The ball rests on the tee. Lush green, shortly mown grass appears like broad paths, methodically painted green stripes. Tall pines create a theatre effect, with limbs reaching from the left, the right and visible in the distance.
A series of thoughts go through your head. You’ve hit thousands, if not millions of golf balls. Many of these swings have been successful…and many of them less than successful. This next shot holds hopes of grace, it could send the ball streaking through the air toward its intended target. Or, it may topple, a misguided golf ball that will result in a lengthy search.
Were this the driving range, the thoughts would be minimal and the odds of success greatly in your favor. However, this is not practice, this is the first tee and onlookers are waiting with anticipation.
No, this is not the Saturday round with your buddies, it is the Club Championship or an opportunity to play golf with your boss (who reportedly has high expectations). In a sense, we have done this many times before. In another, this has never happened before and we do not know what we are going to do.
Perhaps more than any other sport or game, golf can test one’s mettle. The outcome relies totally on the individual. We are solely responsible for the swing we set in motion. Other sports have an element of reaction; a batter is dependent on a thrown pitch in baseball and a football player runs, simply trying to avoid the defender on the way to the goal. Golf is almost completely proactive. It is up to us to succeed or fail. (Thankfully we can grade ourselves on a curve.)
What should we do when we are under pressure? When we feel as if we must perform well and it has to happen now? I doubt there is a person alive who does not feel a certain amount of anxiety when pressed to perform under scrutiny. Sometimes a mind is a ‘terrible thing to waste’ and sometimes a mind is just a terrible thing. Just when we need to have clear mind and a stable body, the brain races and our muscles quiver. Of course, it’s not exclusive to golf. Maybe you have to make a presentation or ask for a raise. Things tend to pucker. Your body gets things crossed up, your mouth gets dry and your hands get wet.
There are good examples of players who have learned how to manage the moment. Men named Tiger, Jack, or Hogan, and women called Annika, Babe, and Lopez are great models of handling pressure. Oh, they still feel it, but they are exceptional at managing themselves. Granted, we will never totally eliminate the butterflies buzzing around inside of us and we don’t really want them eradicated. It is part of what makes us human, a natural reaction when it is possible to lose something that is important to us.
Here are two keys to overcoming the fear. First, imagine everyone in their underwear…I’m just kidding. Okay, here we go. There is a primary thought with two components. The main objective is to think positively, think happy thoughts. The shot that you are about to hit has a history of success, it has every opportunity for success this time. Jack Nicklaus has said he would remind himself that he had made the swing a thousand times on the driving range.
Also, imagine the positive result. Play the shot in your mind and create the desired outcome. Gary McCord (PGA Tour Player and television announcer) once said, “You’re only as good as your last putt.” In other words, as humans, we tend to hang on to negativity. Why do you think all those self-help books sell?
So, we need to re-train the brain. Place the image of a successful outcome into the forefront of your mind. Here is the image; the swing begins, solid contact is made, the ball soars on a true line toward its intended target, finally coming to rest near the pin. Great shot! Now we’re ready. Stand behind your ball, remind yourself of recent success, and imagine the result. Good to go. Step up to the ball and make that good swing.
As with any other improvement this will require time to absorb. And, of course, there is no remedy for all flaws. However, the more often you place yourself in the position (or you may be drafted) and practice this routine, you will see positive results. Will there be a day when you don’t feel pressure? We hope not, because that means it’s not important to you. But, we can manage the situation. Just find your happy place, rehearse a positive outcome, and make your best swing! You’ve done all you can. Now, it’s the ball’s responsibility.
John Renslow is general manager and director of golf at Alta Sierra Country Club. Please contact John with your questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.