How to Be Clutch

Photo: Lissa Gotwals

Leibel, left, and Herman suit up. (Note: No golfers were harmed during this experiment.)

Whether you're scratch or a 22-handicapper, golf can make your hands tremble, knees wobble and another part of your anatomy feel a little tight. Fear not — you're about to become oblivious to pressure, make money putts and be known to friends and foes as the guy they just can't beat.

We found three players just like you, monitored their brainwaves and let them battle it out for $500. Here's what you can learn from our experiment.





Observe players as they compete during a round and a $500 putting contest while wearing heart-rate monitors and EEG sensors (which measure your brain's electrical activity) to determine how golf-related stress affects your mind and body.


Dr. Richard Keefe, associate professor of sports medicine at Duke, a 6 handicap and author of the mental-game manual On the Sweet Spot.


"My problem is that I can't not think about the trouble," Kevin Leibel said on the first tee. "That, and I tense up when I play with better golfers. I feel I don't belong. But today, I feel good." A glance at the digital wristwatch monitor revealed his heart rate: 89 beats per minute. He's cooler than Fonzie until he's reminded that 6 million readers are, in essence, about to watch him tee off. "Hey, thanks." He looked again at his wrist. "Wow, 93." Awkward laugh. "Now 99, 103, 107. I better swing before I pass out." The result: a frail push-slice. Heart rate: 122. Minutes later, after his partners split the fairway, Leibel found his tee shot, then topped two straight. His heart neared 130. "I hate messing up in front of better players," Leibel said. "Now I'm flustered."

Later, on the tee of the par-4 13th, Leibel's pulse tumbled from 120 to 94 after the other two unleashed wild tee shots; he then coolly launched his best drive, a 230-yard missile. "I hate saying this," Leibel admitted, "but when other guys mess up, it relaxes me. I think, 'OK, I'm one of them. I belong.' I have to remind myself that they don't care what I shoot. And I have to stop letting every little thought enter my mind on the tee."

How to conquer the first tee
By Bob Rotella, author of The Golfer's Mind

"My advice to anyone suffering from first-tee jitters is to develop a pre-shot routine and stick with it. Look at Tom Watson today and 25 years ago. Same routine. Two waggles and go, whether it's a major or a pro-am. A good preshot routine is like being in a quiet room, where pressure can't get you. Make it simple: Pick your target, see the shot and swing. Do your routine on the range before hitting your last 10 practice balls. Then take that same routine to the tee. Then the first tee won't own you — you'll own the tee."


"No, stay up, ball! Stay up!" Gabriel Szulik barked after pulling his tee shot on the 167-yard par-3 12th, all carry over water to a peninsula green. ("This hole is heart-attack city," a fellow guinea pig said.) But Szulik wasn't worried about the lake. "I just wanted to stay out of the left bunker," he admitted. "I hate bunkers. I'd rather rinse it than go in the sand." The pounding muscle in his chest agrees: his heart rate rocketed 19 ticks to 111 beats per minute.

While he'd rather step in a bear trap than a bunker, trouble found Szulik on 18 when his ball trickled into a yawning crater some 50 yards from the flag. "Oh, boy," Szulik said with a laugh. "The hardest shot in golf. Here goes nothing." He dug his cleats into the sand and then a funny thing happened. He grew icily detached, and his pulse dropped: 105, 99, 94. Then — thump! He caught a perfect wedge, cleared 30 yards of sand, and parked it five feet from the flag. "Unbelievable! For some reason, I felt no pressure," Szulik said. "I just saw it and hit it."

Dr. Keefe's take: "You were so convinced you'd butcher the shot," he told Szulik, "that you were completely relaxed and unattached to the outcome. You had no fear because you had no expectation, and you just hit the shot of the day."

How to be the man from the sand
By Gio Valiante, who has taught Jack Nicklaus and Chris DiMarco

"Gabriel was clutch on the shot he fears most — the 50-yard bunker shot — because he was utterly relaxed and had no expectations. However, I don't suggest the 'here goes nothing' approach. Instead, take these two steps when facing the shot that scares you most. First, squeeze a golf ball hard several times. Chris DiMarco does this — it gets blood pumping, improves feel and relieves tension. Second, reframe the question. Instead of saying 'What if I miss?' ask, 'What's my target?' Ask a positive question and you cannot ask a negative one. Together these two actions — one of body, one of mind — will reap good results." (For more mental-game advice from Valiante, go to CASE 3

After finishing on the 18th, the moment of neuron-firing truth was at hand: a nine-hole putting contest for a cool $500, with putts ranging from three feet to 10 feet. But first, two Duke lab technicians affixed 15 EEG sensors to each golfer to measure electrical activity in the brain and muscle movement in the face. Resembling escaped electroshock patients who'd just looted an Edwin Watts, the players formed two two-man teams (a local ringer filled out the foursome) and went at it.

And then another funny thing happened: Herman, The Man Who Couldn't Putt Straight, was a rock with cash on the line, making putts from three, four and five feet to propel his team to a two-hole lead after six holes. "Normally I have one negative thought that ties me up," Herman explained. "But there were so many distractions — the wires, the money, the photographer — that I couldn't focus on one thing. It forced me to say, 'Just make a good stroke.'" (See tip below)

The most telling EEG readings belonged to Leibel, who faced a three-footer on Hole 7 to extend the match — and left it short. Match over. The data indicated massive voltage firing both in his face muscles and frontal lobe — the cognitive quadrant of your brain that weighs risk and reward. "His brain was very active, and it caused a lot of tension in his face and head," Keefe said. On Leibel's made putts, though, his frontal lobe was quiet as snowfall.

"On those," Leibel said, "I remember thinking, 'Step up and make something happen — don't depend on your partner.' It's pretty amazing to know that you can quiet your mind and have a direct impact on the way you putt. The heck with golf schools. All I need is a lobotomy!"

How to be fearless on short putts
By Richard Coop, Ph.D., our mentalgame consultant

"Herman putted well because there was so much distraction — from the wager to the gallery to the electrodes — that he couldn't focus on one negative. Instead, he focused on a positive. And he was clutch. Here's a positive thought you can try: Instead of seeing a narrow line from your ball to the hole, which calls for a perfect stroke, imagine a yellow four-inch-wide path stretching from your putterhead to the hole. Now, putt the ball on that path. The wider 'road' reduces tension and gives you a positive thought: Just follow the yellow brick road."

How to turn knee-knockers into tap-ins
Dr. Joe Parent has the best putting drill you've never heard of — and it works!

"What if you could be as automatic on four-footers as on tap-ins? You can — if you master a simple drill that turned a yippy college player into a clutch putter. He came to me because he couldn't make a four-footer under the gun. He placed so much pressure on himself that he'd guide his putter toward the hole, instead of freely swinging. The solution was simple: Hit knee-knockers with a tap-in stroke. Your stroke is smooth. Your face is square. You can't miss. Here's the trick."

1. Place two tees in the ground about four inches apart, marking the edges of an imaginary hole. Hit a few putts to the "hole" from nine inches away using your tap-in stroke. You'll be surprised to see how far the ball rolls past the tees — usually about four feet.

2. Move the two tees to a spot about three feet in front of a real hole, and again tap-in toward the imaginary hole. Because your mind and body are relaxed over a mere nine-inch putt, ball upon ball will fall into the real hole.

3. Now remove the tees and set up to your four-footer, but putt with your tap-in stroke to an imaginary hole nine inches in front of you. Soon you'll be pouring 'em in.

How to get ready for your big match
By Richard Coop, Ph.D., our mental-game consultant.

It takes about three holes to get into a match, so visualize and practice "playing" the first three holes on the range. Then, on the big day, you can say, "Been here, done that."

Decide what shot you'fll need early and often.knockdown, half-wedge, whatever.and practice it in gamelike conditions on the range.

Use a two-syllable verbal cue during your swing to release tension. I like "oom-pah" — that's "oom" in the backswing and "pah" to start the downswing. It'll simplify your swing.
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