If you tend to get nervous on the golf course, you're not alone. Even the game's greatest players, like Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus, admit to feeling butterflies under pressure.
What's important is how you deal with stress.
First, identify the situations that cause your nerves to flutter. For example, many golfers tense up when there's a crowd watching on the first tee (or anywhere else). Most feel nervous in the midst of a tight match, even among good friends. A stretch of good play that puts one within reach of a great score can also send the heart racing.
- Take deep breaths: Not big, gasping heaves, just smooth and steady. Your muscles will respond well to the extra oxygen.
- Slow down everything: There's a natural tendency to speed up when a case of nerves strikes, leading to poor swings. Step to the ball a little more slowly and concentrate on making a low, smooth takeaway.
- Think process, not result: Anxiety hits when we're concerned about the consequences of a poor shot. Forget about it by focusing intently on your pre-shot routine, making sure to complete each step in order.
Above all, welcome the opportunity for success that pressure presents. Just like Jack and Tiger do.
Controlling Nerves and Reducing Stress in Golf
Golf is considered by many to be one of the hardest games in the world, but why is that the case? The ball isn't moving when you try to hit it, as it is in other sports, and there is no one in front of you to play defense – shouldn't it be relatively easy? Of course, it is not easy, and there are a number of reasons why that is the case. For one thing, you are trying to hit the ball hundreds of yards in the air while controlling its accuracy, which is a major challenge in and of itself. Also, the ball can be laying in all kinds of different positions with grasses of various lengths and ground that is sloped in one direction or another. When you add up all that you have to do in order to produce a good golf shot, it becomes clear why this game is so difficult.
However, looking beyond the physical challenge of making a good swing and sending the ball toward the target, you will find something that is even more daunting – the nerves and stress that come along with golf. Perhaps more than any other sport, golf will put your nerves to the test. If you are unsure of yourself, or if you are stressed out about the results of a given shot, golf will expose you in a hurry. You can't 'fake' your way around the golf course, and you don't have any teammates to bail you out – if the pressure gets to you, it is inevitable that you will crumble before you reach the 18th green.
If you watch professional golf on TV from time to time, you have certainly seen what nerves and stress can do to the performance of the best players in the world. Even easy shots can get incredibly difficult when the pressure is on, which is a big part of what makes golf so much fun to watch. Often it isn't the players with the most talent who come out on top, but rather the players with the ability to put the nerves aside. Finishing off a major championship win, for example, takes an incredible combination of talent and nerves that is rare to say the least. Major champions in golf are a rare breed because they understand how to perform at a high level even when they feel the weight of the world on their shoulders.
Most likely, you aren't going to have to perform in a major championship anytime soon. However, that doesn't mean that you aren't going to feel pressure and stress on the course. Every golfer feels some form of nerves when they play, as it is only natural to want to do your best each and every time you put the tee in the ground. So, in order to reach your potential on the course, you are going to have to learn how to play great golf while feeling that pressure. Rather than focusing all of your practice time and energy on your physical mechanics, set aside some time to think about how you handle pressure, and how you can better handle it in the future.
The content below will address a number of issues related to controlling your nerves and stress on the golf course. Take this advice to heart and you should notice your performance improve during upcoming rounds.
Basic Techniques for Controlling Nerves
There are a few basic techniques that most experienced golfers are familiar with when it comes to controlling nerves. Before you get too far into any other advanced methods, we need to be sure that you already understand these simple points. In fact, if you do a good job of sticking to these basic points that relate to playing well under pressure, you might find that you don't actually need many other tips in order to perform nicely when you are feeling nervous.
- Stick to your routine. If there is one single most-important piece of advice for playing well under pressure it is this – stick to the routine that you use for all of your shots. You should have a set pre-shot routine that you use for all of your shots, and you should use it time after time, no matter what is at stake. Whether you are hitting the first shot of the day, or a pressure-filled approach shot to the last green, your routine should be the same. Take the same amount of time, go through the same process, and make the same swing. If you can stay as consistent as possible from shot to shot, you will reduce the likelihood of nerves causing a serious problem in your game.
- Pick safer targets. The only thing that you should change when you are playing a shot under pressure is the target that you select for your shot. If you know you are going to be nervous during your swing, pick a slightly safer target in order to give yourself some margin for error. You might not be quite as accurate with your swing when you are nervous, so picking a 'generous' target will allow you to be a bit off line and still wind up with a reasonable shot. The most common example of this method is to aim for the center of the green rather than taking dead aim at a flag that is located near an edge. Along the same line of thinking, you can also use less club off the tee to increase your chances of keeping the ball in the fairway.
- Take a deep breath. This might seem like a pretty obvious step, but it is actually easy to forget to breathe when you are in a tight spot and you are focused on trying to come up with a good swing. Before walking up to take your stance, stand behind the ball and take a deep breath in and out while looking toward the target. This breath should help relax you, and you should then be able to walk in and take your stance while feeling ready to make a great swing. This technique works prior to your full swing, and it is just as effective when you are preparing to hit a short game shot.
- Visualize success. Part of the reason that you are nervous prior to hitting a shot is the fact that you are worried about failure. To reduce your fear of failure, go through a quick visualization of your shot before you actually hit it. Again, this is another step that you can take while standing behind the ball. Look out toward the target, picture your ball flying perfectly along the path that you have selected, and imagine it dropping nicely next to the target. Once you have 'seen' what a successful shot looks like, you should find that your nerves have relaxed and you are ready to perform well under pressure.
- Get Away from the Stress. If you are playing an important round in a competition of some kind, one of the best things you can do is find a way to escape the stress by talking with other people in your group. Chat about things other than golf while waiting on the tee to take your mind off of the task at hand. Even if you only have a minute or two to talk while waiting to play, that quick mental break can do wonders for your ability to perform when it is your turn to hit.
The five points on the list above should all be a big help in your effort to play well while feeling pressure. In your upcoming rounds, focus on using these tips to get your game headed in the right direction. You will always feel nerves from time to time while you play, but taking these tips to heart can go a long way toward helping you play well even while nervous.
It's a Long Round
One of the biggest problems that many golfers face in regards to pressure is emphasizing one shot over another during the round. You have probably thought about golf in this way for quite some time, without even realizing it. Have you ever found yourself standing over the ball, thinking 'this is a big shot'? If so, you are putting undue pressure on yourself by making one shot (or a few shots) more important than the rest.
In reality, all of the shots count the same. Each time you hit the ball, it is worth one shot on your scorecard. It doesn't matter if you smash a drive 300 yards down the middle of the fairway, or you hit a putt from inside of two feet, they all count the same. This can be frustrating at times, but it is also liberating. You don't have to worry about any one particular shot being 'important', because they are all important. If you are going to play up your capabilities on the course, you will need to learn how to value all of your shots equally.
The first step toward that goal is to understand that each round of golf is actually quite long, and you have plenty of time to make up for one or two mistakes. Even professional golfers usually hit the ball between 65-72 times per round, and that is in a good round. For an amateur golfer of average skill, keeping the score under 90 is often considered a success. Therefore, when put in the context of a round that is going to contain nearly 90 shots (or more), you shouldn't find yourself getting too 'worked up' about any one single shot. Don't worry if you have a tricky par putt on the first green – there will be plenty of time to make up that shot even if you do happen to miss.
This concept is even more important to keep in mind when you are playing in a tournament. If you are playing a competition that includes two, three, or even four rounds, you will need to remain patient and remember that there are plenty of holes to be played. Putting too much emphasis on your performance early in the event is only going to stress you out for no reason. Instead, keep your mind focused on the big picture while executing each individual shot to the best of your ability. The players who are able to treat all of the shots with the same level of importance and effort will have a big advantage when all is said and done.
Maintaining perspective on the relative value of each shot should also help you to make good decisions as you move through each round that you play. When you think that one shot is more important than the others, you might decide to be more aggressive with that shot in the hope of achieving a great result. Of course, that is a plan that will very likely lead you into trouble. Instead, when you realize that all shots are equal, you can make decisions on each shot based on what you see in front of you and nothing else. If a shot looks particularly difficult and dangerous, you will feel free to take a safer route – even if that means taking a bogey instead of having a chance for par. Good decision making is crucial in golf at all levels, and your decision making will be at its best when you don't place added value on particular shots.
Putting Yourself to the Test
In golf, as in the rest of life, it is often inexperience that leads to feelings of nervousness and pressure. While all golfers will feel some degree of pressure when they play in a competition, it is usually those who are inexperienced that will feel it the most. For example, a PGA Tour veteran who has played hundreds of events will not get too worked up on the first tee – they will simply go about their business. There will be some slight nerves rolling around in their stomach, but they will be minor and likely will not affect performance at all. On the other hand, a Tour rookie playing in his first event may have trouble getting his swing started when standing over that first tee shot.
With that in mind, one of the best things you can do for your own nerves on the course is to put yourself to the test as soon, and as often, as possible. Even if you normally don't play in competitions, consider entering a tournament or two at your local course to try out your nerves in a pressure situation. Will you perform at your best in your first tournament? No, probably not – but that's okay. It is all about gaining experience, and having some fun along the way. Quite quickly you will notice that the nerves have relaxed, even after just a few holes, and you should be able to get into a rhythm of just playing your own game and mostly ignoring the pressure.
If you do decide to put yourself to the test by entering your first tournament, the following tips will help you to play up to your potential even while dealing with those pesky nerves.
- Keep your expectations in check. It is important to maintain realistic expectations when playing in a golf tournament for the first time (or any time, for that matter). Everything gets a little bit harder when you play in a tournament as opposed to a casual round, so expect your score to go up a few strokes from where it normally would be. That doesn't mean that you should expect to play terribly – not at all. You should enter the round (or rounds) optimistic about your chances to play well and have fun, while also realizing that tournament golf is difficult and you may deal with some struggles before you bring it all together in future events.
- Play it safe early. You always want to get off to a good start in competition, as seeing a couple of early pars on your scorecard is a good way to settle the nerves and get into the round. If you start off by making some mistakes, it can be tough to settle down and get things back on track. So, with that in mind, consider taking a conservative approach to the early holes until you work out the nerves and start swinging more freely. Use less club off the tee when possible, pick safe targets, and make smooth swings that put the ball in play. There will be plenty of time later to attempt more challenging shots – give yourself a good start and go from there.
- Arrive in plenty of time. It is a good idea to arrive 20-30 minutes earlier than you would for a normal round when playing in a tournament. There are a couple of reasons for this plan. First, getting to the course early will give you time to deal with any pre-round administrative tasks that need to be completed (often there is a check-in or registration to deal with). Also, getting to the course earlier will give you more time to putt and settle in for the round. Practice putting is the most important thing you can do before a competitive round, as it gives you a chance to learn the speed of the greens for the day. You don't want to have to rush through your routine on the way to the first hole, so get there early and take it slow.
In all, you shouldn't do too much different before/during a tournament round compared with a regular round of golf. As long as you use the tips above, along with the tips from earlier which related to pressure and nerves in general, you should be able to have a great time in your first tournament. Remember, golf is supposed to be fun, so have a good time and enjoy each shot along the way.
Pressure in the Short Game
Believe it or not, pressure doesn't affect your full swing nearly as much as it affects your short game. While you might feel nervous over your full swing shots, you should usually be able to execute them reasonably well even if you are a bit tight. That isn't the case with the short game. If you are nervous, and you can't find a way to relax, you might see your short game come apart at the seams.
One of the best ways to handle short game nerves is to pay attention to your grip pressure. If you are nervous, you will likely grip your wedges and your putter more tightly than usual – and that is a bad thing. Relaxed grip pressure is critical in the short game, as it allows the club head to move through the ball with the freedom necessary to control your speed perfectly. Before any short game shot where nerves are a factor, check on your grip pressure to ensure you are maintaining a light and free grip. If you notice that you are getting tight, shake out your hands and fingers and try to take your grip again. Only when you are able to form a relaxed grip should you proceed with the shot.
The other tip that you can use to relax in the short game is gaining an understanding of the unpredictable nature of this part of golf. There are countless variables involved in each putt and chip, and many of them are out of your control. Even if you hit a great putt, the ball may bounce off of a bump in the green and miss the hole as a result. You can't control everything, so relax, make your best swing or stroke, and live with the outcome. Once you accept that the final result really isn't within your control, you will feel free to perform at your best.
Pressure and golf go hand in hand. While it might be frustrating to deal with nerves that affect your performance, those nerves are actually a big part of what makes golf the great game that it is. Without nerves and pressure, the game would get boring rather quickly. Use the information contained above to play your best when the pressure is on, and you will have some of the best golfing experiences of your life as a result.