You play great with your friends on the weekend, yet when the club championship rolls around your score seems to sky-rocket higher than a NASA shuttle. Does this sound like you? When the round of golf you are about to play suddenly means something, your nerves get jumpy and your tension increases ten fold. You’ve played the opening hole at your club a million times. Up to the tee box you go, driver in hand and you hit your first tee shot in a place you’ve never been before! You chunk your second shot because you’re trying to make up for a very short and very wayward tee shot. Now, you finally hit a pretty good shot up the fairway but you are still 40 yards away from the green. Wanting to pitch it really close, you jump on it a bit, hit it a little thin and it goes racing to the back of the green. Three putts later, you head to the second tee thanking the golf gods that the first hole is finally over! If this sounds like you or one of your golfing friends, you are not alone. We’ve all been there. I remember back in my mini-tour days, my golf coach telling me that under the stress of competition, I could easily shoot a score 4-6 shots higher than my “weekend” average. Do you find this to be true? Is it more than 6 shots? I can say that in the beginning of my mini-tour days, the 4-6 shot addition was very true!
So what changes when you show up on the first day of a club championship, local amateur event or even the tryouts for the golf team? Do your skills change? Do you lose your swing? The answer is No. Your skills are there and your swing is never lost. There is an ancient Chinese proverb from the book, The Way of Chuang Tzu by Thomas Merton that sums it up rather nicely.
The Need To Win
When an archer is shooting for nothing, he has all his skill.
If he shoots for a brass buckle, he is already nervous.
If he shoots for a prize of gold, he goes blind, or sees two targets – He is out of his mind!
His skill has not changed, but the prize divides him.
He thinks more of winning than of shooting – and the need to win,
Drains him of his power.
We’ve all experienced this very thing. We suddenly care about the outcome and then get focused on just that. How often have you tripled the first hole only to say to yourself, “good…I’m glad THAT’S out of the way!” Now I can relax and play. We’ve all been to these stressful places and in some cases performed well and in others, not so much. I grew up playing a lot of sports and softball was a big one. I was selected to be on a traveling team and we were invited to play in competitions everywhere in the state. So that meant a lot of practices! We would work on practicing our skills, catching fly balls in the outfield, ground balls on the infield, batting and running plays. Then we would scrimmage. We would practice the art of playing the game. Skill building time was over, it was time to PLAY THE GAME! I remember all too well my father saying to me, ” you do in a practice, what you do in a game.” That was code for, play the scrimmage like it’s a real game that means something, otherwise if you play like it’s just a casual practice, then that’s how you’ll perform during the REAL game. That is how I remember practicing softball…and it was fun!
How does this relate to golf? When you decide you’re going to play in a competitive event, you have to practice “playing” in a similar environment. You have to practice playing under pressure and in an environment that more closely resembles competition. Here are a few ways to do just that for both the driving range when you’re practicing skill development and the course when practicing the art of competitive play.
On the range, after you’ve warmed up pick specific targets and hit shots to that target. Create a point system for success. With your irons, if your ball lands and stays on your target, give yourself a point. 3 shots for each target then move on to another target with a different club. Change targets and clubs at least 4 times. Feel free to do more if you are so inclined. With the driver, pick a landing area and boundaries both on the right and left side of your intended target. If it stays in the boundary, give yourself a point. If it hits your target, give yourself 2 points. Again, 3 shots to the target, then change targets. Create your own “Range Game” scenario and keep some of your stats. You can gauge your improvement once you have a baseline.
On the course, create a different environment that is a little out of your weekend comfort zone. Play with people you don’t know. Play with better players. Create your own personal goal for the round and stay focused on achieving it. If you’re playing with friends, play for a friendly wager…and that could be who buys the bagels and coffee at the end of the round. Practicing is key, both in skill development AND play development. Remember, golf is a GAME that is PLAYED on the course. In competition, it’s about playing with what you have for the day and then doing your best to get the ball in the hole in the fewest number of strokes. So next time you’re out on the range for a bit of practice or heading for the tee with your weekend regulars, “do in practice what you do in a game” and conjure up a competitive environment, you’ll be glad you did.