I am often asked, “What separates the best players in the world from the rest?” Well, I say that’s easy. They are better. They strike it better, putt better, make fewer mistakes, they are more confident, and they respond better to intense pressure. When the best players (Nicklaus, Norman, Woods, McElroy, etc.) play even their “B” game, it puts them in contention on late Sunday afternoons. The more often these players are in contention, the more experience they develop in handling the pressure. They have more opportunities to understand how their minds and bodies adjust to intense pressure. They learn how to stay in a relaxed routine, trust themselves, and enjoy the moment. Easier said than done! The average Tour Player gets in contention far less, so it’s much more difficult for them to respond positively to the pressure.
If your goal is to win your Club Championship, win Junior Tournaments, play College golf, or play on Tour, you will need to learn how to play under pressure. Having some “skin in the game” when you play is a good start. Whether you play for $100.00, $1.00, or pushups, having something on the line will help you develop these skills. You must learn how to compete when the juices start flowing.
When I was a kid, I played a game where if I lost a hole, I had to carry my bag and my opponent’s bag for the next hole. Now that’s some skin in the game! It was totally embarrassing to have to pack double bags for the next hole. Today, when I play with my friends at home, we play a regular best ball match with extra money for birdies, greenies (closest to the hole on par threes), up and down sandies, and a game called “bullets”.
Bullets are birdie, or par putts outside the length of the flagstick. These are the critical length putts that Tour winners usually make a lot of. Having more on the line “sharpens the sword” and teaches us how to let go when the pressure is on.
When practicing, spend some time working on your technique and fundamentals, but don’t neglect spending time working on random “tournament like” shots. This is another way to create a scenario of competition, even if you are practicing on your own. Develop and use a full routine on these tournament shots. Pick an imaginary fairway on the driving range and see how many fairways in 10 drives you can hit. See how many 8 irons you can hit on a green. Keep track of the results and try to improve the next practice session. Imagine that there is water four yards left of a flag and hit a safe shot to the right. Imagine that you have a one stroke lead on the last hole and there is water short of a flag on the range. Have a competition with a friend hitting these shots on the range. On the practice putting green, challenge yourself to make 20 in a row from 3’. The first few will seem easy, but the last few will get your attention. If you miss, you have to start over.
It’s difficult to truly simulate the pressure you will feel in an important tournament. However, incorporating competition into your practice definitely helps prepare you and keeps fun.