If you spend enough time around the game of golf, you will most likely encounter a very common struggle, one that is shared by golfers at every level, even the best players in the world. You spend time at the driving range or around the practice green, hitting the ball well and bubbling over with confidence. Then, once you step on the first tee on the golf course, that confidence vanishes into thin air, and you feel helpless and lost. Why does this happen to so many golfers and how do you fight this loss of ability? Let’s examine what is at work and how to fight against it.
First, you need to understand that playing golf is quite a bit different than practicing golf. As you know, there is only one ball to hit each time, and every shot counts when you play an official round of golf. On the range, you can pull another ball over and try again, and often times you forget the bad shots on the range and only remember the good ones. That’s not a bad thing, but the problem here is that the bad shots still exist and did indeed happen out there, but you didn’t take the time to get some feedback and fix them. So the first step you need to take is to make your practice more like the game. If you can’t get out and play, remember to do as much random practice as you can; in other words, hit a driver, then an iron, then a wedge – mix it up! You wouldn’t hit 14 shots in a row with a 7 iron, so don’t do it too often on the range. There is definitely a time to hit a bunch of shots in a row to work on technique, but limit that practice and be sure to try different targets and different lies. Make your practice harder, and the golf course will seem a whole lot easier.
You also need to play like you mean it. I’ve seen it many times over the years – a low handicap player goes out and shoots a good round playing by themselves, only to shoot many strokes higher when all strokes must be counted. This is very common when the tournament “bell” is rung. Many players go out and play and give themselves short putts and don’t putt them out. Then, when the pressure is on, they can’t perform because they have no good memories or experience under pressure to fall back on in that instance. Obviously, pace of play is important, but if you know how to be ready and when to pick up, you can still putt the short putts out and have confidence that you can make the little putts on the greens.
Getting in these kind of situations, where your mind races and your adrenaline is rushing, is the only way to get comfortable with playing under pressure. The end result is that you must get out of your comfort zone more often to be able to settle down and play like you truly can. When you watch the best players in the world on television, they still get nervous in tournaments, but they embrace it and like being in the heat of the battle. But a part of this comfort level is that they have been there many, many times and it is familiar. So get out there and play in your club championship or in a few events, or at the very least play for a small wager with your friends so that you can stay motivated, putt out, and feel the pressure. It will be great for your game and the long term health of your scores in competition.
Finally, you must practice your weaknesses and make them a strength. A really great quote that I have seen that is attributed to a Navy SEAL is that “you don’t rise to the occasion, you sink to the level of your training.” I love that quote because it applies to golf in every way. Have you ever hit a shot and felt like you ended up in the one place where you didn’t feel comfortable, almost as if your ball was drawn to it? That’s because in most cases you haven’t practiced that particular shot, so your confidence level is low and you have no experience to draw upon. If you struggle with your driver and cringe every time you need to pull it out of the bag, you need to concentrate the majority of your time in practice to that club. Find out why it’s an issue, even if you need to take a lesson to do so, then budget your practice time with heavy weighting toward making the driver better. I promise you, it feels great to step on the tee and know that you will always be in play, and it feels even more gratifying to hit beautiful shots that prove all of the practice was worth it.
So playing in competition is a totally different animal. We all can be “driving range pros” who hit the ball great at the practice tee. But nothing is better than playing well with the pressure on you, and the only way to do that is to commit to getting out of your comfort zone and committing yourself to doing it well. Better practice, focusing on the details, and having the mental strength to stay with a game plan will make all of the difference and take you to new heights when the announcer at the first tee calls your name.