Sure, anybody can dial up a stock image of Cypress Point and terrify you about a shot you have to hit with 240 yards of miracle carry in a 30-mph wind. But what about the scariest shots you’re going to face the very next time you play, at your regular course?
We enlisted the help of three Golf Digest top teachers to identify those intimidating shots—the first tee shot of the day, the 40-yard bunker shot and the super slick 15-footer downhill—and show you how to never be frightened of them again.
A game plan for the first tee shot
“One of the smartest things I see tour players do that amateurs NEVER do is end their pre-round warm-up by hitting the exact shot they’re going to have to play on the first tee,” says Golf Digest 50 Best Teacher Tony Ruggiero. “It just goes to show you how having purpose to your warm-up is something that can take away nerves.”
But even the best laid plans can still leave room for discomfort. If you’re really terrified to hit driver on No. 1 (or anywhere that looks plain scary), you can adopt a strategy Ruggiero pitches to his up-and-coming students like Korn Ferry Tour player Rick Lamb: “Rick was talking about having trouble on holes where the goal is to just get it in play, where he’d go so passive that he didn’t swing with any conviction or speed,” says Ruggiero, who is based at Frederica Golf Club on St. Simons Island in Georgia.
“In that situation, I love to see players go to where the ball is teed up just barely at 3-wood height. That forces you to get your upper body more on top of the ball, and you hit down on it more. I think most amateur players get in trouble when they hang back or try to hit up on the ball too much. Your pivot gets so much better when the ball is teed low, and you tend to start it more on line with less curve.”
A new plan for the long bunker shot
Even if you’re comfortable with the standard greenside splash, things get dicey when the shot gets longer and you’re too far away for a splash and unsure how to pick it clean. Top South Carolina teacher Jonathan Yarwood calls them “score-killers,” because many players don’t practice them and they often lead to bladed shots that go into an even worse place.
“It’s so easy to fluff under it or blade it over the green, and it’s even tougher when it’s been raining and the sand is compacted down,” he says. “I created a no-brainer shot for this situation one day when I was waiting for Alex Cejka. You set up extremely wide to stop your lower body from shifting, and keep your weight to the lead side. Then you lock your arms and wrists and make wide swing using your core to turn back and through. The bounce of the club will skid and the ball will come out and run.” What makes the shot so effective is that it removes a lot of the hinges and moving parts in a bunker shot, and makes it much more pressure-proof, says Yarwood, who recommends using a 54- or 58-degree wedge for the shot, depending on how high you need it to go.
Stop fearing the breaking 15-footer
Intimidating shots can come in the smallest packages, too. The stroke length on a super-fast downhill 15-footer might be three inches long, but it provides all kinds of stress. “Fear of a putt like that is a rational one, because everybody has sent the ball way past the hole and left themselves with a long come-backer,” says top Florida teacher David Armitage. “That manifests itself in being really tentative when you’re in that position again, and a decelerating, uncommitted stroke leads to the worst overall results.”
To get over the fear, conquer it with a rational plan, says Armitage. “Guess how fast the putt will be, and then commit to hitting a ‘normal’ putt but with much less distance,” he says. “On that 15-footer? Read it and play it like it’s a normal 10-foot putt and hit it with your normal stroke, not something you’re trying to baby down there. I like to tell my students than every putt is flat, and our only job is to impart the ball with speed and aim for the particular line we need.”