Golf has a way of exposing exactly the situation you're worried about the most. When the pressure's on and you're standing over a shot thinking, Anywhere but the bunker or Just stay out of the water, you can guess where your shot is probably going. If you find yourself in a do-or-die situation in the sand with a tall lip in front of you (shown), don't get defeated by this shot before you even swing. Don't walk into the bunker dreading it and gripping the handle so tight a weight lifter couldn't pull it free. Reduce the tension by moving in with the club held loosely in your right hand. That'll relax your arms and shoulders and promote the extension of your right arm in the downswing so you get the club's bounce, not the leading edge, down into the sand.
WHEN YOU HAVE TO GET OUT OF A DEEP BUNKER
To hit this shot, open the clubface and line up the shaft with the center of your body as you settle into your address position. Dig your feet in, keep your lower body stable and swing your arms with some soft wrist action. Look at a spot a few inches behind the ball, and make a full backswing and follow-through. Really focus on finishing the swing.The ball will pop out, giving you that chance to get up and down.
AVOID GOING RIGHT
When there's serious trouble down the right side of a hole, it can be super stressful, especially if your regular shot shape is left to right. The tendency is to try to steer a drive out there—and risk hitting it even farther to the right—or to overcompensate and yank the ball into trouble on the left side.The goal here is to visualize and hit a controlled shot that curves from right to left. Tee up on the left side of the teeing area, and picture a shot that starts at the right edge of the fairway and turns back toward the middle (left).To execute this shot, line up your body slightly to the right of the target and aim the clubface less to the right—or directly at the target. When you make your swing, the clubface will be closed to the path, and you'll produce that draw everybody wants. Don't aim too far to the right, though. You want to give yourself enough of a buffer so that if you hit the ball straight, you're still easily in play.
MAKE THAT TWO-PUTT
No matter what your handicap is, you're always going to have putts that matter. When nerves show up, your first response is probably to focus on practice strokes. If that helps give you feel, great, but distance control is the real key in long putting. Cozy up those lag putts to three feet or less, and you'll take so much pressure off your game.Start by standing taller at address, and feeling free in your upper body, mainly the shoulders and neck. Center the handle of the putter so it points to your belly button. Relax, and worry less about the mechanics of your stroke and more about making the center of the putterface contact the equator of the ball. A pure strike will lead to better roll-out—and a shorter second putt.
HIT IT OVER TROUBLE
It's amazing how an obstacle between you and your target—a water hazard, deep bunker, even really thick rough—can get into your head and mess up what's otherwise a pretty basic shot. The most common mistake? Hanging back to try to help the ball up and over the trouble in front of you.Instead, do what tour players do on an approach shot like this. Get three yardages: a safe number that puts you clear of the trouble, a distance to your ultimate target and one to the back of the green. The distance you want to use for club selection should be a little less than the back-of-the-green number.As for your swing, be sure to transfer your weight forward on the downswing, and rotate into a full finish with your arms, chest and lower body turning together. Knowing you have plenty of leeway if you don't catch it exactly right, you should feel free to swing under control. If you flush one the full yardage, you're on the back of the green. Point is, focus on how much room there is in your landing area, not on the trouble you have to carry.Debbie Doniger, ranked fifth in New York on Golf Digest's Best Teachers by State, is based at GlenArbor Golf Club in Bedford.