WILMINGTON, Del. – He was in last place among those who had finished, and a wry smile appeared on Luke List’s face Friday when a PGA Tour media official informed him of an interview request.
“I know what he wants to talk about,” he said.
Yep, his opening round. When he missed six putts inside 5 feet. When the longest putt he made, while trying everything imaginable, was 3 feet, 7 inches. When he lost 8.57 strokes to the field on the greens – the fourth-worst total since the Tour began tracking in 2004.
A golf website fleshed out the gory details. Folks on social media laughed at his miserable day. One fan tried to send him a Venmo request for $1.
“People don’t really understand how tough it is mentally for us, and that’s the frustrating part,” List told me. “I kinda feel bad for them because they don’t get it.
“Look, in a sense, it’s embarrassing, but you’ve got to have thick skin out here. I knew I wasn’t going to putt as bad [today], but it was pretty awful in the moment because I was trying everything to get it in the hole and nothing was working. Yeah, it’s frustrating to putt that bad under the gun, but I’ve also been down that road a bunch before.”
And that, of course, is the discouraging part.
Thursday’s poor putting performance at the BMW Championship was extreme, but it wasn’t an aberration: List ranks as the 200th-best putter out of … 202. In no full season has he ever ranked better than 148th. He has long been one of the best ball-strikers on Tour (including eighth this season), but he has always squandered those prime opportunities with his continued struggles on the greens.
“You don’t get everything completely,” said Jamie Mulligan, List’s longtime swing coach. “Sometimes when you have funny putters, they have strokes that are a bit weird. But his putting stroke is very orthodox. It’s very pure. If he just putted to zero, he’d be in the top 10 every week. I don’t know. But at the end of the day, I know he can putt.”
Earlier this year, it appeared as though the 37-year-old List was finally poised to take the next step. In his 206th career start on Tour, he denied Will Zalatoris in a playoff to win the Farmers Insurance Open for his first career title. Instead, thanks to that familiar culprit, he has posted just a single top-25 since Torrey Pines.
Fourth in the FedExCup after his late-January victory, List watched his goal of reaching the Tour Championship slowly, steadily, drift out of reach – from 15th at the Masters, to 27th after the U.S. Open, to 30th at the end of the regular season. The past seven months, he said, have been a “massive disappointment.”
“You want to get on that Scottie Scheffler run,” Mulligan said, “but it’s a funny game with how it actually plays out. Sometimes it takes a while to do exactly what you want without expectations and just go out and play.”
Hoping as always for a spark, List experimented with, well, you name it. He changed putting grips. Changed putter models. Changed putting coaches, recently hiring John Graham (who also works with Justin Thomas). List likes what he sees, and he understands Graham’s teachings, but their sample size together is so small that, at this point, it’s still hard to trust it out on the course. “Out here,” he said, pointing to Wilmington Country Club, “is obviously very different.” List even changed his schedule, taking a few weeks off late in the season to stay fresh for a playoff push, but that, too, proved counterproductive, because he actually needed those tournament reps to engrain some of these new feels.
And so perhaps he was always at risk of a putting round like Thursday’s, when he holed a total of just 34 feet worth of putts and shot 78 while vacillating between a conventional and crosshanded grip, practically wishing the ball into the hole. “I was kinda out of options,” he said. “I’ve never really tried anything else.” Most of the Tour-worst putting rounds included at least one decapitated club, but List showed admirable restraint, his putter surviving the entire day. All 38 swipes.
After a few hours to cool down, List connected with Mulligan. He was frustrated, embarrassed, emotional.
“I had a really honest talk,” List said, “and we had some words.”
“We’re in a decade of our relationship, and he was super forthright, and I was super forthright, and it was a good talk,” Mulligan said. “It’s always good when you get it off your chest. Everybody has bad days at work.”
Mulligan sensed what had gone awry. He preaches efficiency, that less is more. “Menos es mas,” he always says. “I know the best stretches we’ve had, he’s changed less and stayed in his lane,” Mulligan said. “We had kinda lost preset.”
Internet ghouls waited to see what List would produce Friday, but before the round he cleared his mind and made a few minor adjustments, returning to his usual SuperStroke grip that helps eliminate any hand action through the stroke.
Almost immediately he was tested: On the first hole, he lined up a slippery 5-footer for par, the kind of putt that would set the tone for the day.
And he poured it into the center of the cup.
“That was a cool thing to overcome,” List said.
Freed up, he played one of his best rounds in months. He drained a 31-footer on the seventh green. He knocked in back-to-back putts outside 10 feet on the 13th and 14th holes. He sank an 18-footer for birdie on 17.
In all, he rolled in nearly 110 feet worth of putts (more than triple what he had in the opening round) and signed for a 3-under 68.
When he finished his round, List had gained nearly 2.5 strokes (2.498) on the field on the greens – a nearly 11-shot improvement round-over-round, one of the largest swings of the season.
“I couldn’t do worse statistically, so I had that going for me,” he said dryly. “That’s kind of the approach I took.”
Pupil and coach chatted briefly after the round, Mulligan patting List on the back and sending him on his way.
“He’s so good. He’s so talented,” Mulligan said outside the clubhouse. “I’m his biggest fan. Sometimes you can not be objective about that, but I’m pretty objective about it and he’s a great player.”
List needed a solo 10th or better here to secure his first-ever trip to East Lake, and he’ll enter the weekend outside the top 60.
A day earlier he was filled with dread. But now he felt something entirely different.
Late in the second round, List began to do the math: A good round Saturday, then a score in the mid-60s Sunday.
Suddenly, improbably, after a good putting round, it all seemed attainable.
“That’s the beauty of golf,” he shrugged. “You never know what can happen.”