On the final green of virtually every PGA Tour event, a golfer will stand over a routine short putt worth between $200,000 and $500,000. It might take one second for the ball to roll toward the hole, but if the result is a costly four-foot miss, it usually takes another minute for the enormity of the loss to sink in.
When their rounds are complete, golfers enter the privacy of a nearby scoring tent, which one player called “the loony bin.” It is there that players come face-to-face with the tournament’s prize money chart delineating the payouts for finishing first, second, third, and so on.
“Guys say, ‘I just cost myself 250 grand,’” said Jim Furyk, the winner of 17 tour events. “I’m sure I’ve said it. It’s a really hard moment.”
Gary Woodland, the reigning United States Open champion, insisted the angst was worst at high-profile tournaments, where a final short putt can be worth $1 million.
“I don’t care who you are, that’s a lot of money,” Woodland said. “Maybe you weren’t thinking about the money before the putt, but if you miss you are.”
Even a week after an expensive flub, Woodland knew colleagues might still be reminding each other about it.
“You mess with buddies, ‘Hey, that one putt cost you big-time,’” he said, laughing.
For the less accomplished players on tour, there is little humor in the situation.
“Those short putts on 18 are terrifying,” said Martin Trainer, a second-year member of the tour who has one victory. “It’s part of the treacherous illusion of competence in golf.”
Joel Dahmen, now in his fourth year on tour, painted a picture of a singularly bizarre, harrowing rite of passage for the pro golfer: surviving the crucible of the petite putt with titanic import.
“It’s constantly talked about by almost everybody,” said Dahmen, who has nearly $6 million in career earnings. “Guys in the locker room after the final round are having a beer and saying, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe how much that last putt cost me.’ Everyone has to figure out how to get used to it.”
Last month at the Charles Schwab Challenge in Fort Worth, Collin Morikawa, who joined the tour last summer after a decorated amateur career, missed a short putt on the 18th hole that would have won the tournament. Forced into a playoff, Morikawa then missed a four-foot par putt on the first extra hole that handed the victory to Daniel Berger, who earned $532,500 more than Morikawa for the win.
When the second crucial putt lipped out, Morikawa’s head and shoulders slumped until he rested his hands on his knees.
“Obviously, it stung,” Morikawa, 23, said two weeks later when asked about his near misses. “It’s a huge learning curve. But I’m not afraid of being in those positions. I want to be in those as much as I can because the more you are, the more comfortable you’re going to be.”
In interviews with dozens of tour veterans, a blueprint for overcoming the tension of a short, final putt emerged.
“At first, you probably let the dollars get into your head and you screw up and it costs you a lot of money,” said Kevin Streelman, who has been a tour regular since 2008. “You get tired of that happening and start treating the last putt of the day the same as your first putt of the day.
“And when the round’s over, you cannot tell yourself that a last putt cost you a certain amount. It’s what you do across an entire career.”
But for unproven players on tour, it’s difficult to focus on tour longevity when they are in a desperate, weekly struggle to finish near the top of the leaderboard so they will qualify for an invitation to return to the tour the following year.
“That stress and anxiety is constant,” Wyndham Clark, a second-year tour pro with four career top-10 finishes, said in recalling his first year on the tour. “It affects your sleep. I wasted so many nights worrying about it.”
The youngest golfers on the PGA Tour are also more aware of how much they earn because weekly travel expenses double from the roughly $1,700 they spend on the tour’s feeder circuit, the Korn Ferry Tour. They know that one top-five PGA Tour finish can solve their money woes for the rest of the year.
“A third-place finish payout on the PGA Tour is 10 times what you make on the Korn Ferry Tour,” said Matthew NeSmith, a tour rookie. “That stuff is always in the back of your mind.”
Then there are golfers who maintain that they have never considered how much money an individual putt might be worth, even as first-year pros.
“You probably aren’t going to believe me, but I’ve never had a putt where I’ve thought, ‘if I miss this, I cost myself two hundred or four hundred thousand,’” Justin Thomas, the world’s fifth-ranked golfer and the 2017 P.G.A. Championship winner, said. “A lot of people could tell you what a three-way tie for sixth is in a $9 million purse, whereas I have no clue.”
Thomas, however, admitted to one exception — when he needed to make a three-foot putt to tie for third at last year’s Tour Championship, which would earn him $3.5 million. Finishing in fourth-place would have earned him $500,000 less.
“That was the first ever time I was like, ‘This is probably a million-dollar putt,’ ” Thomas said.
He smiled at the memory since he sank the birdie putt. Some of his brethren on tour also agreed that there were benefits for weathering the strain brought on by a big-money putt.
“When I was younger and money was tight, if I missed a short putt I might think about how I lost six months of rent money,” said Charley Hoffman, a 15-year tour veteran with almost $29 million in career earnings.
“But there’s a flip side,” he said. “When that golf ball falls into the hole you say to yourself: ‘Hey, I just made $150,000 on one little four-foot putt, how awesome is that?’”