From winning the New Hampshire Junior Amateur (1971-73) and New Hampshire Amateur (1974, ’76) to a Champions Tour career with three top-10 finishes and more than $700,000 in earnings, Kirk Hanefeld is accustomed to playing competitive golf under pressure.
Hanefeld is the director of instruction at Renaissance in Haverhill, and spends most of his time these days teaching golfers of all skill levels. But the competitor in him knows there’s a big difference between casual golf and tournament golf, although each can bring pressure moments.
In light of what happened at the British Open, Hanefeld offers his advice on how best to handle the situation when the heat gets turned up. He writes:
“Adam Scott’s failure to win the British Open just goes to show that the best players in the world don’t always deal with pressure situations successfully. Scott had a four-shot lead well into the back nine on Sunday, and in my opinion, got a little ahead of himself, a little too comfortable. As one TV announcer said with four holes to play, ‘Adam Scott now has one hand on the claret jug.’ This was the beginning of the end for Scott.
“What makes golf somewhat unique from other sports is that not only do you need to be good physically, but also mentally in order to achieve your full potential. Playing well under pressure, whether real or imagined, is what all good players strive to do.
“And like becoming a better ball-striker through hours of practice on the range, playing well under pressure and the mental side of the game also requires practice and is an acquired skill.
“Whether you’re trying to compete for a club championship, a state amateur, or a professional event, or just trying to get to your ‘next level,’ dealing with pressure successfully is part of becoming a better golfer.
“Here are seven ways to better handle pressure in your next event and be right mentally:
“1. Accept the fact that all players get nervous in a competitive situation. Even Jack Nicklaus said late in his career that he gets nervous every time he steps onto the first tee. It’s how you handle those nerves that count.
“2. Being aware of your ‘nervous state’ is the first step toward making a positive change. Being too nervous is not a comfortable state of mind. Typically, things speed up and good decision-making is nonexistent. In order to play and compete at your best, you need to feel comfortable and quiet. Try to remember when you played your best round of golf and how easy it was because you were in a calm, comfortable, and quiet environment that allowed you to play well. Learning to imagine this kind of environment when the pressure is on is the key to peak performance.
“3. Focus only on the shot you’re about to hit and not about what may or may not happen in the future. In my opinion, this is where Scott began his downfall at the British Open. He began to imagine himself as the champion when he still had work to do. This is where the saying ‘one shot at a time’ is meaningful.
“4. Focus only on the process of hitting a good shot as opposed to worrying about the end result. Failure to do this is what causes most bad shots or putts when playing under pressure. This is an essential skill to develop in order to be a better competitive player.
“5. Focus on where you want the ball to go instead of where you don’t want the ball to go. Good visualization skills are part of every great shot.
“6. When you feel you’re getting too nervous, slow down. Working on slow, controlled breathing can help you find your optimum playing state.
“7. To be really good at playing under pressure, you need to embrace pressure situations and learn to enjoy them. All great players finally get to this stage.
“All of these mental skills are much easier said than done. And like hitting golf shots, these skills require constant practice. Playing your best golf when the pressure is on is something all great players have learned to do. But as we saw with Adam Scott last weekend, even the best in the world don’t do it all the time.”