Play to win, not for a score
__ As a junior golfer in Southern California, I had two goals: Beat my dad, and break par. But something always happened near the end of rounds that stopped me from doing either. Then, on my 12th birthday, my dad took me to Alta Vista Country Club. I was playing well, and as the round went on, my desire to beat my dad got so intense, I forgot about my score. I did beat him that day, but only when we got inside did I notice I'd shot 71 -- one under par. If you're struggling to break through a scoring barrier, have a second goal going at the same time.
__ Take your eyes off the prize
__ At Oklahoma State, we each had two golf bags: a playing bag, which was for tournaments, and a practice bag. The practice bag was more coveted because you had to earn it. Only when you shot a target score assigned by our coach, Mike Holder, did you get that prestigious practice bag. A lot of guys would have hot rounds going only to choke, knowing that if they didn't finish strong, they'd have to lug around their old bag from high school. It was a great mental trick by Coach Holder. We eventually learned that the score would happen if we focused on the process.
Stay sharp with your putter
__ If you're playing great through 14 or 15 holes, you probably got there in large part because of your putter. That knowledge can make you "hole conscious," where you look at the hole out of the corner of your eye at address or let your eyes dart to the hole before you hit the ball. There's also a tendency to become "guidey," steering the putter through impact instead of releasing it and hitting the ball solidly. The lesson is, make an effort to putt the same way late in the round as you did early on.
Recognize a real gamble
__ At the 2007 Travelers, I was tied for the lead with two holes to play. I drove into a fairway bunker at the par-4 17th and faced a short but scary approach over water. Normally I'd hit a pitching wedge, but a ball in the water would have ended my chances, so I hit a 9. Unfortunately, it went long, and I made bogey. But I avoided double bogey. I birdied 18 to get into a playoff, which I wound up winning. The key was that shot over water. When you have a good round going, take the possibility of a penalty out of the equation whenever you can.
Don't fight the excitement
__ There's a school of thought that says you should be flat-lined emotionally when you have a career round in the works. I disagree. You're right where you want to be, the possibilities are tremendous and the mystery of it is downright fun. It's human nature to feel excited, and if you fight it, you'll just get out of sorts.
Root hard for yourself
__ At a 36-hole U.S. Open qualifier in Dallas a few years ago, I opened with a 73 and was going nowhere. Mentally I was in a bad place; even my good shots didn't excite me. My caddie, mental coach Neale Smith, had finally had enough. He all but ordered me to start reacting enthusiastically, telling me to pump my fist after good shots.
That afternoon, pumping my fist so often I almost felt silly, I shot 63, broke the Northwood Club course record, and got into the Open at Oakmont. The momentum I had came from forced enthusiasm. Having your buddies root you on helps, but doing it yourself is even better.
Forget the holes up ahead
__ When I won at Phoenix this year, I finished 65-65. I birdied the ninth hole on Sunday to make the turn at two under, and it was hard not to look ahead to 15 and 17, both birdie holes. Likewise, it was tough not to think about a couple of the difficult holes and say, If I can just par those...I pushed those thoughts out of my head, because if I'd paid attention to anything but the shot I was playing, I'd have forgotten about details like my routine, my alignment, my pace. You've heard it before, but you really have to stay in the present.
The right way to play safe
__ Protecting a great round is fine, but don't ease up too much. If you decide to aim away from flagsticks, be bold about it and take dead aim for the fat part of the green. Make aggressive swings to safe spots. If you play chicken golf, vaguely shooting away from trouble, you'll invite bad shots and maybe disaster.
Keep gas in your tank
__ When my game is on fire, I burn more energy, and sometimes I'm not aware of it because I get caught up in the moment. But I've done a better job lately of drinking water and eating a snack (apples and other fruits so I don't have a sugar crash).
For the amateur, a lights-out round occurs so rarely that when it does happen, you'll burn even more energy through sheer adrenaline. It's important to eat and drink midway through the back nine and to move around more slowly. If you run out of gas, your hot round will fizzle out, too.
Have a swing cue on call
__ Great rounds often collapse when a player suddenly loses his swing or sense of feel. This happened to me at the Byron Nelson a few years back. I was five under after seven and suddenly couldn't hit a shot.
When the train leaves the tracks like that, you need an "out" shot, a trusted swing thought that will get you around. For me, it means playing the ball back, choking down and hitting a draw, making sure I swing aggressively. For you, it might be a trusty fade with the driver or an easy 3-wood. Just have something on call for those emergency situations.