The final pairing on Sunday at Augusta is what everyone involved in professional golf dreams of.
That’s true not just for players, but also their caddies, as Buffalo native Aaron Alpern can attest.
The 38-year-old found himself in that very spot last month when he was on the bag of PGA Tour rookie Smylie Kaufman during the Masters.
“It’s certainly the dream of what we all do in this business,” Alpern said. “That’s the spot we all want to be in. It was pretty exciting to get to experience it on that level.”
It was Alpern’s first trip to the Masters, and what a memorable one at that. Not only did Kaufman make the final pairing, he played alongside world No. 1 Jordan Spieth.
“I’ve worked two PGAs before,” Alpern said, “but this was my first experience being in the thick of a major on the weekend. It was quite a thrill.”
Alpern’s journey to Augusta began about a year ago, when he was between jobs and – based on a tip from veteran caddie Bobby Brown – hooked up with Kaufman, who at the time was playing on the Web.com Tour.
In their first event together, the United Leasing Championship, Kaufman won by five shots. He ultimately finished sixth on the Web.com Tour money list to earn his PGA Tour card, then in his second event – the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open in October – shot a final-round 61 to win. That secured an invitation to the Masters and cemented Kaufman’s status as one of the game’s rising stars.
“You want to be working for somebody who is one of the young and upcoming players who has a lot of potential, and Smylie certainly has that,” Alpern said. “He’s got all sorts of talent and he keeps on getting better in the little things about the game that make Tour players that much better.”
After getting into the field, Alpern accompanied Kaufman on two scouting trips to Augusta.
“Like any other kid that grew up playing golf, I always watched the Masters,” said Alpern, who played in high school at Nichols and once advanced to the quarterfinals of the International Junior Masters. “I knew all the holes. I was excited about the opportunity to some day get there.”
Simply seeing it on TV, however, didn’t adequately prepare Alpern for his first trip down Magnolia Lane.
“To be there, to go through everything that the Masters entails, it was actually more exciting than I thought it was going to be,” he said. “I had it built up pretty big in my head, and it surpassed everything.
“It was basically the golf course in general. I knew it was a great course – it had all sorts of history to it. There was a lot to pay attention to and to be aware of while you’re going around that place. I’m not sure I was quite ready or quite mentally prepared for all that you would have to consider and all you’d have to be prepared for in the tournament.”
In the days leading up to Thursday’s first round, Alpern logged long hours on the course, learning its many nuances.
“I just had so much fun going through my normal preparation,” he said. “I fell in love with the golf course … when I got to spend some quality time out there, learning things. I noticed myself just enjoying it more than I normally do – and I normally enjoy my job.”
Kaufman opened with rounds of 73 and 72, but made his move on Saturday with a 3-under 69 that included three birdies on the back nine. That earned him a spot in the final pairing with Spieth.
Unfortunately, the day did not go as planned for either player. Kaufman’s putting stroke betrayed him on the way to a disappointing 81.
As the round progressed, Alpern and Kaufman worked on trying to diagnose the problem. In that sense, the round was just like any other – even if it was happening on golf’s grandest stage.
“It’s just trying to talk through what the situation is and figure out what’s going on,” Alpern said. “That’s something that Smylie has gotten pretty good at early on in his career, is being able to take a step back and realize something’s going wrong.
“If he takes a deep breath and kind of considers it, he can probably figure it out and work through it. We weren’t able to Sunday at Augusta – that wasn’t because we didn’t try or the moment was too big for us to handle.”
As they walked up the ninth fairway, Alpern said the conversation centered on Kaufman’s putting stroke.
“It was not his normal type of putting day,” he said. “As we were going, we were trying to diagnose and trying to determine what was going on and trying to turn things around. It was a pretty thoughtful conversation when you consider the moment that we were in.
“I wish we would have been able to figure out a way to turn things around better. It seemed like every time that we’d take a step in the right direction that day, we’d take a step backward right after it.”
That experience, though, come prove to be invaluable in the future.
“There’s not going to be a situation for him where it’s going to be too big,” Alpern said. “There’s not many stages in golf that are bigger than the one he was on there, outside of maybe the Ryder Cup. The next time he’s in the hunt in any tournament, it’s going to be that much easier for him to be there and to handle anything that might go wrong in it, because he has that experience he can fall back on.”
Of course, it wasn’t just Kaufman who struggled Sunday. Spieth’s quest for a second straight Masters title met its end on the iconic par-3 12th hole, when he hit two balls into Rae’s Creek and eventually made a quadruple-bogey 7.
Alpern had an up-close view of Spieth’s collapse, and came away impressed with how he handled it. In fact, as they reached the 13th tee, Spieth even managed to crack a joke, asking Kaufman – who made birdie on No. 12 – who had honors.
“The way Jordan handled it is probably the way you would want to if you could script it out,” Alpern said. “That’s the proper way to handle something going wrong like that, is to make a joke, move on, and try to figure out what you need to do next. It was pretty impressive to see.
“That goes along with the learning experience for Smiley and myself. We’re able to see what went on with them and how they were dealing with it, how they handled it. You’re not going to be able to see something like that, up close, very often. That’s something else you can learn from.”
For those watching closely at home, Alpern’s hometown pride was on display at the Masters. The top of Sabres T-shirt could be seen under his traditional white caddie’s bib.
“That was really cool, and surprising, to see all that support for Smylie, just for that small connection with me,” Alpern said of the feedback he got through social media. “I didn’t expect that much, but knowing Buffalo and Western New York, I guess it’s really not that surprising.”
• Williamsville’s Jacob Mertz and Cougar Collins of Celeron, Ont., each shot rounds of 78 Saturday to share medalist honors at the annual International Junior Masters qualifier. A total of five spots were awarded, with a five-way playoff deciding the final three spots. Those went to Hamburg’s Mike Donner, Getzville’s Mike Wells and Alden’s Casey Woodard, each of whom shot a round of 79.
In the qualifier for East Aurora Country Club members, Erik Schleicher led the way with a 78, while Mitch Jeffe earned the second qualifying spot. The tournament will be held from June 27-July 1.
• The Western New York PGA held its annual Titleist Scratch Pro-Am tournament Monday at Brooke-Lea Country Club in Rochester with the team of professional Jeff Urzetta (Oak Hill) and amateur Shawn Baker shooting a 4-under 68, good for a one-shot victory. Pro Danny Cordaro (Blue Heron Hills) and amateur Bob Weston were part of a three-way tie for second place along with the teams of Rob Horak (Caledonia)/Jim Johnson and Rob Krajewski (Orchard Park)/Matt Thomas at 3-under 69.
• Local golf news of note and story ideas are welcome at the email address below.