In the span of 10 minutes on Sunday, Tiger Woods and Patrick Reed each faced 72nd-hole birdie attempts that would determine their fate at the Valspar Championship. In both instances, the expectation was that the two players would at least give their putts a chance to drop.
Dr. Bob Rotella even said as much while watching the telecast. The noted sports psychologist, who works with a number of tour players including Justin Thomas, was sitting with a group of mini-tour players when he announced, "The one thing they say about great players in a moment like this is they won't leave it short."
Then both players left their attempts short—Reed's woefully so—and Rotella was left to clarify.
"That's actually a bit of a lie," he allowed.
To golfers of any level, there's a certain level of shame attached to players who leave important putts short—the golf equivalent of striking out with the bases loaded and their bat never leaving their shoulders. So how could two of the best players in the world commit such a sin in such a crucial moment Sunday? Were their insufficient strokes a product of cowardice or an unwilling subconscious?
Rotella says the answer could be simpler than that.
“I don’t believe guys are telling themselves to not leave putts short,” Rotella said. “I think they’re seeing the ball go in and putting it. So I think if a guy putts the putt to make it and comes up short, he just has a wrong idea of the speed of the green.”
Rotella’s argument takes on credence when factoring in two other considerations: that multiple players struggled with the speed of the challenging 18th green at Innsibrook; and that Woods’ 40-foot birdie putt on the preceding hole was such a precise measurement of speed that the ball barely died into the cup. Although it might sound counterintuitive, Rotella says the bolder play is to hit the ball softer than harder because it suggests you’re more intent on the putt going in rather than merely getting it close.
“You can always hit it hard,” Rotella said. “Guys who want to just look good can say ‘I got it there.’ It’s when you’re actually trying to make it that you risk leaving it short.”
The episode speaks to the chasm between playing for millions on the PGA Tour and simply looking to avoid humiliation at home. According to Jeff Ritter, one of Golf Digest's Best Young Teachers based in Bend, Oregon, the common miscalculation by middle handicappers is judging a putt's pace to the hole rather than through the hole. The latter helps to assure a decent lag, but for Woods on the 18th hole, only one outcome mattered.
"With Tiger you can see how upset he was because he was playing to win," Ritter said. "He wasn't worried about the next putt because it didn't matter if to him if he finished second or 60th."