Under the Pressure

Under the Pressure

Failure happens. The real story is in the response

“Hang on,” he said, and then the man paid handsomely to describe things for a living could only pause and muster, “Oh, my gosh.” The putt on No. 18 was an afterthought, a gimme. A major championship victory was but 14 inches away, and even as it hit the hole, the ball appeared to be diving in. Only it didn’t. It caught the edge, picked up speed, whipped around the entire circumference of the cup and catapulted back toward her like a weak shot swatted out of the sky by Dikembe Mutombo. In-Kyung Kim popped up like she had been electrocuted, because that’s essentially what happened. She cupped her face in shock, and Terry Gannon, on the call for Golf Channel, was rendered nearly speechless.

Kim’s miss dropped her into a tie for first. She would go on to lose in the first hole of a playoff at the 2012 Kraft Nabisco Championship, the LPGA’s flagship major. There is a cheeky writer move where we tell you, dear reader, to stop reading and go watch the thing we’re writing about. This is not one of those times. Please do not search for this video.

This column requires research, but I watched the miss only twice. It’s just too graphic.

The first thing you want to know when this particular bit of golf cruelty occurs is how it happened. They are professionals! But even the pros are not immune. Statistics guru Lou Stanger reported that from 2004 to 2021, there were 95,020 putts from 18 inches attempted on the PGA Tour. Of those, 192 were missed—about one in every 495 attempts. There are reams of data analyzing the physics and psychology of these catastrophes. But I will spare you all that, because the second thing you want to know about is far more interesting: the aftermath.

How do people get over failing on such a big stage? Do they at all? Is I.K. Kim OK? I was once on a stage that is minute in comparison, the stakes so low as to be comical, and I’m still recovering from the trauma of crumpling. Second hole of the shootout at the member-guest at The Yards, near my home in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. The Yards is unique in that it has a full front nine and six short, but killer, par 3s for its back. The shootout was played there, with alternate shot through the hole and on each tee. Shoutout to my partner, Kevin, who nearly holed the opening tee shot from about 90 yards in front of the roughly 100 rowdy onlookers. The roar felt like something heard over on No. 17 at Sawgrass. We were the only group of nine to make birdie. The parimutuel betting was rampant, and Kevin and I had played lights-out on the back both times during tournament play, so a healthy amount of money had been wagered on us. They all had to be feeling great as I stepped to the second tee. I did too.

The second hole is about 125 yards, all carry over the water. The wind was in the face a little, so it was a full 9-iron for me. Practice swings felt great. LFG, as they say. Just before making contact, my entire body short-circuited. I knew as soon as I hit it. I was already walking away in shock when the ball splashed at about 103 yards. Every other group hit the green. We made double and got knocked out. Boom. Done. Game over.

The swirl of emotions was staggering: anger, embarrassment, nausea. Of course Kim lost in the playoff at Mission Hills; I’m impressed she went to the tee at all. In 2017, Kim revealed that the miss “kind of haunted me.” Kind of? I haven’t played at The Yards since. Went to the driving range a few weeks later, saw Zach, the head pro, and he looked at me the way people do after you put your dog down. You OK? If you need to talk about it, I’m here. Again, this was a boozy member-guest, not a life-altering major championship beamed to televisions all over the planet.

Doug Sanders knew the feeling. Some reports say it was 2 feet; others had it at 3. Thirty inches, estimated another. It was short. And all Sanders, resplendent in a deep-purple sweater with matching shoes, had to do was tap it in to capture the 1970 Open Championship. I immediately recognized his short-circuit right before impact. (I implore you: Do not watch this video either.) At least Kim’s putt hit the hole. Sanders never gave it a chance. “There but for the grace of God,” Henry Longhurst intoned dolefully on the telecast. Sanders lost in a playoff to Jack Nicklaus.

The aftereffects were devastating for the hard-partying “Peacock of the Fairways.” Sanders managed just two more victories and never got close to another major win, a feat that, combined with his 20 other Tour victories, surely would have granted him entry into the World Golf Hall of Fame. Instead, he remained on the outside looking in, and while he said all the right things as he got older, before he passed in 2020 he admitted he couldn’t go more than an hour without thinking about the miss that changed everything.

This ignominious list goes on, and the history of rehabilitation is checkered. Joe Daley had perhaps the worst lip-out in professional golf history on a 4-footer at the 2000 PGA Tour Q-School that would have given him his Tour card. It was the closest he ever got to making it (although he did win the 2012 Constellation Senior Players Championship). Everyone knows the Shakespearean tragedy of Jean van de Velde at the 1999 Open Championship; far fewer know he actually did win another European Tour event, in 2012. And, of course, there is the forever roller coaster of Jordan Spieth, whose full recovery from his meltdown on No. 12 at the 2016 Masters will remain in debate among scholars for as long as they tee it up in that celestial sliver of Georgia.

For years, it seemed that Kim might be going down Sanders’ path. She scraped around the LPGA, grabbing the occasional top 10, but never really threatening to win. Yet she remained relentlessly positive, insisting that the putt did not define her. In 2016, she proved it by winning the Reignwood LPGA Classic. The roll continued into 2017, when she won three times, including that elusive major at the Women’s British Open. Instead of becoming the face of failure, Kim has blossomed into a model of resilience. 

“[Disappointment is] part of sports and part of life,” Kim said in 2017. “I’ve been there before. I’ve done my best. I’m sure someone else has done their best. How you respond to something that happens is more important.”

LFG, I.K. The Yards tee time is booked.