Think back over the entire course of your golf career to the couple times that you were under the most pressure. How did you handle it? What were the circumstances of the situation and the true source of the pressure? Did you manage to overcome or did you choke? As long as golf and other sports are played at the professional and recreational level there will be pressure situations.
I just finished the New York Times Bestseller Performing Under Pressure by Hendrie Weisinger and J.P. Pawliw-Fry, and it was a fascinating look into the nature of pressure situations and what strategies we can use to combat it. Pawliw-Fry has a background of working with Olympic athletes and interjected many helpful sports analogies which were great for tying golf into the conversation.
The book is divided into three parts. First is an examination of what pressure is and how it’s different from stress. Stress is defined as a constant nagging type entity that comes in many forms and wears you down over time, but pressure is an immediate positive or negative result based on a specific action you might take. You win or lose the tournament based on a single shot or you succeed or fail at the plate with one swing of the bat. In evolutionary terms, you successfully hunted food or you starved, or worse, you were hunted by predatory animals and needed to escape to survive. These are real pressure situations. The authors align many of our present day pressure situations with our evolutionary history. Included are fascinating data from sports studies supporting the conclusion that it’s mostly a myth that anyone excels under pressure,. Rather, some are more capable than others to perform close to their natural abilities under pressure and are termed “clutch”. Among the several nuggets: clutch hitting in late inning and post-season major league baseball games is mostly a myth, with no hitters consistently able to perform better under these pressure situations. compared to regular season action. Even Reggie Jackson (Mr. October) never hit better in the post season than the regular season, with his best post season batting average equaling only his fifth best regular season average.
Part two contains a breakdown of short-term strategies you can use to regulate and release the flow of pressure. One interesting study they did was with golfers and the concept of using word anchors compared to swing thoughts. One control group was told to think mechanical thoughts while hitting shots under pressure while another was to think the anchor thought. Anchors were non-concrete action words like “smooth” and “balanced”, and they proved that the group using the anchors performed much better than the mechanical group. This should come as no surprise. Players who play golf swing instead of golf take note.
Part three describes developing a long term strategy of building a COTE of armor to immunize yourself against pressure. COTE stands for Confidence, Optimism, Tenacity, and Enthusiasm. Each of these are examined in depth with strategies provided to better yourself across the board. Build up each area and you immunize yourself better to all pressure situations.
Most of these strategies will help you handle pressure in life, at work, as well as on the golf course. It’s an eye opening read and I highly recommend it. Get the book and tell me what you think. Now it’s out to practice and work on my COTE. Play well!
What’s more important, length or accuracy? Been having a couple interesting dialogs with Jim at The Grateful Golfer and Jimmy at Tiger Golf Traveler on the challenges of driving and figured it was time to take a closer look at the dichotomy. Let’s approach from the two perspectives of the tour professional and amateur player, which are very different, and often get munged together to create great confusion. First the pro. The current PGA Tour driving distance average is 290.8 yards. This has steadily increased from slightly over 260 yards in 1993 to 287 yards in 2003 and leveled off since. The reason was three-fold: first was the introduction of the trampoline effect on the driver face (new technology), second was the introduction of the three-piece golf ball, and finally was the muscling up and year round conditioning of today’s tour players pioneered by Tiger Woods. As a result, the PGA Tour has steadily lengthened its venues to maintain the competitive integrity of the game. No doubt, length has won out over accuracy on tour as the world’s best are more deadly accurate with their approaches using wedges out of the rough than short to middle irons from the fairway.
What’s fascinating is that the playing public has access to the same equipment that the best in the world have, but for some reason they expect to boom drives in the same fashion that their heroes on TV do. How often have you seen the guy at the driving range banging bucket after bucket over the 300 yard sign with sweat dripping from his brow and a great look of satisfaction on his face? Or maybe that person is you??? Here’s where perception and reality are out of whack because the tour pro’s misses are far less off-line than the amateur’s and what the pro can do with his game at the other end of the drive differs considerably from the amateur. To put it differently, given a 36oz. wooden bat and a softly tossed baseball, would you be able to stand at the plate and swat home runs like Chris Davis or Jose Bautista? Of course not.
As a young amateur, I had a laminated Top Flite driver that would almost never miss the fairway. I couldn’t drive it over 220 yards but was incredibly straight. In my 20s I took a couple lessons with a pro who firmed up my left side during the downswing. Part of that instruction included strengthening my left hand grip which allowed me to generate more power through better leverage. Well that worked and the ball started flying farther but far more crooked and I have never regained the accuracy with the big stick. Oddly enough, in last two years, I have started driving it better just focusing on making a good shoulder turn going back. But the bottom line for this amateur: the game is far more enjoyable if you stay out of trouble off the tee, even if that means sacrificing some distance.
So my final recommendation: Let the equipment companies continue to try and sell you a new $400 driver every year with the promise of a few more magical yards but don’t buy it. Invest half that much and get a professional driver fitting with a reputable club maker. He’ll make sure the driver you are playing has the correct shaft flexibility, is not too long, and lets you keep it in the short grass.
Where do you fall in the length vs accuracy spectrum? Play well!
Michael Breed, of The Golf Channel, expressed an interesting definition of experience. He said, “Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want.” Last Sunday, Rickie Fowler got a good dose of experience. Fowler is a seasoned 27-year old professional with six wins world-wide (three on the PGA Tour) and top-5 finishes in all the majors. I’m a Rickie fan and expected him to manage his game better down the stretch, yet what happened on the 17th hole at the TPC of Scottsdale saddened me and will get added to the bone yard of golf “experiences”.
The lesson that has to be learned over and over is that aggressive play under pressure rarely pays off. Rickie last week, Phil Mickelson’s epic collapse at the 2006 US Open, Jean van de Velde at The Open in 1999 at Carnoustie, are just a few examples. It’s fascinating why players don’t learn from those who have gone before them. Maybe the adrenaline release under pressure affects their thinking, but almost always these experiences can be directed to poor course management. In fact, rarely in golf will you get in trouble playing overly-conservative in clutch situations. When Zach Johnson won the 2007 Masters, he laid up on every par five and played them 11-under without making a bogey. You may think that’s a whacky strategy for a professional at Augusta, but Zach clearly understood his strengths and limitations, and played to them. Rickie had hit seven drives into the water on #17 at Phoenix in previous rounds! With a two-shot lead why not hit 5-iron-sand wedge and make an easy par or birdie?
Think back to an experience you’ve had. Did you have to experience it to learn or did you learn from someone else’s misfortune? Unfortunately, I’m a hands-on learner and got a lesson on course management under pressure. I was in a club championship match about 20 years ago and standing on the 18th tee with a two-shot lead. This hole has water that stretches fully across the fairway about 320 yards off the tee. I had played the hole hundreds of times but had never hit the water. The day was hot, the wind was blowing hard from behind, and the ground was dry. My drive trickled into the front bank of the hazard and I had to struggle to make bogey. Fortunately, my nearest competitor made par and I finished one stroke ahead but I will never forget the feeling I had looking at my ball sitting on the mud bank and thinking, “What were you thinking?”
Are you a risk taker under pressure or can you manage your game to your abilities? Please share a similar experience if you have one.
Thanks and play well!