We watch the players on the various tours every week hitting incredible shots under the extreme pressure of millions of dollars and prestigious titles on the line. Often we wonder how they can do that and how we might emulate the way they play the game.
We may not have their swings or power or control, but we can still play in a way that brings out the best our games have to offer.
When you decide to play in a tournament, whether it is the US Amateur or your club’s championship, the pressure of the situation may lead to mishits, poor decisions, and a showing that doesn’t bring out your abilities.
It starts on the practice tee long before your tournament round and carries over into the round. Your style of play during the round will have to fit the situations you find as you play, and then after the round, you have to honestly evaluate the round to see what you have to work on the next time.
With a few pointers, you can produce the kind of play that pushed you into playing in a real tournament in the first place.
In the days before the tournament
You’re probably a pretty good player if you are even considering playing in a tournament, but the pressure of the event can get to you before you get used to the forge of competition. In the days leading up to the tournament, your practice should be as if you were playing in the event. You should be focusing on every swing you take. Evaluate every shot as if it matters and commit to every shot the way you will have to during the tournament.
Many pros will tell you part of the problem with amateurs in tournaments is that they do not trust their swings and second-guess their shot selection during the tournament. Purge this from your mind during the weeks and days leading up to the tournament.
You should be practicing your putting twice as much as you practice anything else. Another quarter of your time should be spent on shots from 100 yards and in. So, 75% of your time should be spent with a wedge or less in your hands. These are your scoring clubs. I know hitting drivers on the range is fun, but in the tournament, you will swing your driver maybe 14 times, probably less. You will swing your putter on every hole, probably twice. It’s important to practice with the clubs you will be using the most, and those are your wedges and your putter.
Also, when practicing on the range, make sure you have a target for every shot. This will get you into the mindset of having a target on every shot on the course. Go through your pre-shot routine on every swing, so you can get in the habit of doing that on the course, too.
On the day of the tournament
Show up early enough to check you bag for the right number of clubs, that you have enough of the right kind of balls (more on this in a moment), and that you have your rain gear and umbrella if you should need them.
It’s also important to bring some sort of container for water and some sort of snack food during your round. Water is the best thing to drink while you play, obviously, but keeping yourself hydrated is the most important thing. I tend to avoid soda and drinks like Gatorade because of the high sugar content. I also avoid caffeinated drinks such as coffee or tea because I do not like the jittery feeling I get from them.
For snacks, I like granola bars or Clif Bars. Again, I avoid anything with a lot of sugar like candy bars. Basically, you need to feed the engine while you play, especially if you are walking. I will eat try to eat something every four holes or so.
Getting back to having the right kind of balls, if you are playing in a USGA event, or even a state golf association event, you may encounter the “one ball rule.”
This rule stipulates that you may only use one make and model of ball during your tournament round(s). So, if you are playing a Titleist ProV1x to start your round, you may only use a ProV1x for that round. You may change to a different ball between rounds, but you may not change to a different ball during a round. Therefore, it is important to check your bag and ensure that you only have the one kind of ball in your bag so you do not inadvertently put the wrong ball into play during the round.
You should stretch as you would before any round or practice, and only hit enough balls to find out how you are hitting the ball that day. This cannot be stressed enough, your warmup is not the time to diagnose any problems in your swing. You are to find out what game you brought to the course that day, not sort out the problems you’ve been having hitting certain shots.
I like to start by putting. I work from about three feet from the hole and move outward until I’m lag putting from across the green. I make putts up and down any hills, across them, into and against the grain, if I can. Then, I work on chipping and pitching, including bunker shots of varying lies.
Then, I hit the range, were I work with my pitching wedge about 10-12 times, then 7-iron about 8-10 times, then some 4-iron swings (6 or so). Then, I hit driver. I only hit about four shots with my driver. Again, all of this is to see how I’m hitting the ball, not to try new swing thoughts or fix problems. You need to know what you can do that do, and if you find anything you cannot do (for example, if you simply cannot hit a low fade), you must not attempt that shot on the course that day unless you have no choice.
Next, I hit four 3-woods, four hybrids, and then I hit four balls each with my pitching wedge, gap wedge, sand wedge, and lob wedge. Finally, I take five or six balls and play the first couple holes of the course, hitting the shots I will need to hit on the tee and for the approaches. This gives me a vision of what I have to do when I get to the course.
I stop at the practice green once more and make six putts from about three feet. I’m not challenging myself here. I just want the image and the sound of the ball going in the hole to be the last thing I see and hear before I begin play.
Obviously, this is what I do and it works for me. You should find what works for you.
During the round
Remember the goal of the game is to get the ball in the hole in as few shots as you can. The goal of the game is not to hit the longest drives, nor to hit the middle of every fairway. The goal of the game is not to make pars, either.
Forget par. Par is just a number. Get the ball in the hole in as few strokes as you can. If you focus on that one thing, you will be fine.
Measure the risks of each shot against the rewards, and remember how you were hitting the ball on the range.
If you do not have a fade on that day, and a particular hole calls for a fade to get close, you will have to swallow your pride and play to the middle of the green.
If you are capable of working the ball either direction, a good strategy is to start the ball at the middle of each green and then work the ball toward the hole. Hit more greens in regulation, and you will have looks at birdie even if you aren’t knocking the flags down.
Most of all, and I can’t stress this enough, unless you know more than 85% that you can pull it off, do not attempt the hero shot. Hero shots are fun and make for good 19th hole story-telling, but if you don’t pull it off, you could end up shooting yourself right out of the tournament. You can recover from a bogey with a single birdie. But it takes two birdies to recover from a double bogey.
If you get in trouble, put yourself in a position to make no worse than bogey.
Also, if you are weak on the rules in various situations, get a rule book and familiarize yourself with what to do when your ball comes to rest on a cart path, water hazards, out of bounds, lost balls, and what you are allowed to do in terms of moving things around your ball. Knowing these can save you a lot of heartache (or a disqualification).
After the round
Check your scorecard! You are responsible for your score once you sign the card. If you do not check it, you have no one to blame but yourself. Remember Roberto Ve Bencenzo? Do not let something like that happen to you.
If you have the time, go to the range afterward and work on anything that didn’t go well during your round. This is the best time to fix things that came up during your round, when they are still fresh in your mind and you can do something about them.
Analyze your play, and be brutally honest with yourself. How did you play? Did you play to your game, or did you get caught up trying to out-drive one of your playing competitors? Did you hit a lot of greens, but make no putts? Were you struggling to hit fairways off the tee? You can work these things out on the practice range after the round.
Did you take your medicine when you had to, and attack when you could?
An honest evaluation of your game will help you the next time you play in a tournament.
Take what you learned back to the practice tee and to your leisure rounds. Apply the lessons learned so you can play better the next time.
In that way, you will be just like the pros.
Good luck, and play well!