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That Thing Called Pressure
I got stuck in a place without a television Sunday, so I didn’t see the end of The Open Championship, but I really feel for Adam Scott. To be so close to your first major . . . or any win, and have your nerves fail you is frustrating and disappointing. But that’s one of the things that make golf a most fascinating game to play. You never get so good, so trained, that all those little "demons" in your head can’t mess it up.

It happens to all of us, at every skill level. We never quite get that driving range swing to the course with complete authority. On the range, it’s only about the swing and the ball. No penalty for a bad shot, or reward for a good one. But on the course, we introduce all kinds of new outside influences. Trouble catches our eye and attention and we begin thinking what "not" to do, instead of only focusing on what "to" do like on the range. Every swing is influenced by the one before, what your opponent and/or partner just did, your history on that particular hole or shot . . . the list of interference factors is practically endless.

And then you can add to that our own self-imposed penalties for failure. Losing the hole means disappointment and possibly financial loss. Hitting a bad shot means muffled chuckles from your buddies, or worse. There’s no telling how many thoughts go swirling around in your head, whether conscious or not.

My father used to tell this story about pressure. A guy decided to be a circus tight wire act. So he strung a wire across his backyard a foot off the ground. He practiced day and night, first just standing on the wire, then walking. He advanced to skipping, turning flips. After a few years there wasn’t anything he couldn’t on that wire, so he went to the circus an applied for a job. The boss sent him up on the platform to show his stuff, and when he got there...and looked down...he couldn’t take the first step out onto the wire. That, my boy, he’d say...is pressure.

The point of this is that you just have to be there and be there often to learn to handle it. And sometimes you’ll fall victim anyway. Every great that ever was had a collapse sometime in their career. Most more than one.

Learning the swing and the shots is just one part of this fascinating, confounding game we love. The other part is learning how to silence all the inner demons that get in the way of performing our best.

I’d like to ask all of you to chime in with your own stories about pressure and your favorite ways to deal with it, OK?

Sound off, guys (and ladies, if we have any here).
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[ comments ]
Matt McGee says:
I read an article recently about the psychology involved when a professional athelete "chokes." It perfectly explained my mental approach to the game of golf.
bkuehn1952 says:
It is true when pro golfers say, "If I keep putting myself in a position to win, eventually it will happen." I personally have a long history of coming apart at the seams when pursuing a best score, winning a flight, etc... I have, however, put myself in a position to achieve a goal enough times to also experience some success along with the ashes of defeat. Few people choke all the time and I believe the more times you face your demons, the better you learn to handle the self-imposed pressure. Very timely article, Terry. Thanks.
bducharm says:
There is a HUGE difference between golf and TOURNAMENT golf!!! Playing competitions is the best thing you can do to combat those nerves.
GolfSmith7 says:
I find myself in the very heart of this debate. My first tournament ever will be the world am championship. Because I am a minister I am busy on the weekends when most tournaments are played. The world am is unique that it is monday through friday therefor ideal for my schedule. I have been practicing my mental game daily, trying to reproduce the feelings I will have, experience focusing on getting through the adrenaline rush that no doubt will come on the first tee. I believe it will help but nothing I know, prepares you for the actual thing. I've even tapped into how I felt when I spoke to 4000 plus people. Say a little prayer for me as I prepare. :)
Virtuaframax says:
I played a tournament for the first time in my short golf career just a couple of weeks ago: a 3 days 72 holes of golf. And I can safely say that I learned more in those 3 days and the pressure associated to each shot than all the days spent at the range.
Virtuaframax says:
I learned how to really apply course management and feel the pressure on the first tee, how a 2-3 footer is def not a gimmie, especially when it's to halve or win the hole at the last hole of the match... i took away so much from this experience, and it especially helped me dealing with pressure, confidence, boucing back after a bad hole or a bad shot... all things that don't count too much when playing with your buddies. My approach to every round is not completely different no matter if I play with friends for fun: i started being much more focus and determined!
mjaber says:
You can't duplicate pressure of any kind. You can do your best to prepare for it, but you can't create it, or re-create it. You can't practice it. The best thing to do is make sure that you are OK with not making the putt, by finding the good in the outcome, rather than looking at the bad.
GBogey says:
I don't play competitively, but I put a lot of pressure on myself as I am a competitive individual who wants to score better and improve my game. My best coping techniques are: 1) lose myself in a swing thought so that I don't think about the situation - this works especially well with putting where I try to focus on hitting the sweet spot and not watching where the put goes; 2) If it's a course I have played several times, I try to focus on similar past shots on the hole where I was successful.
GBogey says:
Interesting enough, from how I watched on Sunday, I thought Adam Scott's problem on the first two bogeys was that he was too relaxed. He seemed to be playing so well that it seemed like he lost focus because he just expected the next shot to be good. Once he bogeyed two holes, then he tightened up and made a mental mistake on the 18 tee with club selection (why he hit 3W there after iron the first 3 days is astounding). I find this happens all the time - you have a great round / string of holes going, you lose concentration as you start thinking about how well you are playing, hit a few bad shots, and then hit more bad shots/mental errors trying to get back to your hot string.
larrynjr says:
I expected this anecdote to already be quoted by someone here but I'll go ahead and posted it. I've heard this one attributed to several pro's but the first time I read it, it was attritbuted to Lee Trevino.
The definition of pressure is having $2 in your pocket on a $5 per hole bet.
wrhall02 says:
Nice article and comments.

I felt pretty good about my self taught swing, but I was fooling myself. I was invited to an important Tourney last fall and all the flaws in my swing surfaced. I was so embarrassed by my scores. The experience damaged my game for a long while.

The bad experience motivated me to take lessons with the course Pro. My scores still suck for my taste, but my errors are far less pronounced. I don't own my new swing yet, but every week I see improvements. I am kicking myself for taking lessons sooner.
DougE says:
One thing I do to help me "practice" for pressure on the course is to practice something that puts pressure on myself. I have one particular chipping drill that requires that I make 6 out of 6 up and downs from a few yards off the green. I chip all 6 balls as close as I can, then putt all 6 (assuming I didn't hole out any). If I miss even one, I must start the whole series over again. The pressure builds as I get closer to making six in a row. I take this "must make" approach to all sorts of other practice drills as well. It may not be competition pressure, but it helps to teach you focus when it counts. Since it is very difficult to make 6 in a row of anything, I get a lot of practice by having to start over and over again until I get it right. At the same time, I am learning to handle pressure.
dooboo says:
Got to play a round of golf with brother in law and his buddies couple of weeks ago. They usually play for $1 per stroke, which isn't big money too them.

Since I've never played the course before, and they have, so I suggested to equal the playing field a bit, I suggested $5 stroke, $20 for a birdie. I didn't give them any gimmy putts, as they've missed few 2 footers, which they say they never miss.

Oh they buckled...no, I didn't collect the actual cash, just I made them buy me a decent dinner. Pressure is something that you are experiencing for the first time, out of your comfort zone, at a certain cost. That cost is sometimes money, but sometimes other things as well. I am too fell victim of that in the past, now, and will in the future. Its how you deal with the loss and bounce back that matters.
DoubleDingo says:
@LARRYNJR- That reminds me of a time near closing time. A classmate and I were playing shuffle board. He made a bet with our opponents that loser buys a round. I told him I didn't have any money. He said, "Neither do I, so we have to win!" We won, but there was a lot pressure. Not like golf, but the pressure to win unmistakable.
DoubleDingo says:
Well said dooboo
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Terry Koehler is "The Wedge Guy" and President of SCOR Golf- The Short Game Company.

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