Taming the beast of tournament golf

Golf Things Considered column by John Rogers
JSpencerRogers@msn.com  

Tournament golf is no more like casual golf than bowling. That’s a slight exaggeration, but it’s what I tell my junior golfers when helping them prepare for 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 aren’t 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. Hitting that stupid little ball into a four-inch hole is about as easy as patting your head and rubbing your tummy while walking a tightrope. The pressure of tournament golf makes it feel like the tightrope hangs over a snake pit. And golf on tour is like that, but there are thousands of witnesses and the equivalent of the Publishers’ Clearinghouse van on the other side.

Imagine standing over a three-foot putt on the last hole of a tournament; you’re an up-and-comer on tour; you’ve got a chance to win a tournament for the first time; dropping that little putt will not only be worth a million dollars (more money than you’ve made in your whole life to date), but it will allow you to continue in your profession for another year; there are 10,000 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’s only three feet. Just three feet.

I don’t know about you, but my head or my hands moving would be the least of my concerns. The movement I’d be worried about is, shall we say, not an appropriate topic for golf columns, or for national television. Maybe that’s why they don’t 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 that level, and 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 golfers play better than normal and then fall apart as if apologizing to the golf course for mastering a few holes.

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’s a good thing unless it turns to fear, which causes mental indecisiveness and physical tension.

Even if we don’t have the nerves of Tiger or Retief Goosen, even if we don’t 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 it to go before pulling the trigger. 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 a safe harbor for a ship. You’ve been there thousands of times before. A pre-shot routine can help settle the nerves, but 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 anything else, you run the risk of affecting the way your body reacts. And you might be adding to the pressure by essentially saying, “This tournament is more important than other rounds of golf.”

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

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 learning the techniques of hitting a golf shot.

When my junior golfers begin playing tournaments, I convince them that it’s a victory just to be competing. Then, as time passes, they learn how to win, which is as much about conquering oneself as much as beating an opponent or a golf course. There’s no doubt that some people are naturally adapted to the pressure of tournament golf, but in my experience the kind of mind and emotional control required is something that usually has to be, and can be, learned.

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