Keep your composure in the critical moments.
If practice and preparation were all it took to prevent nerves on the course, tour players would never get rattled. We hit a tonne of practice shots and spend hours and hours preparing, and we have teachers and trainers and mental-game coaches sharing all kinds of sophisticated improvement techniques.
But even with all that, I can tell you that nervousness and excitement are still there. Those feelings are a big reason I love to compete – to test myself on the very highest level.
How do you do well on those tests – whether they’re Sundays at Major championships or a weekend match that’s really important? You don’t have to be a superhero and pull off shots you’ve never hit before. Your goal should be to put yourself in position to play as close to your regular game as possible. That’s what I did in the final round of the 2018 Open Championship at Carnoustie, where I was in the final pairing with Jordan Spieth. I made some nervous mistakes early in that round, but I got more and more comfortable, made some birdies and was tied for the lead with Francesco Molinari late. I ended up making a bogey on 17 and tying for second (Molinari won). That might seem like a failure, but for me, it was an awesome learning experience, and proof that I had it in me to play my regular game in a very tense moment.
Still, it’s been a process.
I learned from a young age that my tendency was to really choke the grip during a big moment. I’d tense up in my hands, which would then tighten my forearms, and I’d try to rip one as hard as I could. But when your arms are tense, your swing doesn’t perform the same as normal. It’s like when you’re playing in bad weather, and your hands are a little wet or your grips are a touch slippery. You’ll squeeze the handle too hard, and the clubhead won’t release. You’ll block it right of the fairway on one drive and then try to twist the club shut more and wind up hitting a big hook left of the fairway on the next one. Now you’re on the next tee in a panic because you aren’t sure which direction the next drive is heading. You start to swing defensively, trying to steer the ball instead of winding up and letting it go.
That’s why grip pressure is something I check before every shot now – full swings and short game. I pay specific attention to how the club feels in my hands, and I’m always trying to match it to what I would feel if I were hitting a practice shot on a Tuesday. Just the ritual of feeling the grip in my fingers and making loose swings is relaxing. It reminds me to keep my jaw loose instead of tight and clenched, and my shoulders and neck fluid and flexible.
Being more in touch and aware of what your body is doing is a different strategy than what you hear from some players or performance coaches, who describe “going blank” as the goal under pressure. I want to be aware, because awareness means you can be more in control instead of just getting carried along. For example, I actively monitor my pulse when I play, because that’s usually the first indication that you’re feeling more pressure. As tension starts to build, it translates into a faster heart rate. Be mindful of that. A smartwatch or fitness tracker can monitor it, or you can take your pulse by counting the beats for 15 seconds and multiplying by four. Mine is usually around 100 beats per minute when I’m playing, but it can get up into the 140s as things get amped up.
Knowing when your heart starts to race means you can take steps to deal with it. I do that with a breathing technique that slows things down. Focusing on how you breathe also gives you a process to occupy your mind, making it harder to dwell on things that would make you more nervous. Anybody can breathe better, and it’s something you can work on right now. Inhale through your nose for a full four seconds, and feel the air go down to your solar plexus. Exhale through your mouth, making sure you keep your jaw relaxed. The time element is key, because if you start to breathe too quickly, you’ll hyperventilate – which just ramps up your pulse.
Whenever I walk onto the tee, get to my ball or start the process of hitting a putt, I’m using that breathing technique to keep my heart rate under control. Just like my pre-shot routine, that routine stays the same no matter if it’s the second hole on Thursday or my approach with a one-shot lead on the 17th hole on Sunday. That’s important, because if you change from what you normally do in bigger moments, you’re just reinforcing the nervousness you might feel. All shots aren’t the same, obviously, but the closer you can get to treating them the same, the closer you’ll get to letting your shot-making, not your stress level, determine the outcome.
A few months after the 2018 Open Championship, I got into position again to win at the WGC–HSBC Champions in China. The 18th hole called for a fade – the opposite of my preferred shot shape, especially with the driver – but this tee shot didn’t bother me. Why?
I had made a point to play it from that tee on Tuesday and Wednesday during practice rounds. I wanted to make sure I was comfortable with it so I could trust it when it counted. On the last hole of regulation, I hit a great tee shot, cutting it off the edge of a dangerous bunker to set up a birdie that got me into a playoff with Tony Finau. Then I had to immediately go back and hit that tee shot again in the playoff, so I went through my routine and played a little video in my mind of the fade I had just hit. Even with pressure mounting, I pulled it off again and made another birdie for the win. Test passed.
– with Matthew Rudy