One crooked shot; one missed short putt; one bad hole. Sometimes that’s all it takes to get a round spinning out of control. Just look at Brooks Koepka at the PGA Championship. He was cruising but then hit a couple of bad shots on the back nine on Sunday and went on to make four straight bogeys. He nearly lost the tournament. Things can even turn ugly through no fault of your own. Maybe it starts raining or the wind picks up; or you come to a hole with an unsettling forced carry. I could go on, but the point is, dealing with stress is a part of playing golf. Here I’ll go through some on-course scenarios that can be unnerving and give you advice to help avoid a meltdown. Let’s start with a pop-up shower. Make sure your raingear fits and is comfortable. Even a little tightness in the sleeves can throw a swing off. Oh, and take more club and swing easier to counter the wet conditions. —with Keely Levins
WHEN YOU HAVE TO HIT THE FAIRWAY
Whether it’s a tight fairway, a key moment in your match, or you’ve been spraying it off the tee, there are some drives that are more stressful than others. To overcome it, first give yourself some slack. Don’t feel like you have to hit a perfect drive. Go with your natural shot shape even if the hole is set up for the opposite ball flight. You’ll be more comfortable and confident. The biggest mistake I see amateurs make is trying to hit the shot that works best for the hole, not the shot that works best for them. Make the course fit your game, not the other way around.
Most amateurs I see hit fades or slices off the tee. If that’s your game, set up on the side of the tee box that gives you the most room to curve the ball in play, and make a swing as carefree as you do on the range (above)—like you’ve got nothing to lose.
“It’s tough to make a confıdent swing if you’re worried about the result.”
WHEN YOU NEED A SOLID IRON SHOT*
I mentioned wind in the intro. Hitting shots against a breeze can wreck your swing—especially iron shots, because wind makes you want to grip the club harder and swing faster—you end up creating more spin on shots, and the ball goes nowhere. Instead, select one club longer than normal, grip down a little on the handle, play the ball back in your stance, and swing at three-quarter speed (above). That last part is key.
Another uneasy situation is when you have to hit over some kind of penalty area or obstacle. The mistake is to swing off your back foot and try to help the ball high over the hazard. Do that, and you’ll probably fat or thin the shot. Instead, try this cool tip: Aim for the top of the flagstick. It helps take your mind off the water, or whatever is in your way, and put your focus in a better place. It also helps you make a swing that should get the ball to the green.
WHEN YOU'RE WORRIED YOU MIGHT MISS A SHORT PUTT
Let’s say you missed a four-footer on the previous hole, and now you have to make another one. Suddenly it feels like a 20-footer. To make sure your past doesn’t haunt you, take some time to get confident with your read. Some putts are obvious from this distance, but the point is, don’t take the read for granted.
On a short putt like this, I like to straddle the line and feel which foot is supporting more of my body weight. For example, if it’s the left foot, I know the ball will move to the left, and I adjust my aim to let the ball turn into the cup. Trust what your feet tell you.
When you get the read, pick a spot about 12 inches in front of you on that line, and focus on rolling your ball over it (below). The spot should take your attention away from the cup and, hopefully, the nervousness of missing.
In any of these situations, the secret is to get out of a result-based mind-set and focus on the process needed to pull off the shot. That’s how you deal.