I’ve played thousands of competitive rounds in my career, including high-stakes events where I'd get trounced if I made the smallest mistake. I toiled under the stifling pressure of some 70 majors. And I climbed into the NBC broadcast booth for 25 years knowing that every word that passed my lips might rankle millions of viewers (not to mention Tour players). But I was never more nervous than I was on the first tee at Laurel Valley C.C., outside Pittsburgh, for the Friday morning four-ball matches in 1975 in my first Ryder Cup. Although the U.S. team was a heavy favorite (as it always was until the mid-1980s), I was literally shaking in my spikes. When Al Geiberger and I took the 17th hole to win 3 and 1 over Tony Jacklin and Peter Oosterhuis, I was just glad it was over.
Between the 1975 matches and the ones I competed in six years later at Walton Heath, I won six points for our side. I'd give myself a "B" as a Ryder Cupper. The guys who've earned A's? They're the rarest of all golfers — steely-eyed machines with Hall of Fame swings who breathe pressure like the rest of us do oxygen. Jack Nicklaus said nothing fired him up more than being one down with three to go. Is he kidding me? That's when I'd start worrying if the club sandwich I had for lunch would stay in my stomach. Ryder Cup tension is real, folks, and it's usually the team with the best nerves — not necessarily the best swings — that wins.
When pressure strikes, the tendency is to miss greens. When you start feeling butterflies, fight them off by focusing on your short game. Grinding out saves with deft pitching and smooth putting will keep you in any match. Here are two tricks to ease the burden:
PITCHING & CHIPPING: Before playing a shot, practice swinging your wedge smoothly back and forth, just brushing the grass. Get a feel for where your stroke touches the turf. Make two final practice strokes, then step in and do it again, merely letting the ball get in the way. Works every time!
PUTTING: The trick on pressure putts is to establish a smooth mental cadence, then maintain it as you make the stroke. Do what I do: Count "one, two" in your mind as you take the putter back ["one"] and through ["two"]. Keep counting while making your stroke in time with the beat until you're ready to pull the trigger, then hit the ball with the same tempo. When your stroke is the same speed on both sides of the ball, you'll hit square putts that stay on line.
One last pressure-busting tactic seems almost too simple, but it works: Just recall some of the short-game shots you've pulled off in the past. Hey, you've drained countless five-footers and knocked plenty of chips close, right? You've done it before, so you can do it again.