Under Pressure: How Golf Presents a Pressure All Its Own

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As spectators, we see it time and time again – the best players in the game, with the shortest putts on the biggest stages, grappling with exactly what makes golf such a mystifying, rewarding game: pressure.

Pressure was on full display at The Old Course a few weeks ago, just as it is in every major and every final Sunday, whittling down one of the youngest and most impressive Sunday leaderboards in recent memory. Adam Scott (may god have mercy on your soul), Dustin Johnson (albeit on Saturday), Jason Day (he seems to have bounced back just fine), Jordan Spieth (guess he’s “human” after all), Marc Leishman (Cinderella falls just short), and eventually Louis Oosthuizen (ooof, sorry, Louis), all of them set up for shots and putts they’ve made a hundred thousand times, only to lose some miniscule muscle movement in their takeaway to yank million dollar puts just left of the cup.

Zach Johnson British Open

There can be only one  

Eventual champion Zach Johnson grappled with it too, but as golf’s biggest stages demand, only one player survives the pressure cooker – not unscathed, but scarred and strengthened, and, as is very often the case, immensely relieved when it’s over.

Sure, watching pros stand over these vaguely familiar shots with the world watching – the sick ones among us subliminally chanting “van de Velde, van de Velde, van de Velde” – that’s what makes spectator golf so damned entertaining.

Admit it: you watched Jordan Spieth’s third and final rounds at Augusta fully expecting the moment to get to him, bracing for him to get to the top of his backswing and forget how to strike the ball. But the young man showed us something special, and instead, we marveled at his ability to navigate the mysteries of a lead at Augusta for two straight days without so much as batting an eye.

Golf is pressure, a uniquely personal kind of pressure, and while us hobbyists have no idea what it’s like to play on TV and for huge piles of cash, we do know how lonely it is to stand over the next shot with nobody responsible for what happens next except for us. As players of the game, the ways in which we approach and process pressure go a long way toward defining our skills, our scores, and, let’s be honest, our enjoyment of the game.

When you’re out there on the course, there isn’t much that looms larger than the next shot. It’s not just another practice stroke; it’s more than that — what’s at stake means something, be it pride, bragging rights, improvement, self-satisfaction, red numbers, personal bests, (cough, cough) money.

Jordan Spieth Augusta

Be the ball, Danny

While it’s obvious where the pressure game gets played – in the arena of the mind! – there is as much practice and preparation that goes into handling the mental aspects of key moments as there is in your follow-through.

In a fantastic study by the BBC Lab UK titled “Can You Compete Under Pressure,” Professors Andy Lane and Peter Totterdell dig into strategies for handling intense pressure effectively. While they are still in the process of analyzing their results, they are confident that “competition is highly emotional. … Nervous excitement might enhance focus, for example; but too much can turn to anxiety, which can ‘choke’ performance.”

So handling pressure – or “using it to your advantage,” as most clutch performers put it – comes down to what the professors term, “emotional regulation.” Believe it or not, we are able to control our emotions, maybe not fully, but at least in terms of modulating them, balancing out the highs and lows in order to stay even keel, or better yet, in a heightened state of focus.

Training for that heightened state is something Jordan Spieth has been doing his entire life. Much like Earl did with a young Tiger, Spieth’s coach Cameron McCormick has worked with his star pupil on “combining the physical and physiological stress in training to quantum leaps in performance to bridge the step function of transfer.” Now read that again. And again. Know what that means?

Essentially, McCormick’s philosophy is that “you want to simulate as much pressure as you can.” And there’s the “secret,” both for prodigies and for everyday golfers like us. Sure, there are dimensions of pressure that we’ll never experience, but if we’re not building intensity and pressure situations into our practice regiment, then we’re doing it wrong.

Harness. Energy. Block. Bad.

There are many ways to build pressure into your routine, be it by wagering, developing concrete consequences for not executing and holding yourself to them, creating significant distractions that demand higher degrees of focus, etc. But it all comes down to a few basic concepts: control over your emotions, visualization, and of course, confidence.

If we had to pick one kryptonite for golf’s inherent pressure, it would have to be confidence, right? Not overconfidence mind you (although all the greats seem to have this in spades), but a supreme belief in one’s self/swing. That kind of belief only comes from one thing: preparation.

Just like the imagined countdown clock for those buzzer beater turnaround jumpers in the backyard, so too must we put ourselves in pressure-packed situations in our practice routines.

So, next time you find yourself on the practice green, go ahead and give yourself a downhill breaker for the championship. Visualize the crowds, the wheelbarrows full of cash just waiting beside the scorer’s table. Feel your legs turn to jelly, your stomach start to churn.

And just as the anticipation reaches its unbearable peak, breathe deep, feel the flow, and drain it. Next time, it’ll mean something.

Make sure to check out our latest Instruction column for some tips on building pressure into your training.

James Lower
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