Golf is a game of managing pressure. Whether you're trying to sink a three-foot putt to win a $10 nassau or playing for a $10-million bonus in the FedEx Cup, you're going to struggle if you let the magnitude of the moment make you do things you wouldn't normally do. If you want to be clutch, my first piece of advice is to be yourself. Swing with the rhythm that feels most comfortable; use the clubs and play the shots you have the most confidence in; and stick to your routines. Don't try to concentrate harder in those pressure moments. Instead, get out of your head and treat the tournament, round or shot as if it were a regular day on the course. It's part mental, part physical: You've got to think clearly and have a simple mechanical cue. Here's how to apply that and play clutch in five common situations.
THE CRITICAL DRIVE
When you can't afford to miss the fairway, your instinct might be to play conservative with a 3-wood or hybrid and bunt the ball out there. That's a bad idea. It's also a bad idea to grab your driver and try to crush one. Remember what I said about being yourself -- that's helpful here. Hit your driver like you're on your favorite par 4 at your home course. The swing thought that works great for me in pressure situations is, Complete the backswing. Being nervous can make you cut your backswing short and rush the club down to the ball. Take your time getting the club back, and don't start the downswing until your body feels fully wound.
GOOD SHOTS FROM BAD SPOTS
Clutch golfers not only find a way to fight their way out of the rough or trees, they often manage to hit a spectacular recovery shot -- one that somehow gets on the green and sets up an improbable birdie. How do you pull off a great recovery? It's a three-step process: (1) Visualize the shot. (2) Rehearse it. (3) Commit to it. Usually your best chance at recovering from a bad spot is to hit the ball high. Why? From the rough, the ball has less backspin, so holding the green with a low ball flight is tough to do. From the trees, you probably wouldn't advance the ball far enough with a low shot to get home. To hit it higher, play the ball a little farther forward in your stance and tilt your upper body away from the target a touch. When you swing, don't hang back. Get your weight to your front side, and sweep the ball off the ground.
KNOCKING IT STIFF
Hitting an approach shot close to the pin should not be a happy accident. You can be a confident iron player if you remember one thing: distance control. If the pin is 152 yards and you hit it 152, it's not going to matter much if you're a little off line left or right. You'll still have a chance at birdie. Controlling distance comes down to making solid contact. To ensure you do, rotate back and through with minimal swaying. Here's something to think about: The left arm and hand swing through the hitting area long and straight. Think how you would swing the club if you were holding it with only your left hand. The weight of it would help keep your arm extended and wrist straight.
Whether they're in a bunker or short-sided in high grass, gamers seem to hit shots around the greens so close to the hole that it makes their opponents want to give up. The trick is to ask yourself: Where do I want the ball to land? In other words, ignore the hole. It's not your target. If the ball is going to roll out, read it like a putt. If it's going to swing in off a slope, focus on the spot that will push it to the cup. To execute a good greenside shot, resist the urge to use a lot of wrist action. Make a swing where the clubhead stays below your hands well past impact. This will allow the bottom of the club to glide through the grass or sand and pop the ball up, just like it's designed to do.
THE PUTT YOU CAN'T MISS
Whether it's your partner whispering in your ear or that little voice in your head, you'll often hear the advice, "Don't leave it short." That's true, you have to get the putt to the hole to make it. But the mistake is trying to hit it harder than normal -- remember, be yourself. The faster the ball is rolling when it gets to the hole, the more center-cut it has to be, or it won't fall in. In effect, you're making your target smaller. Instead of trying to ram it in, focus on hitting the putt at a speed that will allow it to fall in even if it only catches an edge. Also, don't try to steer putts with a handsy stroke. Keeping the putterface square is critical, so you can focus more on speed. That's why I prefer a left-hand-low grip. I know I'm going to roll the ball on the line I've selected. If the speed is good, the putt's going in. BOOM!