“The bloke’s got bottle!” In England, that’s how we describe someone with guts — the guy who plays great under pressure. I’ve strived for “bottle” from the first time I laced up my spikes. Some players are naturally clutch. I had to work at it. With 20 worldwide wins, including a U.S. Open and an Olympic gold medal, I think I’ve figured it out. That’s right—you can learn to relax, have fun and hit great shots when the heat is on. And anyone can follow my four-step plan. So get ready — you’re about to start playing like an Olympic champion.
Step 1: Build A Process
My best clutch moment? Striping a 4-iron into the 18th green on Sunday to nail down the 2013 U.S. Open. Phil Mickelson was breathing down my neck. And hey— a 4-iron isn’t what I’d call my “go-to” club. I would have choked that shot earlier in my career. I used to let things get to me—a big crowd, fear of hitting a bad shot. Older and wiser, I now only pay attention to process.
That word is bandied about a lot on Tour—and for good reason. Full focus on your process, or pre-shot routine, shields your confidence from fear and bad thoughts.
If you don’t have a set pre-shot routine—from picturing the shot to selecting the appropriate club and settling into your stance—get one. Stat. Your routine isn’t a precursor to a shot. Think of it as part of the shot—the part over which you have total control. And run your process at the same speed every time. Pressure forces you to speed up, and that’s not good. How do I know I’m in a clutch state of mind? When it takes me the same amount of time to set up for a critical drive late on Sunday—with the world watching—as it does for an easy pitch on Thursday with nobody watching. Remember: Your routine is a “shot” you can nail every time.
Losing hurts, but it’s a great teacher. In 2015, I took a three-stroke lead into Sunday at the Memorial. I wanted to “step on their throats” early, but that attitude just isn’t me. Well, I bogeyed two early holes and went on to lose in a playoff. Ouch! Lesson learned: Your whole round needs to be a process—a hole-by-hole strategy that plays to your strengths. A big secret to clutch play? Stick to your style and strategy, no matter what’s happening around you.
Step 2: Be A Day Planner
I tend to shoot higher numbers in the afternoon than I do in morning rounds. The reason? Bad routine. Sometimes, I wake up too early, then do nothing but stare at the clock all day, creating a hornet’s nest of nervous energy in the process. By my tee time, I’m emotionally spent.
It can happen to you, too. When you’ve scheduled that post-lunch four-ball, make sure you go about your normal business, whether it’s dropping the kids off at school, attending to work matters or hitting the gym. The trick: Act normal while doing everything at a slightly slower pace, and plan your routine so you have time for a solid warm-up. Rushing through a busy day only speeds up your mind and swing, hardly helpful in high-pressure moments.
When you get to the course, avoid using pre-round practice as a means to fix your slice or to suddenly perfect that flop shot. You’ll get too “in your head.” Think simple thoughts, such as, “Swing my driver as smoothly as I do my 7-iron.” Emphasize rhythm over mechanics—better tempo makes it easier to execute your process. If that thought doesn’t do the trick, there’s no need to panic. Check your basics. Bad range swings are often the result of poor alignment or an issue with your grip. Nail your fundamentals, and you’ll nail your shots.
Step 3: Get A Go-To Drive
I’ve picked up a good chunk of yards off the tee the past few seasons (stats, below). Not bad for a guy in his mid-thirties. Sean Foley, my coach since 2009, has taught me how to use ground-reaction forces to improve my weight shift and max out energy transfer to the ball. Eventually, you’ll need to work on these things like I have. In the meantime, try this: Swing harder! Trust me, it makes a difference. A faster swing helps the club ascend into impact, which is critical for launching high, deep and straight drives. My one caveat? Don’t pour on the speed until later in your motion, or you’ll risk falling off plane. Start slow. On the final hole in Rio, I knew I had to put the ball in play, what with Henrik Stenson lurking. I did it by slowing my swing to a snail’s pace for the first two feet, then letting her rip! A free, fast swing keeps you from “steering” it. You need trust to be clutch.
Step 4: Lean on Your Wedges
Several years back, I ranked 171st in approach-shot proximity from 75 to 100 yards. Two seasons ago I was first. I’ve turned a weakness into a clutch strength. Although my medal-clinching pitch on the 72nd hole in Rio was from just 40 yards out, it was a direct result of work I did in the other areas of my short game.
Try this: See the path of your wedge swing as a clock face—your hands at address and impact is 6:00; hands pointing at the target is 3:00; hands halfway back is 9:00. Practice stopping your backswing at 9, 10, 11 and 12 o’clock, always accelerating the club through impact. Note the distance you fly these four shots using all your wedges. If you carry four wedges like I do, you can now summon 16 different yardages on command! (To tweak your yardages, choke up on the handle one to three inches—but nail your backswing lengths first.)
Don’t change your rhythm or technique—let the length of your backswing and the loft of the club do the work for you. The beauty of this system? It lets you produce the same yardage many different ways—lower, higher, more spin, less spin—depending on what club/swing combo you select. It’s so simple. I don’t know why more weekend players— or my Tour competitors—do it!