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Why you must practice under pressure if you want to play better golf

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Practice, as most of us employ it, is borderline worthless. This is because most of the practices, if you will, typically employed during practice sessions have little chance of improving our performance under pressure.

The type of practice that improves performance is, for the most part, rarely engaged in because practicing under typical “practice” conditions does very little to simulate the thoughts, feelings, and emotions we deal with once our performance actually means something. If we want to really improve our performance when it matters, we need to put ourselves in situations, often and repeatedly, that simulate the pressure we experience during competition. And nowhere is this statement more true than on the putting green.

The art and skill of putting is a funny thing. No element of the game requires less inherent hand-eye coordination or athletic talent. Putting’s simplicity makes it golf’s great equalizer. You roll a ball along the ground with a flat-faced stick in the general direction of a hole nearly three times its size. Sure, green speeds vary wildly, and there are those diabolical breaks to deal with, but despite that, putting is truly golf’s most level playing field; it’s the one element of the game where even the highest handicappers can potentially compete straight up with the game’s most skilled. At the same time, there are few other situations (other than maybe the first tee) when we feel as much pressure as we do on the putting green.

Ben Hogan, during the latter part of his career — years that were marred by poor putting — claimed that putting shouldn’t even be a part of the game because, in his words, “There is no similarity between golf and putting; they are two different games, one played in the air, and the other on the ground.”

Now, Hogan suffered a serious case of the yips later in his career, and while this statement was likely uttered following a frustrating round of missed three-footers, it serves to highlight not only the differences between putting and the rest of the game, but how taxing on the nerves it can be for even the game’s greats.

Its inherent simplicity, the slow pace of the stroke, and how much time we are given to contemplate it, are in truth what sets us up. It’s golf’s free throw. We very often know exactly what to do, and how to do it, like when we’re faced with one of those straight three-footers, but with more time to think, it opens the door wide for the type of second-guessing that arises during those moments we feel a bit of pressure. And that’s the biggest part of the problem.

The self-sabotage that leads to missing relatively short easy putts, the reasons behind it, and practices to overcome it is something for a different article. What I really want to get into at the moment is a practice that I think can help ensure you never end up in that desperate place to begin with.

Most of us rarely practice our putting, and when we do, it’s in about the most useless way we can. We’ve all done it. You grab a sleeve of balls just prior to the round, head to the practice green, and begin rolling them from hole to hole around the typical nine-hole route. Now I could go into a whole host of reasons why this isn’t very helpful, but the No. 1 reason it’s such a pitifully poor practice is this: there is no pressure.

Early in my career, I worked at a club where there was at least one money game on the putting green every day, and many nights too. The members (and staff) putted aces, 5 for $5, rabbits, and many other games for hours on end, and when the sun went down they often switched on the clubhouse roof-mounted floodlights and continued into the wee hours. Many days (and nights) I witnessed hundreds of dollars change hands on that putting green, occasionally from my own, but in my younger days, that was fortunately an infrequent occurrence.

Those money games were a cherished part of the culture of that club and an incredibly good arena in which to learn to practice under pressure. To this day, I’ve never seen as many really good pressure putters (many of very average handicaps) as I did during that period, and when I think back, it’s no small wonder either.

The problem with practicing golf, or just about any other sport for that matter, is that it’s difficult to practice under the types of pressure we compete in. In 4 or 5 hours on the golf course we might only have a half dozen putts that really mean something, and maybe only 2 or 3 of those knee-knocking 3 footers with the match on the line or the chance to win a bet.

When I was younger and playing in those money games on the putting green, I had a meaningful putt every minute or two, for hours on end, and you either learned to handle that pressure pretty quickly or your hard-earned paycheck was being signed over to someone else. Now I’m not bringing this up to encourage gambling, as I know for some people that can become a serious issue, but rather to point out how the opportunity to practice repeatedly under pressure helped me learn to deal with those situations. And with how infrequently we even get the opportunity to face that same pressure when we actually play, it’s important to try do our best to simulate it as often as we can during practice.

So when it comes to my own students these days, I don’t necessarily encourage gambling (I don’t discourage a little bit of it either), but I do encourage putting and practicing for something. I’ll get three of my students together on the putting green and say “look, you guys putt for 30 minutes and the loser has to do 100 push-ups” or something similar. I’ll tell students to putt against a parent for who has to mow the lawn, do the dishes, or some other mundane household chore neither of them really wants to do. The point is to have something on the line, something that will make it really hurt to lose.

You can even do it by yourself. Wait to practice putting right before lunch or dinner and make a pact with yourself that you can’t eat until you make 15 three-footers in a row. Until you find a way to practice under pressure all that practice is really just that: practice. You shouldn’t be surprised if, when the chips are down, mindless practice doesn’t translate to improved performance. Hopefully, by learning to simulate pressure during practice, you’ll play better when the heat is really on.

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Mike Dowd is the author of the new novel COMING HOME and the Lessons from the Golf Guru: Wit, Wisdom, Mind-Tricks & Mysticism for Golf and Life series. He has been Head PGA Professional at Oakdale Golf & CC in Oakdale, California since 2001, and is serving his third term on the NCPGA Board of Directors and Chairs the Growth of the Game Committee. Mike has introduced thousands of people to the game and has coached players that have played golf collegiately at the University of Hawaii, San Francisco, U.C. Berkeley, U.C. Davis, University of the Pacific, C.S.U. Sacramento, C.S.U. Stanislaus, C.S.U. Chico, and Missouri Valley State, as men and women on the professional tours. Mike currently lives in Turlock, California with his wife and their two aspiring LPGA stars, where he serves on the Turlock Community Theatre Board, is the past Chairman of the Parks & Recreation Commission and is a member of the Kiwanis Club of Greater Turlock. In his spare time (what's that?) he enjoys playing golf with his girls, writing, music, fishing and following the foibles of the Sacramento Kings, the San Francisco 49ers, the San Francisco Giants, and, of course, the PGA Tour. You can find Mike at mikedowdgolf.com.

9 Comments

9 Comments

  1. geohogan

    Oct 29, 2018 at 1:26 pm

    Francesco Molinara’s performance coach, Dave Alred
    contends golf performance is dependent upon ability to perform , ONE SHOT,ONE TIME;
    therefore practicing a shot or putt over and over again becomes meaningless, mostly detrimental.

    Rather duplicate a shot with a club or a putt no more than 3 or 4 times in a row. Golf is about ONE SHOT, ONE TIME.

  2. Tyler

    Oct 22, 2018 at 9:47 pm

    Eerily weird timing. I just tried out a new amazon Alexa skilled called “Pressure Putt”, that does this exact thing. Makes you put a couple quarters on the line to sink putts. If you miss, you “use” your tokens. The money collected from missed putts goes to a local First Tee organization..I found it actually added some artificial pressure on me.

  3. TONEY P

    Oct 22, 2018 at 4:53 pm

    I remember playing with my father on Fridays and we would play an adjusted game for my allowance. That was pressure then and being able to grind out a win made taught me a lot as about me. Putting is it’s own game, but you got to get there.

  4. Bruce

    Oct 22, 2018 at 10:10 am

    I oppose the gambling to add pressure practice. Gambling simply leads to bad feelings,lost friends, and brings out the worst in people.
    Add personal challenges to add pressure.

    • Obee

      Oct 22, 2018 at 1:28 pm

      If one has thin-skinned friends who can’t separate friendship from money, then you’re right. If one can’t gamble with friends on golf, then one likely needs new friends … or needs to take a good look in the mirror at oneself.

    • Dodney Rangerfield

      Oct 22, 2018 at 4:42 pm

      What are you? Religious or something?

    • Funkaholic

      Oct 24, 2018 at 12:34 pm

      You might have bigger problems.

  5. Norm Platt

    Oct 21, 2018 at 8:02 am

    I agree 100% with the author when he states that you must learn to putt under pressure to get better. If you go to YouTube and watch how pros warm up before they play a tournament, they all first hit the green, the range and then the green. The majority of their warmup is spent on the putting green.
    My other observation, when most of us play with our friends , there are many gimme 3-4 footers which eliminates the pressure “ par saver”. I know for many of you , having to make that 3 footer for par or bogey seems like a time waster, but you’ll need to make those eventually. My advice is to quickly follow up the missed 3 footer with a subsequent hole out.

  6. ogo

    Oct 21, 2018 at 1:38 am

    “Practice, as most of us employ it, is borderline worthless.”
    … and 95% of all 50 million ‘golfers’ can’t break 100… per PGA statistics. Talk about ‘worthless’!

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