Karl Kimball is currently the head pro at Hillandale Golf Course in Durham, NC, but in 1991 he was on the PGA Tour and playing in the Greater Greensboro Open at Forest Oaks Country Club. One of his playing partners during the second round of that tournament was Sean Murphy, a young player from Iowa.
“It’s the 36th hole,” Kimball recalled, “and Sean on the last hole had about a four-inch putt to make the cut. And he left him two inches short.”
“Oh yeah. I’m not exaggerating. If he hits the four inches, he makes the cut on the number. He went home.”
There’s no Shotlink data from that time, let alone video, but all the available details support Kimball’s memory: Murphy shot 72-73, the cutoff was 144 and he bogeyed the final hole on Friday. Which leaves us with a question: How does this happen?
Four inches is the extreme of things, but every once in a while, we see a tour player miss a putt that seems just plain unmissable. It makes very little sense, but it happens so often that you can debate whether to call it “weird”. Statistics guru Lou Stagner recently noted on Twitter that from 2004 to 2021, 95,020 putts were attempted on the PGA Tour from 18 inches. Of those, 192 of those were lost. That’s about one in every 495 attempts.
Because such errors are so rare, they are magnified when they do happen. That was certainly the case this spring when Jordan Spieth missed a series of tricks, culminating at the RBC Heritage in Hilton Head with this shocking mistake on Saturday:
Jim Nantz’s cry of “Oh no!” and Spieth’s look of utter astonishment said it all.
“I was more upset after yesterday’s round than I’ve ever been in a golf tournament,” Spieth said the next day. “There’s just no excuse for that kind of brain fart as a professional for me, but also for Michael [Greller, Spieth’s caddie], who is working hard, to go out and do that thing that could affect the outcome of a tournament. And I’ve done it several times on this stage in the last four weeks.”
The fallout for Spieth was as good as he could have hoped: he pulled himself together and won the tournament on Sunday in a playoff over Patrick Cantlay. For Murphy, and many others like him, the outcome is significantly worse.
Stewart Cink made one of the most agonizing mistakes in men’s professional golf, and it came in 2001 at Southern Hills, where the PGA Championship will be held next week. For casual golf fans, Cink’s short miss stands out as one of the signature moments associated with the Tulsa, Okla. course.
Twenty-one years ago, Southern Hills was hosting the US Open, and Cink thought he was out of the tournament after missing a par putt on the 18th hole in the final round. Retief Goosen needed to make two putts from 12 feet to claim the outright victory. In an attempt to clear a path, Cink missed his 18-inch bogey putt and, as fate would have it, Goosen made three putts, missing a short one for the outright victory. If Cink had bogeyed him, he would have been in a playoff with Goosen and Mark Brooks instead of going home (Goosen beat Brooks the next day). Watch it at minute 49:50 here:
“Golf has a way of applying a bit of shame if you miss a short putt or miss a chip or hit one. [out of bounds]Cink said years later. “Shame is part of golf.”
On the women’s side, the most egregious recent failure belongs to IK Kim, who at the 2012 Kraft Nabisco Championship failed to hole a painfully short putt for outright victory on the 72nd hole and lost the title in a playoff:
Kim admitted that the putt was “chasing” her. Interestingly though, both Kim and Cink went on to win a major championship later in their careers, proving that such a mistake is not a death sentence.
As to why it happens, we have to distinguish between two types of missed short putts. The first is “the tap-in,” a category to which Spieth’s missed putt belongs, and probably Cink’s as well. It’s less about succumbing to nerves and more about a momentary lapse of concentration.
Pia Nilsson, Golf Digest Top 50 Instructor and co-founder of the Vision54 school in Arizona, has coached countless golfers, both men and women, on the professional tours, including several major tournament winners and No. 1 ranked players. For her, the rushed gimme is easy to beat.
“One thing we often see with players is they’re upset with the last putt they just missed,” he said, “and they go up and hit because they think they can’t miss.”
In these scenarios, Nilsson has seen players recover instantly and has also seen them affected by a few holes afterwards. In general, however, the effects do not last long, because the lady is not very personal. It’s not like they drowned; they just lost focus.
Dr. Mo Pickens, a sports psychologist who has also worked with big winners and operates out of the PGA Tour’s hotbed of Sea Island, Georgia, agrees and even used the same terminology Spieth used.
“Those are easy to beat,” Pickens said. “No one thinks they broke down at that point, they just think, ‘Oh, it was a brain fart.’ He’s just someone who’s in a rush, most of the time he’s not in his normal posture, and I don’t know if there’s a bunch of mental issues other than overconfidence, and you’re not paying attention.”
The short missed putt under pressure, on the other hand, is a completely different animal. In those cases, the player has put their full attention on the shot, and a miss in those circumstances can have lingering effects.
“Normally what you hear on TV is ‘that guy blocked it’ or some other physical explanation,” Pickens said. “But physical stroke is just the symptom. The real root cause is fear or lack of confidence or you’re thinking about the consequences of losing or doing it instead of focusing on the process of executing it.”
Once it happens, it’s easy to think about it and, to use Kim’s words, let it haunt you. According to Nilsson, the first part of the recovery process is to stop that mental replay.
“When we store it as a memory, we relive the emotions of losing it,” he said, “and that will show up the next time they have a similar putt.”
The next step is to diagnose the problem. Did they do anything different from their normal routine? Kim came to Nilsson and his team shortly after his failure at Kraft Nabisco. What he told them was that he had doubts in his head about the putt, that he felt he might miss well. But he ignored those doubts because he thought it was better to continue with his normal routine. In that case, she should have paid attention to his hesitation. In other cases, players may have rushed, taken too long, or made any number of other mistakes.
Ultimately, it’s critical to stop the obsessive part of reliving the putt, Nilsson says, because you can’t change the past. Going forward, however, both she and Pickens advocated a kind of backup plan in high-pressure situations. In other words, sometimes the normal routine is not enough. The “pressure plan” can be different for each player, from something as simple as concentrating more on maintaining constant grip pressure to more abstract techniques such as visualizing the putt falling into the hole, humming a song, imagining a rhythmic clock ticking weather. rhythm of the putter stroke or have a kind of self-talk mantra like “down the line”.
“It’s not about going blank,” Pickens said. “It’s a matter of managing your mind.”
Collin Morikawa missed a three-foot shot in 2020 to extend a playoff at the Charles Schwab Challenge at Colonial just after the PGA Tour season resumed from the COVID shutdown. It can be easy to forget that excruciating moment now that Morikawa has won two majors with a tremendous deciding game. But when he checks the putt, he still gets the chills and admits he still hurts.
“They’re hard, they’re hard to swallow,” he told Golf Digest. “But at the end of the day, you can’t do anything about it, and you can’t dwell on the past. Does it make you think about the shorts a little more? Maybe, but that just means give it your full attention.”
What’s remarkable about Morikawa is how quickly he bounced back, and that’s due almost entirely to a quality that Pickens described as being honest with yourself.
“This is a professional evaluation,” Pickens said. “A real professional who can assess what really happened. Was this physical, was this mental, is there more to it? Most young children, if we can disturb them, they will immediately blame the stroke…it’s a huge, great skill, the ability to really get to the root cause and stop blaming other things.
Morikawa is young (just 25), but he immediately wondered “What did I do wrong here? How can I improve?” Because he was confident enough to endure those hardships and take an honest self-assessment without worrying if he was a choker or if he was defensive about his own state of mind, he overcame it and prospered.
That path is open to everyone from Cink to Kim, because the truth about missing an agonizing short putt is the same truth that applies in many walks of life: It’s not about what happened, it’s about how you respond.