Why The Ryder Cup is the Ultimate Pressure Cooker in Golf

As professional golfers, we are all faced with pressure situations from time to time but, believe me, the pressure facing the first shot in a Ryder Cup is as intense as it gets. ~ Colin Montgomerie

The Ryder Cup is without a doubt the most pressured competition in golf. Any player to have experienced it will tell you that nothing can prepare you for pressure of that intensity. You simply have to experience it for yourself. This is first tee jitters of the highest possible magnitude. This year’s Open Champion Francesco Molinari said this week:“Now I’ve won a major, and have been down the last few holes with a chance, I can safely say there’s more pressure in the Ryder Cup … it’s not even close to how I felt at Carnoustie”

All the competitors in this week’s Ryder Cup have experienced the extreme nerves and pressure that comes with playing golf at the highest level. They do it on a regular basis. So why then does this event put even more pressure on the players to play their best?

Golfers’ careers are defined by success in majors and the number of PGA Tour victories they achieve. Very few golfers are remembered for being “great Ryder Cup players”. Yet this is the event where they feel under the most pressure to perform. The difference is that in a major or regular PGA Tour event, the only person they can let down is themselves. In team golf this is not the case. Tournament golfers spend a lot of time with each other as they travel the world for almost 40 weeks a year. Friendships are formed, invariably between fellow countrymen, who are now team-mates in the most important team game in professional golf. This competition is no longer about any individual and their career, it’s about friends and peers, the team, the fans and the country (or continent). No-one wants to let the side down and they all want very badly to win.

Having lived in the US for 15 years, I can honestly say I’ve never encountered a more patriotic nation. But in the other sports that Americans love, such as Baseball, NFL and Basketball, they don’t have any serious opportunities to compete internationally. The Ryder Cup is exactly that. It’s an opportunity for the US team to show The World their sporting dominance. The Europeans, who have grown up surrounded by international sports, are more than happy to oblige in preventing them from doing so.

As I have discussed in previous articles, pressure in golf can do one of two things. If you can harness its energy, you can play your best golf. Pressure and nerves can heighten the senses and focus. Surges of adrenaline can take a player to greater levels of performance. This is why I tell my students that nerves are a good thing, without them you will not break free of your comfort zone and reach new scoring levels. Alternatively, if pressure is not embraced and controlled, a spiraling effect can occur where a player loses focus and control of their motor skills. Finding the inner strength (and using the good mental game techniques for golf) to overcome and revel in the pressure will be huge spring-board for any golfers game.

The amateur golfer can certainly relate to the feeling that these players will feel on Friday morning. Those big club tournaments where several of your fellow competitors watch you tee off conjure up a multitude of “what ifs” and negative thoughts. Getting the shot out of the way as quickly as possible is typically what ensues. Multiply that by feeling by a thousand and you’ll be close to what the Ryder Cup rookies will be feeling. But this is exactly why we love golf. Without those challenges and the sense of accomplishment when we overcome them, the game would not be anywhere near as intriguing. The game provides the ultimate physical and mental challenge and only those who can conquer their fears will reach their true potential. Every time we play we have an opportunity to do it.

So what can you do when you feel pressure in golf?

1. Breathe!

When you’re overly nervous in any situation, doing controlled diaphragmatic breathing is key to lowering your heart rate and feeling more calm.

2. Be in control of your tempo

When you’re nervous in a tournament, it’s easy to start doing everything quicker, including your swing. When you swing too quickly, you can’t get the swing with the proper sequence, making it harder to get into a consistent impact position. Find your optimal tempo in practice and be sure to swing with the same tempo when you’re nervous.

3. Stick to your process

Pressure interferes with your ability to focus, so it’s easy to get caught up in the outcome of the shot and lose focus on your process. Know you process (what you focus on before and during shots) and be sure to stick to it under pressure.

4. Notice any tension in your body

Performance anxiety and nerves cause muscle tension to increase, which can also change the swing. Be aware of any tension in your muscles and make sure grip pressure stays light.

Do these 4 things and you’ll be able to get pressure to work for you and play better when it counts.

I can’t wait for tomorrow!

Photo by easylocum

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David MacKenzie

is a mental golf coach and lives in Washington DC. He is the founder of Golf State of Mind, a teaching program designed to help golfers condition their minds to overcome fear and play with confidence.

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