This isn't Alabama-Auburn, Yankees-Sox, or even Athens-Sparta. Those are picnics compared with your Big Match, whether it's your weekly round or your club championship. Funny things happen over the course of 18 holes — bad bounces, hot putters — so why leave winning to chance? Here's how to close out the other guy before your first swing of the day.
FIX-IT WEEK ON GOLF.COM:
1. REHEARSE ON THE DANCE FLOOR
Be honest. Do you spend longer than one cigarette practicing putting? Doubtful, even though you use the club at least 30 times a round. Here's the plan. In the week leading up to your match, practice with the flat stick for an hour each day, spending a half hour each on 30-footers and five-footers. Loren Roberts, one of the best putters ever, warms up stroking 30-foot putts in order to get a feel for greens. Good lag putting is crucial because it cuts down on three-jacks. Why five-footers? If you do nothing else in your match well except make short putts, you'll be tough to beat. Plus, the sheer number of reps makes you less stroke-conscious and more focused on the line, speed and visualization. And speaking of brushing in short ones…
2. TURN PRESSURE PUTTS INTO TAP-INS
There are five-footers, and then there are Five-Footers — knee-knockers that you simply must make under the gun. The secret to holing them is not mastering technique but becoming comfortable with pressure. And the way to get comfortable under pressure is to expose yourself to pressure. Try this drill, a favorite of Phil Mickelson's. Spread five balls around a cup, each three feet from the hole. Go around the circle twice, trying to hole 10 straight. If you miss, go back to zero. Once you make seven or eight in a row … you feel that? The tightness in your hands, the tremor in your patellas? That's pressure. You'll feel it in your match, too. Stick to your routine, and keep at it until you drain 10 straight. Now move the balls out to six feet and repeat. Hard work? Hell, yeah. But if you master this drill, you'll become the best pressure putter you know.
3. GET HIM TIPSY
A week or so before your showdown, treat your opponent to a lesson. On you. (No, no — you insist!) Make it with a reputable local pro. This act of "generosity" is a Trojan horse. We all know that one's handicap instantly doubles after a full-swing breakdown.
4. CHIP LIKE YOU PUTT
To improve your chipping touch, Golf Magazine Top 100 Teacher Brian Manzella suggests this variation of the Around the Clock putting drill. "On the practice green, place a dozen balls around the cup — one for each hour on a clock — so that each is about a 15-footer," Manzella says. "Then putt each one using your 6-iron. Choke down a few inches on the iron and play the ball even with your right foot, just barely brushing the grass. No divots! You'll soon start lagging them to kick-in range, and you'll make some, too." This drill fixes the disconnect that many players have between putting and chipping, when in fact the motions are very similar. It also gives you full-swing confidence. Knowing you can get up and down makes you fearless in the fairway, leading to better approach shots.
5. HONE A GO-TO SWING
The best cure for first-tee jitters? Groove a go-to shot that can't miss the fairway, says Top 100 Teacher Todd Sones. Try a Tiger-esque stinger. "Tee it low, so that about a quarter of the ball is above the clubface, and choke down an inch," Sones says."Play your normal ball position — ideally, aligned with your left armpit — and take a full backswing. The secret to this swing is to make a low follow-through. A low, hold-off finish leads to less spin, so you get a low, bleeding fade that just can't miss."
6. SUIT THE COURSE TO YOUR GAME
Choose a track that plays to your strengths and his weaknesses. If he's Mr. Aerosol off the tee and you're Straight Shooter McGavin, find a course with pinched, tree-lined fairways. If he's a good putter and you're not exactly Ben Crenshaw Jr., seek out shaggy, slow greens — no tee-time at Oakmont. Then play a practice round or two to learn the course's nuances. Oh, and couch your selection of said field of battle in this plausible pretense: "Burt, it wouldn't be fair to play at my home course, so I've found a neutral location…" Just make sure to muffle your diabolical laughter.
7. GO MENTAL
Comic strip hero Dilbert once explained his inattentiveness at a meeting by telling his boss, "Sorry, I was brain-golfing." There's a reason that virtually every top pro works on the mental game: It pays off. You, too, should be brain-golfing. Peak-performance expert Jim Fannin, who has worked with Luke Donald, suggests that before you fall asleep on the eve of your match, you should spend 30 minutes visualizing your victory. Paint clear, triumphant pictures — your 12-footer dropping to clinch the match, or your vanquished rival doffing his visor and shaking your hand. Fannin says that the images will continue to play in your mind overnight, sending your subconscious a powerful message: I've already won. "The next day, just play out the inevitable," Fannin says.
8. EAT A BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS
If you want your opponent to hit it fat, get him gorging on fats — plus sugar and caffeine. A pre-match trip to Waffle House can help you and hurt him, says Austin, Texas–based sports dietitian Sally Bowman. "Sell him on the biscuits and gravy, pork sausage and fried eggs, while refilling his coffee a lot," she says. "He'll have a mid-round sugar crash and will feel sluggish and sleepy the entire day." Meanwhile, you should nibble on fruit, whole-grain toast and a couple of eggs, with decaf coffee and plenty of water for hydration. Oh, and pack a couple of potassium-rich bananas for a mid-round energy boost.
9. DO SOME DETECTIVE WORK
Use Google for something other than "researching" Holly Sonders. If you've never played your opponent, make sure that he's not a sandbagging former third-team all-American masquerading as a 9-handicap. Check his official GHIN handicap (the USGA has an app for that) to see his last 20 scores. And ask his golf buddies what numbers he typically cards; he may post higher scores than he actually shoots. Now's your chance to negotiate strokes.
10. CALL IN LACEY UNDERALL
Slip the sexy cart girl — yeah, the one who wears Daisy Dukes — $20 to swing by just before your opponent tees off on the first. Have her say, "Good luck on your big match, guys. The winner gets a big fat kiss." Watch your suddenly unfocused opponent hook it into the pond. You're 1-up!
11. CHANNEL YOUR INNER HOGAN
No, we don't mean perfect ballstriking. When you get to the course, be quieter than normal, bordering on stoic. Say next to nothing to your competition, besides "good morning" and "good luck." And don't politely laugh at his first-tee joke; it's disconcerting when a joke bombs. It's all about telling him that today you mean business, says Ricky Ray Taylor, a New York City-based boxing trainer. "Before a fight there's a lot of waiting around, and I have my guy stay quiet—just a nod of the head," Taylor says. "You get your opponent thinking, 'Whoa, this guy has his game-face on,' which can give you that little edge." An added benefit to the sounds of silence? "It frees you to fully focus on the task and not be distracted by small talk," Taylor says.
12. GET A GRIP
When shaking hands before a money match, Sam Snead would check to see if his pigeon — sorry, opponent — had calluses. If your guy's palms are soft and fleshy, a win is all but ensured. Savor your march to glory. But if his mitts are covered in calluses and Band-Aids — and if you notice a copy of this issue peeking out of his bag — he's a rascal who's been working you as hard as you've been working him. Feign a sudden case of vertigo and say, "Sorry! Can't play. Doctor's orders." Then go grab a whiskey. You dodged a bullet, friend!