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Nick Dunlap knows something about nerves you don't

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This story first appeared in Low Net, a weekly newsletter dedicated to golf through the eyes of average players. The newsletter will be for Golf Digest+ members. To receive yours weekly sign up for Golf Digest+.

Have a topic you want me to explore? Send me an email at Samuel.Weinman@wbd.com.

One of my more embarrassing golf tendencies is that I get nervous at times when I probably shouldn’t. Not just tournament rounds or playing in front of other people, but stupid stuff—weekend rounds with friends for $10 or even just over a decent score. Sometimes I get nervous WHEN I PRACTICE.

I’ve often said one of my biggest weaknesses as a golfer is how much I care, which has fueled the theory I should just pretend that I don’t. If I acted like golf mattered to me as much as, say, cleaning gutters, maybe I wouldn’t get in my own way as much as I do.

This would be a great idea if it worked. Unfortunately, this doesn't really work at all.

While it’s silly to compare myself to Nick Dunlap, the U.S. Amateur champ who just became the first amateur to win a PGA Tour event in 33 years, at least in one small area, he and I are alike. Nick, too, gets nervous in golf moments. He, too, has been tempted to just pretend like it doesn’t matter. And, unlike with me, Nick’s big golf moments do matter. Winning the U.S. Amateur or a tour event at age 20 are big deals, and Nick recognized the folly in trying to pretend otherwise (Nick likely will be nervous next week as well since he announced Thursday he’s turning pro).

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Orlando Ramirez

“I don't think you can tell yourself not to think about it. I think it's there,” Dunlap said after his U.S. Am win last August. “I think all you can do is really embrace it and embrace what it stands for. Take it for what it's worth and enjoy it.”

Both Dunlap and his sports psychologist Bhrett McCabe have said the more effective way to handle nerves is to acknowledge their existence. The shorthand for this is "name it so you can tame it,” and it’s rooted in basic science: the better your ability to identify a specific emotion and even label it, the easier it is for your brain to give it space and think about it logically. By contrast, trying to suppress certain thoughts—I’m not nervous, this doesn’t matter,etc.—has the inverse effect of giving a thought more power than it probably deserves.

“You can’t suppress emotions,” McCabe said. “The first thing to do is have an awareness of an emotion and acceptance. Acknowledge what you’re feeling. Now is not the time to get stuck on why.”

In other words, the next time you’re nervous over a shot, try to avoid the mistake I’ve made of saying it’s just a dumb game. The only dumb part is trying to convince yourself of something you don’t actually believe.

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Can we as mid-handicappers live by the 20 most important rules and what should they be? We are not pros. —Rudy

Rudy, I suggest we speak quietly here because you never know who is listening, and people get touchy about the rules. Look, I agree with you. A few years ago, Alex Myers and I constructed what we called “The Reasonable Man’s Rules of Golf,” which applied the very sort of selective approach to the rules you’re suggesting. This was met one of two ways: A) “What a great idea. The game right now is too complicated.”; and B) “You’re promoting anarchy. I’m embarrassed to call you Dad.” (My son is a bit of an originalist). In other words, while I believe it’s OK to play more lax rules in casual games—everything’s a lateral hazard, take the ball out of a fairway divot—you need to be mindful of the company you keep. This is not a given for everyone, and it can make things awkward at dinner.

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I’d like to see a feature on what tees and yardage you should be playing based on such things as irons rather than hybrids into par 4s, and fun rather than drudgery. —James

There are plenty of arguments out there that most golfers play from the wrong tees, but maybe the most compelling was made last week through a creative formula our Drew Powell devised. Drew proposed determining a suitable yardage for you by first considering how far you hit your average drive. From there you work off a percentage. If the average PGA Tour course is almost 7,300 yards, and a tour player averages around 300 yards off the tee, for instance, then their drives account for roughly 4.11 percent of the course’s yardage. Using the same 4.11 percentage, Drew’s formula arrives at a fairly stark conclusion: most of us are playing courses that are way too long.

Am I the only one who has the one club in the bag I just can't hit? I absolutely cannot hit my 3-wood. —Tim

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Tim, this is not a problem I’m familiar with, but it sounds very frustrating . . . OK, fine, this is a problem I know well, and I’m pretty sure plenty of others do, too. While there is surely something technical you could do to hit your 3-wood better, it’s also fair to ask whether you should have a 3-wood at all. Our equipment editors Mike Johnson and Mike Stachura have long advocated organizing your club set to your specific needs, and a big one of late—and one I use as well—is to go with a 5-wood over a 3-wood. Why? Golf Galaxy’s Chris Marchini explains to Johnson here: “I routinely see the 5-wood carrying longer with almost all types of players. It’s just easier to get in the air, plus it’s more forgiving.” Not every swing problem can be solved with equipment, but in some cases, the simple answer is staring us in the face.

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By the way, Mike and Mike just put the finishing touches on the latest edition of the Golf Digest Hot List that identifies the best new golf clubs on the market. Not a bad place to start looking for the right club for you.