We've all faced them. They're intimidating, nerve-racking, gut-wrenching. They're the shots that induce unadulterated fear: sweaty palms, negative thoughts and a pounding heart. All deadly inhibitors to a smooth swing. To help clear what sometimes feel like enormous mental hurdles, we asked several of the leading golf psychologists how to handle some of the scariest situations found on the course.
THE DRIVE WITH BIG TROUBLE DOWN THE RIGHT SIDE
By Bob Rotella, Ph.D.There's no substitute for the power of positive thinking. Always approach a shot with the self-assurance that you can pull it off. This game is challenging enough if you're struggling with your swing; there's no sense complicating things with bad thoughts. Be confident in the shot you're attempting to play. You also have to decide whether you can get your head clear enough with a driver in your hands to execute this shot or if you need to back down to a 3-wood or hybrid. Learn from Tiger Woods: Even when he's playing great, he often eschews the driver for a fairway wood or iron on difficult driving holes.A good approach for a slicer who sees trouble on the right is to think of it like the second serve in tennis on a wet clay court: All you're trying to do is get the ball in play. If you do that, then you can try to score with your second shot. You want to make sure you avoid the big number: Don't try to do something that you even slightly doubt you can. Gear down. You'll save on strokes, golf balls and disappointment.
THE MUST-MAKE SIX-FOOTER
By Morris Pickens, Ph.D.It's a choice whether you approach this putt as an opportunity or a burden. Whenever you face a stressful shot, your attitude will go one of two ways: You can be excited to see if you'll take advantage of this great opportunity, or you can be weighed down by the idea that if you don't pull it off, you'll have failed. Choose to see it as an opportunity.Isolate your focus on the physical parts of the putt. This is not a six-footer for birdie, or to stay 1 up in the match, or to win. All of those phrases are emotional and don't prepare you to hit the putt the best you can. Instead, approach the situation like a computer would: Six feet to the hole, downhill, with a left-to-right break. That's it. No more, no less. Then simply go through your routine--yes, you should have a set routine--and hit the best putt you can. It's either going to go in, or it's not, but at least you'll know you were prepared to hit it.
THE SHOT FROM A DEEP, STEEP-FACE BUNKER
By Gio Valiante, Ph.D.Mentally, the problem with the deep greenside bunker shot is twofold. First, the consequences can be severe. Think of Thomas Bjorn going to the 16th hole of the 2003 British Open with a two-shot lead on Sunday. He hits into a pot bunker, takes three to get out and eventually loses by a shot. Three years earlier, the world watched David Duval, then the No. 2-ranked player in the world, take four shots to get out of the Road Hole bunker at St. Andrews. Witnessing such devastation takes a toll on the psyches of those watching. We learn fear vicariously, so when it's our time to hit a similar shot, we're often programmed to expect the worst.Instead, replay a positive experience in your mind. For example, my client Justin Rose executed a brutal bunker shot perfectly against Tiger Woods in a match to go 1 up, and went on to win. So reprogram with a positive image. The second issue is, we don't spend enough time practicing in deep bunkers. The best remedy for fear is preparation. It helps you replace fear with confidence. That's the other half of the battle.
THE PITCH OFF A TIGHT LIE OVER A BUNKER
By Joseph Parent, Ph.D.Scary shot? Phil Mickelson, arguably the best in the world at this shot, dumped one into a bunker on the fourth hole on Sunday at the 2012 Masters on his way to a triple bogey.Here's what you need to do to overcome the fear of chunking or skulling this trickiest of pitch shots. First, calm down. Way down. Breathe deeply, settling down until you feel really grounded. Picture a shot that flies onto the green--don't get cute and try to land it on the fringe--then make a few smooth practice swings as if you were actually hitting the ball. See the clubhead clip the grass right where the ball would be. Hold each finish until you can say, "That's the one."Then address the ball, and pretend it isn't there. Look at the grass that the ball is sitting on and say, "One more practice swing through the grass, just like that last one." Focus on producing the swing the best you can, especially the way the club clips the grass. If you feel as if you just made another good practice swing, I'll bet you see the ball magically float over the bunker and onto the green.
THE OPENING TEE SHOT
By Pia Nilsson and Lynn MarriottHow do you react when you're standing over the first shot of the day? Do you get too pumped up? Are you too careful? Do you worry about who's watching? Does your body tense up?Every golfer is unique and reacts differently to pressure situations. Once you identify your tendencies, you can address them. The difference lies in what you can and can't control. For example, if your tendency is to swing too fast, feel a 70-percent tempo. If you get tight in your arms, imagine they feel like cooked spaghetti. If your visuals get too wide, pick a smaller target. If you have too much adrenaline, take a few deep breaths with longer, purging exhales. If you get tentative, commit to feeling your finish in balance. If your grip pressure gets really tight, feel it staying soft and constant throughout the entire swing. And if you just can't get the worry out of your head, try singing a song. Still not sure about your tendencies under pressure? Then keep trying several of these remedies until you discover them. Remember: Harness the things you can control, and try not to worry about the things you can't.
THE APPROACH SHOT OVER WATER
By Richard Coop, Ed.D.To be successful, you have to anticipate success rather than failure. I was once working with a college basketball player on improving his free-throw shooting. I asked him what he visualized just before releasing the ball. His answer amazed me: "I hear the fans from the other school chanting, 'Air ball, air ball!' " Do you hear the plunking sound of a ball going into the water just before you take the club back?For starters, visualize the best shot you've ever hit over water. If you can't picture a great shot, borrow one you've seen another player hit, and use it for visualization. I often think back to one that my son hit to the island green on the 17th at TPC Sawgrass. Once you have a positive mental picture, choose an intermediate target on the ground that's within your peripheral vision. Line up to that, and don't look past it, or you'll pick up the water out of the corner of your eye. With a good target and a good image, you won't hear a plunk.