Athletes get nervous in every sport. When the moment gets big, your palms start to sweat, your heart races, and everything tends to get a little bit quicker. Its a constant battle to stay in the moment, to control your breathing, and to control your thoughts. In most sports the athlete at least has the advantage of things moving quickly. This allows the athlete to be more reactionary, somewhat minimizing the nerves. However, even in this case nerves can be a real issue. Your brain starts to think about things that otherwise would never enter your mind. It’s easy to lose focus of the target and to begin seeing obstacles. Losing that clarity. This can happen in any sport, but golf is somewhat unique.
It is unique in the amount of time your mind has to contemplate your situation. Often it seems like there is nothing but time. There is nothing worse than having a crucial 3 foot putt and having to wait and watch while your playing partners finish their shots in order for you to finish. Minutes pass as you stare at a seemingly simple 3 footer. Trying to find break that isn’t there or thinking about how much you need this putt. Each second getting more anxious…
Finally it is your turn. The stage is clear. It is amazing the things that enter your mind. On any given Saturday it would never cross your mind that you could miss it. You’d step up confidently and brush it in. Without a thought. But this is different. It is a tournament or a big bet. You NEED this putt. So your mind begins to do funny things. It starts thinking things like “don’t pull it”, “don’t hit it too hard”, or even worse “you are going to miss this putt”. So you take a second to gather yourself. Remember that you’ve made thousands of these. Refocus on your target and put a smooth stroke on it. But those demons are real and conquering them is difficult.
Nerves can bring out negativity if you let it. And there isn’t a better nerve-inducing hole than the 17th hole on the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass. Its such an intimidating hole that it is hard not to begin thinking about it before you even get there. I know I did. The only time I have ever played the hole was in the Golf Channel Am Tour National Championship in 2012. I did not get to play a practice round before the tournament. Therefore, the first time I got to see the hole was in the first round of a 4 day tournament.
I had not played particularly well up to that point in the day. My ball striking was off and I was struggling around the difficult Stadium Course. I was +9 going into 16 (the par 5 before the island green). I just missed the green left and chipped up to about 5 feet. But I wasn’t focused on the 5 footer. My mind was already contemplating the tee shot I was about to have to hit.
Nerves will do that to you. Distract you from the task at hand. Luckily I was able to re-focus and pour in the 5 foot putt. It is a short walk from 16 green to 17 tee, but it feels like an eternity when you are not striking the ball as well as you’d like. To add to the nerves, I had just earned the honor on the tee. Having the honor can be a blessing or a curse. On the one hand, you don’t have to watch anyone else hit. Watching a competitor find a watery grave is not exactly an image you want to deal with before you step up to hit your shot… On the other hand, there was a significant amount of wind and seeing someone else’s shot could help with confidence in club selection.
The island green is larger in person than it appears on TV. If it weren’t surrounded by water it would be an extremely easy green to hit. But that is a lot of water. Its distracting. On the day I played it, the pin was in the middle of the green, which is a good place to aim regardless of pin location. The hole was playing between 135-140 yards with about a 12mph head wind. Not too far off from how the pros played it this weekend. On that day, I chose an 8 iron. Just an easy 8 iron. My heart was racing, my mind was racing. It was difficult to block out the fact that I had struck my irons poorly all day up until that point.
I did several things to calm my nerves. First I took some deep breaths. Second, I went to my bag and grabbed a brand new Pro V1x and put my mark on it. Most high handicappers are going to go grab a junk ball for such an intimidating shot. Basically planting the seed in their mind that they could, or even worse, will lose a golf ball. I did the opposite. I wanted a brand new ball. Not because I planned on losing it, but I told myself ‘when you make a hole in one, you’re going to want it to be a new ball.’ I was planting a good seed in my head. I was going pin seeking. Trying to eliminate the water from my thoughts.
Now that worked temporarily. Right up until I got over the ball. My heart was about to beat out of my chest. I took one last look at the pin and then everything basically went black. I don’t remember the swing. That tends to happen to me in my most nervous situations. I don’t know if it is a defense mechanism, but it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The swing went into autopilot until BOOM! Contact.
It felt flush and it was. I looked up in time to see my ball tracking at the pin on a good trajectory. But I still wasn’t breathing until the ball came to rest about 8 feet from the hole. I had conquered the nerves and come up with one of my best swings when I needed it. I wish I could summon that kind of focus on every shot, but it would probably be mentally exhausting to experience that kind of stress. I imagine its what the best players are able to do.
My mindset shifted to salivating over a chance to birdie the famous hole in my first attempt. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t end that way. My putt hit the hole and horseshoed back at me as if to laugh and say ‘good tee shot, but you’re not getting off that easily.’ I was happy to tap in the par and head to 18, where I made a great up and down for par. So I finished the dreaded 16-17-18 at even par to shoot a +9 (81). Not bad for having my C-game most of the day.
The hole obviously plays much more difficult than its yardage. At ~140 yards, the average tour pro should score around 2.97 according to Shotlink data from Broadie’s book Every Shot Counts. However, it plays harder than that most days. For the Championship flight (Handicap < 4) at the Golf Channel Am Tour National Championship that year, the hole played to an average of 3.82. Almost a full 0.5 strokes more difficult than the next hardest par 3. And it was 20 yards shorter than any of the others!
The pros dominated the hole yesterday, but over the week there were a bunch of balls that found watery graves. This included Ian Poulter and Justin Thomas on Sunday. In 2013, we saw Sergio hit a couple in the water while trying to chase down the eventual champion Tiger Woods. Its the type of hole that can make good players hit uncharacteristic shots.
What is your go-to move when the nerves kick in?