One of the common themes in post-match interviews at the Ryder Cup is pressure. Players are used to being responsible for themselves in big moments. Adding in a teammate and flag turns even straightforward shots into nerve-wrackers.
Short game swings are particularly vulnerable to tension, both because they’re smaller and shorter and because the stakes around the green are usually so high. A good pitch or chip can save a halve, or in the case of Patrick Reed’s hole-out on the 10th hole of his four-ball match with Tiger Woods against Tommy Fleetwood and Francesco Molinari, produce an unlikely hole win.
When tour players get nervous, they tend to make the same kinds of short game mistakes average players do. “The first thing that usually happens under pressure is a player starts to pull on the handle in the downswing,” says Golf Digest 50 Best Teacher Stan Utley. “Pulling the handle first tends to make it hard for the club to reach the ground, because you’re adding angle in your wrists that wasn’t there when you started.”
The pulling starts a chain reaction that produces one of two results. Either the club doesn’t bottom out where it should and you blade it, or you sense what’s coming and dip down with your legs and dig too much too early with the leading edge, says Utley. That produces the blades and chunks that are so common.
“Once you understand the engineering of the club, you can get rid of a lot of that anxiety, even when you’re on lies that are tight like the ones at the Ryder Cup this week,” says Utley. “Sand wedges are engineered for the bottom to land shallow on the back tires, so to speak, like an airplane. The leading edge is above the back edge. All you have to do is land the bounce on the turf instead of the leading edge, and do it below the equator of the ball.”
A unique trick to take the fear out of the shot is to remember to use your legs. “When you’re nervous, use the ground to push off with your legs. Then you won’t dip, and it will tend to activate the wrists and help you stop pulling the handle,” says Utley. “You get the length of the club to come back to neutral. Believe it or not, you want to use the ground for leverage in short game just like you would in full swing.”