Tom Watson, 2014 US Ryder Cup captain

Under Pressure

2014 US Ryder Cup captain Tom Watson tells you how to handle on-course stress

By Evan Rothman | Photography by Ian MacNicol/AFP/Getty Images

The pressure is on again for Tom Watson, and that's just the way he likes it. Team USA last won a Ryder Cup on European soil in 1993 at the Belfry in England, when Watson captained the American side. Twenty-one years later and with seven losses in the previous nine matches, the Stars and Stripes opted to dispense with its typical "one-and-done" captaincy, handing the clipboard back to the eight-time major champion, who sports a 10-4-1 record as a Ryder Cup player.

Instantly recognizable for a gap-toothed grin that has led to comparisons to Huck Finn, Watson is even more renowned for his steely resolve. Exhibit A:  His 71st hole chip-in at the 1982 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach — one of the most famous shots in golf history — which led to a slim victory over Jack Nicklaus. Still highly competitive on the Champions Tour at age 65, five years after his miraculous near-win at the 2009 British Open, Watson is also the star of the best-selling instructional DVDs Lessons of a Lifetime and the just-released Lessons of a Lifetime II

Here, the World Golf Hall of Famer shares his keys for pressure-proofing your game no matter what's on the line - club championship, all-time low score, or $2 Nassau. 

Handling a pressure-packed round, Watson says, begins well before the first tee. He eased his own nerves before the final round in the 2009 British Open in part by noting that, unlike his younger competitors, he had previously played Turnberry in the day's rare northwest wind. This fact boosted his confidence - as a smart warm-up routine  will boost yours.

Watson's wisdom: "In your practice session before competition, you have to know which holes will play the toughest and which shots will give you trouble. Whether it's tee balls or par-3 approaches, those are the shots you need to practice along with your normal routine. Keep after it until you hit at least one of each that's acceptable, so you have a positive thought when you reach that point on the course: ‘I did it on the practice tee; I can do it now.' "

Like most players, Watson tends to get too fast in tense situations. One of his mentors, the great  Byron Nelson, did the same. Nelson advised his charge to walk slower and breathe deeper as stress levels increased on the course, suggestions Watson wholeheartedly endorses. A reliable pre-shot routine can help ease anxiety, too - emphasis on "reliable."

Watson's wisdom: "Without a doubt, your pre-shot routine is very important when it comes to combating pressure. The timing  of how you get into the shot will affect the timing of the shot itself. Different routines can work - I happen to think it should include staying in motion, with some waggling of the clubhead - but it has to be consistent. Go through your pre-shot pattern with every shot on the range. It needs to become second nature, so you can trust it under the gun and stay looser."

The dreaded "white-knuckle grip" in tight situations afflicts both pros and amateurs. Watson recalls Jack Nicklaus' advice to Greg Norman before Norman's winning final round at the 1986 British Open at Turnberry: "Keep your grip pressure consistent throughout the day." A too-tight grip makes players lose their feel for the clubhead, a situation that Watson calls "death under pressure - that's when things really go south." It can especially impact short-game "feel" shots.

Watson's wisdom:
"I do two things when getting tight is tensing up my grip. One, I turn the club over so I'm holding it near the clubhead and swing the grip end a few times. It's very light that way, so when you turn the club back the right way around, the clubhead feels like it weighs 5 pounds. You can feel it again. ‘Swing the clubhead' is always a good thought under pressure.

"The other fix is to hold the club with the clubhead pointing up toward the sky.  Let the club begin to fall through your fingers, then use just enough pressure to stop it. When you have that, lower the club to horizontal. A little pressure will  build in the last three fingers of your left hand and the middle and ring finger of your right hand, as Ben Hogan said there should be. That's the amount of pressure you should attempt to swing with." 

Added pressure — grip and otherwise — often conspires to abbreviate the backswing. With insufficient shoulder turn, players try to use their arms alone to force the ball on line, what Watson's father, Ray, referred to as "steering the ball." Combined with a sped-up transition from backswing to downswing, these swings lack rhythm — the thing that Watson calls "the glue that ties the swing together" — and the clubface can't consistently return to square at impact.

Watson's wisdom: "I go back to a Jack Nicklaus tip about handling jitters on the first tee shot. He talks about focusing on making the transition between the backswing and the downswing the same speed. That allows for a smooth transition, where you're gathering momentum through the ball. It's the transition that keeps your swing in the proper timing. When you rush it is when you start missing shots in  both directions."

Anxiety on short putts can cause players to lose rhythm and "peek" early rather than keeping their head still and listening for the ball falling into the hole. Knee-knockers also tend to produce too-long backswings and either hitting at, rather than through, the ball or decelerating into it. "Quitting on the stroke — I'm the master of that now," jokes Watson, who emphasizes that the clubhead won't stay on line if it's not accelerating.

Watson's wisdom: "Put a tee 6 to 8 inches behind your ball. Make sure you don't hit the tee on your backswing and make sure your follow-through is longer than the backswing. Try to do that with some rhythm. Byron Nelson said it best: ‘The most important lesson you can teach any golfer is to accelerate through shots.' "

Watson's Tips On Team Golf

Foursomes and four-ball play are a change of pace for Ryder Cuppers and weekend warriors alike in this most individual of sports. Team golf, with its partial responsibility for a shared  result, can be unnerving. Watson says he prefers to focus on the things that stay the same from lone-wolf competition - with some added benefits.

"Even in partner golf, you're still playing your own game," Watson says. "You're always out there to play the best possible golf you can individually. There are times, such as club selection or reading putts, where two heads will be better than one. The bottom line is, when it's your turn to hit the ball, it's on you to hit the best shot you can. That never changes."

Personalities are the foundation for good partnerships, Watson says. For some players, being paired with a friend takes some of the pressure off of them. For others, similar on-course temperaments help create a good comfort level.

Watson has one piece of advice to help every golfer in a match-play situation maintain the even keel needed for rock-solid golf: Expect your opponent or opponents to hit great shots every time. "That way, you're never surprised, and the level of pressure you feel always stays the same," he says.

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