Taming the Beast of Tournament Golf

Preparing for Competitive Play

July 28, 2005

Tournament golf is no more like casual golf than bowling. That is a slight exaggeration, but it is what I tell my junior golfers when helping them prepare for the challenges of serious competition. It might be a better analogy to say that playing tournament golf is like playing golf with someone else’s body. Either way, the point remains that competing in golf tournaments is a completely different beast from playing the weekly match with the usual foursome.
There are a lot of great golfers out there, but there are not a lot of great tournament players. There is something different in the wiring of successful tournament players, something in the mind or nervous system that sets them apart.

Let’s face it, golf is hard enough even when it’s a relaxing weekend round with the boys. Covering three and a half football fields with a disobedient ball and some warped sticks in search of a final target that is four and a quarter inches wide; doing that in four licks or less is an amazing achievement.  Then do it eighteen consecutive times. Now do it under tournament conditions when you are scared to death, your muscles have seized up like you are about to hit a squirrel with your car, and your brain is steadily leaking thoughts of failure, remembered and imagined. And we’re not even talking about the PGA Tour with thousands of gawking witnesses and the equivalent of the Publishers’ Clearinghouse van waiting for you to drop the final putt.

Imagine standing over a three-foot putt on the last hole of a tournament; you are an up-and–comer on tour; you have got a chance to win a tournament for the first time; making that little putt will not only be worth a million dollars (more money than you have made in your whole life to date), but it will allow you to continue in your profession for another year; there are ten thousand people surrounding the 18th green and that prying little cameraman represents several million other eyeballs; you have a sense that your whole life is riding on this moment, and it is only three feet. Just three feet.

I do not know about you, but my head or my hands moving would be the least of my concerns. The movement I would be worried about is not an appropriate topic for golf columns, or for national television. Maybe that is why they do not allow shorts on tour.

I have played in some small-time professional events. There were only a few hundred dollars at stake, and no gallery. And I have been so nervous that I could actually see the head of the putter shaking in unison with my hands. If I faced that three footer on tour, they might have to go to commercial break while the paramedics tried to revive me.

Most golfers never experience anything beyond an occasional Captain’s Choice event, or maybe a club championship. But there is still something different about tournament golf, even at a fairly modest level, and there is something different about the golfers who excel in tournament golf.

The main thing that makes competitive golf such a beast is fear. Fear of making a fool of oneself. Fear of failure. Even fear of success, which is when a golfer plays better than usual for a stretch of holes, or for one round, and then falls apart, as if apologizing to the golf course and trying to get back to the comfort of mediocrity.

Part of my job as a teaching professional is to help golfers prepare for tournaments. That means helping them eliminate and deal with fear as much as possible. Being nervous can actually be a good thing—it gives us an adrenaline boost and sharpens the mind. It is a good thing unless it turns to fear, which causes mental indecisiveness and physical tension.

Even if we do not have the nerves of Tiger or Retief Goosen, even if we do not have the half-dead pulse of Lance Armstrong, there are things we can do to become better at tournament golf.

One thing is to never hit a shot while feeling fear or indecision. Fear comes and goes in waves, so wait for the tide to go out before pulling the trigger on an important shot. Closing the eyes and breathing deeply make it easier to relax. Visualizing the coming shot and picking a positive target (as opposed to “Man, I hope I don’t hit that bunker”) puts the mind in a good place.

It also helps to develop and stick to a routine. Your routine is like going home for dinner. You have been there thousands of times before, and it is a place you can be comfortable. A pre-shot routine can help settle the nerves, especially if you are working on swing changes that need to be rehearsed. And a pre-tournament routine helps as well. If you break your normal pattern by getting an extra hour of sleep, eating differently, going to the driving range two hours before a tournament, or doing anything else out of the norm, you run the risk of affecting the way your body reacts. And you might be adding to the mental pressure by essentially saying, “This tournament is more important than other rounds of golf.”

I do not necessarily recommend John Daly’s routine of caffeine, cigarettes, cheeseburgers, and no range time, but if that is how you approach the weekend round with the guys, that is how you should go into the club championship. A tournament should be considered just a round of golf before it is played, and can be remembered as being larger than life after the scorecard has been signed.

One of the most important things to realize about tournament golf is that it takes a long time to make a champion. Just like anything in life worth doing, it takes experience and repetition to learn how to deal with tournament pressure and fear. Long-term mental training is just as important for competitive golfers as mastering the physical skills of the game.

When my clients prepare for tournaments, I try to convince them that it is a victory just to be competing. Then, as time passes, they can learn how to win under pressure, which requires conquering one’s own demons before staring down an opponent, or a golf course. There is no doubt that some people are naturally adapted to the pressure of tournament golf, but in my experience the kind of mental and emotional control displayed by champions can be learned. And eventually competition might not be so different from casual golf.

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