrects Kaufman's first name to Smylie)
(Editing by Larry Fine)
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