This is the fourth in a series of Ranked Player articles, using information gathered by surveys from players listed in our various rankings. So who are these players? Find out here: Ranked Player Survey: top amateur golfers share what they think...and what they know
- All photos credited to USGA
The world's top amateurs, mid-ams, seniors and super seniors don't attain their high rankings by accident. To accumulate the points needed to put their names at or near the top of the lists, they have to put themselves in contention over and over again and rack up the high finishes.
Living in that world of contending for titles requires a certain comfort level with increased attention and expectations, especially at the end of a tournament when the pressure a player feels to achieve a result can distract from the otherwise routine act of hitting golf shots.
So how do top players handle the pressure of high-level competition?
We specifically asked our ranked amateur players what strategies they employ to handle pressure situations. We detail the top categories of answers below, but one particular practice was named more than any other.
Q: When in a pressure situation, what is the most important thing that you do to stay calm and focused?
The most common answers to this question had a common theme: when a player finds himself in a pressure situation, the tendency is for (i) his/her processes to speed up, both physically and mentally, and (ii) his/her attention to broaden to things outside of the immediate task at hand.
So the challenge is to keep the pace of your thoughts and actions within your control (usually slowing them), and to narrow your focus to only
to what you want to do in the present moment.
This gives you the best chance to keep your mind in the best state to make good decisions, and your body in the best state to execute the shots that you have trained it to do.
So it's all about control
, which is important because the perception of control determines whether a player sees a pressure situation as a threat
or a challenge
So what is the smallest, simplest thing a player can control? Turns out, it is something we do about 20,000 times every day.
The #1 answer: BREATHE
When stressed or anxious, the tendency is for your heart rate to increase and your breathing to become shallow and irregular. Deep, controlled breathing has been shown to regulate the heart rate and increase heart rate variability (going from slow to fast and back again) which has been shown to benefit athletic performance.
This makes you feel more calm and in control.
Typical result from a study on deep breathing and heart rate; the dotted line is the start of deep breathing, with heart rate becoming more regular and wave-like
Almost 50% of respondents mentioned controlling their breathing as key to dealing with pressure. We saw the word "slow" in quite a few responses.
"Knowing how controlling my breathing can really keep me more under control when the pressure is on."
- Bob Royak, winner of a number of senior majors including the U.S. Senior Amateur
"Breathing exercises (it is amazing how often you can forget to breathe in a pressure situation). Control my breath and walking pace (smooth and stand tall)."
- Bryan Pendrick, 2021 Walter Travis Invitational champion
"Core focus for me is to make sure I stick to the routine / pre-shot process and sounds funny to say, but make sure I breathe. Often times we deviate, speed up, etc. and in focusing on routine and breathing, it helps reduce tension and stress and to remain consistent in the process."
- John Hunter, 2022 Carlton Woods Invitational champion
"I found that breathing is the key to me in pressure situations. I used to literally just hold my breath unintentionally which caused anxiety and tension. The one thing I would recommend to anybody under pressure is controlling your breathing."
- Bryan Rodgers, Knoxville, Tenn.
"To me, it's all about breathing deeply and feeling the ground under my feet. These keep me in the present moment and in my process (and they're both fully under my control)."
- Drew Jankowski, El Segundo, Calif.
The #2 answer: ROUTINE
The phrase "focusing on the process" reflects a realization that results are often outside a player's control, and that focusing on them is often a losing proposition. But the process should be within the player's control, and in high-level golf the process of the pre-shot routine is where the top player pours all of his focus when the pressure is high.
Tiger Woods' physical pre-shot routine was so famously consistent that you could time it from the first step to the moment of takeaway and the overall time would only vary by tenths of a second.
"Sticking to my routine and loving the process helps me keep the result out of my mind. I find things usually go south when I’m focused on the outcome."
- Mia Hammond, New Albany, Ohio
"I have a very detailed pre-shot routine from the time I arrive at the ball until I hit the shot. I try to perform the same routine every time. My pre-shot routine minimizes pressure."
- Rusty Strawn, current #1 ranked senior and U.S. Senior champion
"Focus on the task at hand. Try to go through my routine and deal with the shot in front of me."
- Bradford Tilley, Easton, Conn.
"Stick to your routine and focus on the process rather than the result. If your process is good the result should follow."
The #3 answer: SELF-TALK
The way we talk or think to ourselves can take a potentially stressful situation and reframe it into a more positive one. It might be a simple pep talk, a reminder of what to focus attention on, or a philosophical declaration that keeps things in perspective.
"Just stay focused on the next shot, and don't get ahead of myself by thinking about the potential result."
- Brett Widner, 3-time Indiana Mid-Am champ
"One shot at a time, this mindset has helped me numerous times not only in pressure situations. You should never get ahead of yourself."
- Bailey Shoemaker, USC commit and Florida Women's Amateur champion
"I'll stick to a mantra that I'm playing for myself and not for anybody else. Oftentimes pressure is an external force that you are absorbing internally. When I'm the only person I'm playing for, there's no room for the outside noise."
- Taylor Thompson, Louisville, Ky.
"Remember that I’ve been nervous before and yet still performed."
- Dalton Melnyk, Atlanta, Ga.
"Try my best to remember that I am just playing a game and it should be fun."
- Dave Bunker, 3-time Canadian Mid-Am champ
"I have learned to stay focused under pressure by focusing on the things that I can control and not allowing my brain to wander to any upcoming shot other than my next one."
- Sean O'Donnell, Arizona Stroke Play champion
"Staying patient, only being where my feet are."
- Jackie Rogowicz, winner of 2019 Women's Porter Cup
"Remembering that everyone makes mistakes. Don’t have to be perfect."
- Chris Hall, Marietta, Ga.
"In your mind take the pressure off it is not the end of the world."
- Kary Hollenbaugh, New Albany, Ohio
"I try to have nothing but positive mental talks in my head when I am feeling nervous during a pressure situation. I will remind myself that I have hit this shot thousands of times and treat it like it is just another day practicing. I remind myself, this is what I really love and put in all the hard work for, go get it!"
- Bobby Bucey, former California Amateur champion
Other answers we received covered everything from mental training off the course, to strategy, to focusing on a specific technical aspect of the swing. Here are some examples:
"It’s hard, to be honest. What I have found over the years is that if you focus on one thing while making a swing down the stretch then the muscle memory of all the swings you have made in your career takes over more easily. So I focus on engaging my core. I engage such that it actually creates a sensation that I can focus on and then I just get out of the way and let the swing happen naturally."
- Doug Clapp, Walpole, Mass.
"Focus on grip pressure."
"I just try to focus on a target. On the green it might be a blade of grass, and on longer shots it might be a leaf on a tree or the corner of a building or other structure.
- James Hegarty, Grand Rapids, Mich.
"I visualize a successful shot I have hit under similar situation."
- Danny Nelson, Savannah, Ga.
"Think about something totally different to golf between shots."
- anonymous top-100 woman player from England
"Remembering to stay with my abilities and not try to hit the hero shot."
- Colby Harwell, San Antonio, Texas
"I don't try to stay calm, I embrace the excitement and ride the adrenaline rush. Take less club and swing hard."
- Marc Engellenner, Rocklin, Calif.
"Remain aggressive. My bad shots, including putts, come from being tentative."
- Robert Polk, Parker, Colo.
Be sure to revisit AmateurGolf.com as we continue our Ranked Player Survey series, sharing the expertise and experience of our group of ranked player survey respondents.