The Lesson In A Missed One-Foot Putt

As those of you who watched the LPGA Tour’s first major of the year Sunday already know, it was an exciting afternoon filled with golf’s triumphs and tragedies. The Kraft Nabisco Championship at the Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage (Palm Springs), California had all of that and more.

The tournament will be remembered for the triumph of Korea’s, Sun Young Yoo, who won a one-hole playoff against her countrywoman, I.K. Kim.

But it will no doubt be more remembered for the one-foot putt Kim missed on 18 in regulation to lose it. Had she made that putt, she would have locked up the one-stroke win her play all day would have deserved. Before the tournament winnowed down to the end, Kim wasn’t even on the radar. Now she’ll be remembered forever as the person who missed the shortest putt to win a major.

Kim is the kind of person everyone would have loved to see win. When she won Lorena Ochoa’s 2010 charity tournament in Guadalajara, Mexico, she turned her entire winner’s check of $220,000 back to Lorena for her charity. Can you imagine? She is an erudite young woman who is an avid reader of eclectic subjects. She plays guitar and is a fan of The Beatles, Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton. She loves her yoga practice and speaks idiomatic English, which you could tell from her conversations with her caddie during the final round. But it wasn’t meant to be.

We had a very satisfying winner when the last group went off the first tee in World No. 1, Yani Tseng. Losing by three strokes last year to Stacy Lewis, this was to be the affirmation of her supremacy. But it didn’t work out that way. By the time she reached the eighth hole, she’d buried herself with three bogeys and too much tightening effort trying to get them back. To her credit, she somehow fought her way back to 3rd, just one stroke out of the playoff.

Sweden’s, Karin Sjodin, tied for the lead as the starting flag dropped, burst out to a three-stroke lead with her eagle on the 2nd hole and Tseng’s bogey on 1. And with her radiant smile, she looked like her apprenticeship as a six-year journeywoman would finally end. What a way to end that! She was a very sympathetic figure. But two bogey’s mid-round dimmed the smile on her face and the feel in her hands; her putter went dead.

And then the sweet-swinging beauty, Korea’s “Supermodel of the Fairways,” Hee Kyung Seo, took her turn. And as most of you know, she was no pretender; she lost last year’s U.S. Women’s Open playoff to her countrywoman, So Yeon Ryu. She made five birdies through the 11th, but four of them drifted away with bogeys on each of the last four holes.

While none of them were watching, eventual winner Sun Young Yoo came off the front at even par, added three birdies on the back and tucked herself in the clubhouse at 9-under. Starting in a cluster of four others tied at T4, she had a quite a little wait. Proving that you just never know, she was on nobody’s mind as the potential winner except her own. And even she must have chided herself for daring to dream.

At about that time, I.K. Kim began to surface as a possible threat to win. She was one under on the front and then birdied 14, 16 and 17 to take a one-stoke lead at 10-under. Tseng was still pressing; couldn’t hit it close, couldn’t make a putt. With a birdie on 17, she got to 8-under and could only hope to eagle the par-5 18th.

Kim steadily picked her way down the 18th hole, across the fronting pond and conservatively just behind the hole. When it was her turn, she rolled it down to one foot. But in a cataclysmic turn of events, she lipped out the putt. There was a gasp of disbelief from around the world: the grandstands, every home, every bar, every golf club, every airport lounge, everywhere.

Kim stood up in horror, holding her hand to her face. The shocking, inconceivable nightmare had happened:

I wanted to make the putt with the right speed, and I think I’ve done very well. But coming up to it I tried to take time, and you know, same routine.

But I played straight, and actually just broke to the right, even that short putt. So it was unfortunate on 18, but I’ve done a lot of – I feel good about my game. It’s getting better. It’s progressing, and on the playoff hole, you know, it’s just hard to kind of focus what’s going on right now because I was still a little bit bummed what happened on 18, honestly.

So how could this possibly happen? It was a foot! Twelve little inches, for crying out loud.

First of all, this gimme putt was to change her life forever. This was not a tap-in for five bucks. So there was surely a swirl of relief that she had snuggled her approach putt that close, her work was done, her victory assured. Can you imagine her relief?

So as she approached the putt, she tried to take her time, to go through her routine. And you could see from her motions, her stance over the ball and her standard pause to begin the stroke, she was, indeed, going through her routine.

But her mind was probably on the fact that she didn’t really need to be going through all of this. The transcripts are mercifully brief and with little detail. Perhaps we will hear more from her after the tears are gone.

So as she was standing over the ball, she was looking without seeing. That was made all the more easier by the fact that the hole was covered by the looming shadow of one of the greenside royal palm trees.

When you putt through or into shadows, you have to take a beat to ignore the shadows so that the only thing you see is the hole and the line to its heart. Shadows distort or mask that line. You have to find the hole in your field of vision…and then the putter’s aiming line…and mate them on an unobscured line to the center of the hole.  Since the ball was going back up the fall-line of the first putt, there was likely no break in it, especially from one foot.

So none of this was about her putting skills or about choking. It was not a rookie mistake; she’s been on the LPGA Tour since 2007 and earned $4.6 million. It was about not being totally present during one of the most important moments of her life…because it was one of the most important moments of her life…and how that possibly could have happened.

I don’t know, you know, sometimes things happen, and it’s kind of, you know, tough because it’s Nabisco, and hopefully I’ll have better or more chances.

Perhaps one of those chances will be that the skill and humanity of this young woman will attract more fans to the LPGA Tour. She’s easy to root for and they both deserve it.

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