Secrets to success: How pros handle major pressure

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Four times a year, golfers have a chance to make history. Jordan Spieth made plenty of it in April at Augusta National, and someone will do it again at the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, the first time it has been held in the Pacific Northwest.

So what will be the key to handling the unrelenting pressure of winning a major? I asked several major champions – including the Big Three – how they persevered in the biggest tournaments, plus a few players who have been close to adding "major champion" to their resumes.

Arnold Palmer, seven-time major champion

“Stick to the basic fundamentals. My father taught me basic fundamentals of the game of golf. Any instruction that he gave me from the day I started playing golf was stick to the basic fundamentals. Like you've heard it a dozen times, when he put my hands on the club, he said, 'Boy, don't you ever change that.'

"Well, I haven't. And I think that basic fundamentals if you are really serious about playing golf and playing good golf, stick to the basic fundamentals. Sure, there's going to be a little change here and a change there, but you don't want to make them.

"You want to stick to the things that you started with and you learned and you know how to apply them to the – to your game and don't go – as my father said when I left for the Tour, he wasn't too anxious for me to go on Tour, but when I walked out and I said, 'I'm going on Tour, Pap.' He said, 'OK.' He says, 'I'll tell you what, you go out there and listen to all those guys out there and that tractor is still sitting down there and you can drive it when you come back.'

"Well, I never went back because I did what he told me. Basic fundamentals.

"If you feel like you're getting the basic fundamentals when you start and you think you're right and you got a pretty good swing going for you, stick with it, stick with it. Don't listen to all the instruction you can get.

"And all the instructors in the audience will say, 'Arnie, stop it' because they're making a hell of a living out of giving instruction."


Jack Nicklaus, 18-time major champion

"To me, pressure ... it was what you live for or why you play the game. As much as I love the game of golf, I loved the competition as much or more. Golf was my vehicle to competition, and nothing embodies competition more than those scenarios that some people might consider pressure-filled.

"No one playing the game at the highest level lives to walk up the 18th hole at 2 p.m. Sunday, hoping for a top 25. You live for the opportunities to walk up the 18th hole late on Sunday with a chance to win, and hopefully that comes in a major championship.

"The best way to handle the pressure is by being prepared. My wife Barbara always says, 'There is no excuse for not being properly prepared.' If you put in the necessary work and prepare yourself properly, you can better handle the pressure.

"Was I nervous when I stepped on the first tee of the Masters? Of course. But it was a healthy nervous — one that motivates and inspires you.”


Gary Player, nine-time major champion

“My father taught me the value of patience, and that one should always keep going in the face of adversity. During the 1956 South African Open, my father sent me a telegram that said, 'Walk. Don’t run,' and I’ve always been mindful of this advice, during both practice and tournament play. He taught me that I shouldn’t rush during a tournament. No matter how my game was that day, no matter what disruptions occurred out on the course, I won major tournaments because I kept a level head. Being able to stay calm even after a bad shot was one of the most important lessons I’ve learned in life.

"Even more, I was confident that I would win and worked hard to keep a positive attitude during every game. Negative thinking can only hold a person back from achieving his goals in life. So I visualized that my name would be the first on the scoreboard, and I focused on where I wanted each shot to go. I trusted my instincts to lead me in the right direction. Oftentimes, this kind of mental preparation made my visualizations become a reality. Yet as with the first piece of advice I mentioned, I couldn’t let myself lose patience or calm if my shot didn’t turn out the way I wanted. I simply had to know I could come back from anything the game threw my way.”


Curtis Strange, 1988 and '89 U.S. Open champion

“There’s no tricks to it. You got to get the job done. I think experience means a great deal in that situation. To be able to handle it the first time you’re there in a major is very difficult. Some will do it, but most won’t. You’ve got to gain the experience of just how your body reacts to that pressure because it is a whole lot more. Take a deep breath, that’s all you can do.“


Ben Crenshaw, two-time Masters champion

“First of all it’s preparation. You have to do field work. You have to know a lot about the course you’re going to play, and how it can possibly play in different conditions, but you still have to trust yourself and trust your own instincts and judgments.

"Ben Hogan was probably the best preparer of anyone. He might play the golf course [for] a week. He would basically just memorize it … It’s all about knowing how a golf course can play under different conditions.”


Vijay Singh, three-time major champion

“Breathe (smiles) ... You’re relying on what got you there. If you’re in contention coming down the stretch, you’re obviously playing well. So you don’t have to create anything that’s not there. Just stick to what you know, stick to what got you there, keep to your game plan, and routine, and don’t ... the thing not to do is overthink. Be in the moment, be in the shot.”


Paul Azinger, 1993 PGA champion

“This is really impossible to answer ... thanks! Seriously though, a player in that scenario must mindfully slow everything down during a major: eat slower, breathe slower, choose a club slower. This mindfulness will keep you in the moment, poised and ready to perform.”


Jason Day, three-time PGA Tour winner

“It’s something that I’m trying to learn each and every time I’m out there. Just trying to breathe, trying to slow down, do what you need to do. It’s something that you have to learn to live with and be comfortable and enjoy. You can’t look at it like, ‘Uh, it’s so stressful and so hard.’ It’s something you got to love. Over time I’m slowly getting to like it and enjoy that challenge ... You got to run towards it and enjoy it.”


Davis Love III, 1997 PGA champion

“You got to try to make it as much like a normal week. You got to practice your routine enough to where you have something to rely on when you get under pressure. You’ve had to have done it enough in regular tournaments that you just keep doing the same thing when you get there, have something to fall back on.”


Brandt Snedeker, seven-time PGA Tour winner

“The biggest thing is patience. You can never be too patient. You always feel like in majors you have to play perfectly, and make sure that everything goes your way, and you have to get every bounce, and you don’t. You don’t have to play perfectly. You just have to play good and smart. Make good decisions and do the same things you normally do. It’s just hard to believe that in a major you don’t have to do extra. So the hardest thing is just being patient.”


Trevor Immelman, 2008 Masters champion

“Gary Player’s always said to me the adversity’s going to come at some point. Whether it be in a particular round of golf or a tournament or over the course of a year. You’ve just got to be able to roll with it because nobody’s immune to it.”


Webb Simpson, 2012 U.S. Open champion

“As much as it’s about the U.S. Open and winning a major and what that would do for you in your career, you try to dumb it down to ‘Hey this is another golf hole, still 18 holes, I’m still trying to beat the same guys I’m trying to beat every week.’ So just a lot of talking to yourself.”


Hunter Mahan, six-time PGA Tour winner

"I try to go back to focusing on little things. I focus on what I can control, and just the shot I’m trying to hit, and not try to win the tournament on one shot. Hit good shots and don’t over-complicate things."


Zach Johnson, 2007 Masters champion

“Try to control what you can control. You can’t control where it goes, but you can control how you think, where you’re walking, your rhythm, your tempo, that kind of thing.”


Keegan Bradley, 2011 PGA champion

“You just try to enjoy it. I try to look around and just see the moment that I’m in. It’s so intense, so big. That’s what makes it fun.”