Taking Off the Pressure
The 42nd Secret
It is a matter of common golf knowledge that "pressure" generally results in higher scores. We recognize that
most of us do not play as well in tournaments as we do in casual golf. Too often practice rounds prior to a
tournament do not give us a good clue as to who the winners will be.
The reason for the higher scores is the addition of psychological variables. These psychological variables are not
generally present except under tournament conditions. Since most of us do not participate in many tournaments, we
have the fear that generally accompanies action in an unknown area. We play a worse game than we are capable of
playing. Those who are "tournament tough," but who are no better golfers than others, come much closer to their
Some golfing gamblers have taken advantage of this by making bets that are larger than their opponents are
accustomed to. The story is told of a football coach who was also a good golfer. When he was winning his matches,
the pressure would naturally be on his opponent, and there was no problem. When he was losing, he would keep on
"freshing" the bets and would inevi¬tably recoup on the final holes or hole.
On one occasion, he had a short putt for a par on the final hole. His wealthy opponent had one several feet longer.
Considerable money was involved in the bet. Unfortunately, his op¬ponent sank his shot and the coach missed. When
another golfer commiserated with him about the tough luck, the coach was silent, then slowly said, "No, it wasn't
tough luck. I just outsmarted myself. I've been so much in the habit of betting this way that I overlooked one
thing. I forgot that my big bet meant so little to this man that there was no pressure on him."
During the depression, when money was hard to come by, a golfer used a system which kept him consistently in the
winning column. On one occasion he and his partner finally won $2.00 (after being in the hole for $54.00) under
nip-and-tuck conditions that left them exhausted and trembling. He decided to try to eliminate future pressure by
gambling in small amounts with¬in the limits of the money he won. A bank account was set up and, when he lost, it
was paid out of this fund. His winnings were deposited. This took the pressure off the betting. In addition, since
he played regularly with the same group, it was easy for them to handicap each other so that net playing ability
was equal. For added insurance, he practiced for about thirty minutes a day between playing days. From then on he
was not affected by the pressure, and built up what was, for those days, a sizable winning fund.
Here are general ways in which pressure can be reduced:
1. Over-learn. Learn any golfing skill to a higher degree of skill than you need. Pressure will
cause you not to perform as well in play as in practice, but you will have enough skill in reserve so that the
pressure won't show.
2. Do not "fresh" bets when you are losing. To paraphrase Newton again, "a person who is
losing will continue to lose and a person who is winning will continue to win," generally speaking. Let your
opponent be under the pressure of recouping losses. Of course, this situation must be assessed each time. If he has
gained the advantage through performance and luck much beyond his average skills, it is safe to "fresh," although,
at most, this will only make for an even bet.
3. Practice pressure play. There is more than one kind of pressure, so one must subject
himself to each in order to develop immunity. Match play, medal play, tournament play, etc., all have their own
special pressures. Continuous play under each type will gradually immunize you.
4. Never play a careless shot. If a person will adopt the attitude of never playing a
careless shot—no matter what the circumstances—the tendency to succumb under pressure is lessened. Pressure shots
are often missed because the need for being careful adds a psychological variable to the player who is thoughtless
in informal play.
5. Do not expect to play better than your average golf. As your golf records will show,
the laws of probability will determine your score. If you try to do better than you can do, it will introduce an
additional emotional variable and you will play a worse game than usual. It is best to let the score take care of
itself. Otherwise, you may shoot a poor score on a day when you might normally be destined for a good one. You
cannot prevent the appearance of scores either better or worse than your average if you simply let the laws of
chance or probability take over. As the old saying goes, "If you didn't bring it with you, you won't
find it here."
It has been said, "A hungry pro is hard to beat," implying that the pressure of having to win to survive will
cause him to play better. This does not necessarily follow, since this pressure constitutes an additional variable
and is likely to cause him to come apart at the crucial moment.
In medal play, it is not a good idea to think in terms of what has to be shot to qualify or win, except in special
circumstances in which gambling shots are clearly indicated. There is no psychological advantage in concentrating
on a final score. As a matter of fact, this is a disadvantage, since instead of concentrating on the best possible
method of executing the individual shot in accordance with good golf management, we give ourselves an additional
variable to think about which exerts a distracting influence.
A better attitude to have when one is playing medal golf is to think of a round of golf as a string of pearls. To
have a good string, one needs a series of good individual pearls. The emphasis then should be not on the final
score but rather on concentrating on stringing together as many well-thought-out shots as possible. If you are
successful in doing this, the score will automatically be low. When Capablanca, the great chess master, was asked
how many moves he saw ahead, he replied, "One." So don't allow a long-range objective to interfere with the
immediate golfing job at hand—"to hit this shot facing me the best I know how."
If our string of pearls does happen to have some flaws, the flaws may still be fewer than those of our golfing
equals if they saddle themselves with unnecessary pressure caused by scattered concentration. If it happens that we
lose because more of our pearls are faulty than those of the winner—we can always go back to our pearl-repair
spot—the practice tee—and fashion some better ones.
The great problem in tournament play is to avoid those improper psychological attitudes which cause golfers to play
worse than they generally do. Amateurs particularly are apt to be affected by the odds and, if they are playing
against someone who is "doped" to win, they tend to blow up. At the peak of Bobby Jones' career, the newspapers
played up the idea that it was "Jones against the field." This put most of his opponents in a very uncomfortable
psychological attitude, particularly in head-on play. They were half defeated before they started. Fortunately for
them, Jones had a weakness of his own. He played best when he was under an apparently painful tension. When he
thought the golfing situation was well in hand he found relief in more relaxed play, and then generally played his
A good pre-game attitude to have when playing those who score either better or worse than you is not to be
concerned with the outcome of the match at all, but to focus all your concentration on individual shots—to shoot
your average game only. If you are satisfied to shoot your average game, you will likely do so. Against equal
players in match play this is generally enough to win since no psychological variables are introduced by you,
whereas your opponent is very likely not in the same frame of mind. If he is a somewhat better player, the chances
are almost fifty-fifty as to whether you will shoot better or worse than your average, and you have an equal chance
to make an even match of it. If he happens to be off his game, your average score will be enough to win easily. The
psychological situation is similar to that of a person who must swim a long way to shore from a sinking boat. It
would be best not to think about what the final result might be. In such a circumstance, it would be better for one
to concentrate on his stroke, and the manner and frequency of his rest periods, leaving the result to itself.
Anxiety is a common cause of drownings, and it is also a common cause of lost golf matches. Both disasters occur
because of too much concern with results.
While we are on the subject of removing pressure, it might be apropos to discuss the use of chemical means of
controlling tension. Both alcohol and tranquillizers are to be avoided, although many good rounds have been played
under their influence. The general objection is that their effect is temporary. They also tend to lead to addiction
and will prevent you from computing properly. Finally, if you are aware of a golfing problem, these chemicals will
cause you to ignore your computations.
One of the long-range dangers is that you can become conditioned to playing your "best" game only when under their
influence, and eventually, as you deteriorate with the "whiskey fingers" that polished off one of our great
golfers, you can play neither with nor without the stuff. Except for emergency cases, the psychological route is
much safer and more effective.
Golfers are people, and all the things which affect people affect golfers. A disastrous psychological habit which
has driven many patients to despair is to be plagued by unpleasant thoughts. Since this is a problem of many
golfers in circumstances too numerous to mention, it might be helpful to outline three effective methods which can
be used to take care of this particular psychological condition.
First, deliberately suppress the thoughts which are disturbing. With practice this can be done
as Scarlett O'Hara did in Gone With The Wind when she said, "I will think of that tomorrow."
Second, crowd out distressing thoughts with mental or physical activity of a somewhat extraneous
nature. This is a method that I suspect Patton and Snead use in their give-and-take with the gallery.
Third, make a deliberate effort to think as many optimistic and pleasant thoughts as possible.