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Practicing Under Pressure

Rick V., Team Titleist Staff Team Titleist Staff

Hey, Team Titleist!

Have you ever struggled with your practice game not translating to the golf course? Many experts believe that this is usually due to players focusing too much on technique and not enough on developing the competitive skills you need to actually play the game well. The solution? Spend a good portion of your practice time simulating pressure.

It’s only natural to feel anxious when something is on the line - whether it’s playing a competitive match or you just want to play well on a bucket list course. The difference between really good players and those who struggle when there’s something at stake is that the better players learn to enjoy the nervous tension we all feel under pressure and they channel it to actually elevate their performance.

And the only way players learn to enjoy the feeling of being under the gun is by succeeding over and over in pressure situations.

One of the best ways I’ve learned to make my practice count is to make it competitive. Get together with a buddy and challenge each other. Closest to the pin contests on the range or short game area are simple ways to turn up the heat a little.

I have a great game I’d like to share that I learned when I was working as an Assistant at John’s Island Club in Vero Beach, FL. We’d play this game almost every evening after work and my putting was never sharper. It’s called “Twenty-One” and you can play it either as a putting or a chipping game.

The rules are pretty simple.

  • You get 5 points for holing a putt (or chip). No points if your opponent holes his/her put on top of you.
  • You get 3 points for lagging your shot closer to the hole than your opponent and in-the-leather (within a grip-length of the cup).
  • You get 1 point for lagging your shot closer to the hole than your opponent, but outside the leather.
  • You get 2 points for any lip-out. Lip-out points are automatic, so if you lip out and your opponent finishes closer to the cup, you still get 2 points. Your opponent gets the appropriate points (5,3 or 1) for winning the hole. If you lip out and win the hole, your score is 2 plus the additional points you earn for the win (3 or 1).
  • The winner of the preceding hole has the honor and gets to choose the next shot.

The object of the game is to get to 21 points before your opponent does. You have to hit 21 exactly. If you go over 21, your point total goes to 11. So if you’re at 20 points and you lip out, your score jumps back to 11.

You can play Twenty-One guided by golf etiquette or not. Sometimes disruptive tactics and personal heckling helps to turn up the heat (which is the goal) and can make it more fun.

Strategy as you approach 21 points is important and it’s interesting to see which players try to go for the throat by sinking lots of short putts and which ones prefer to kill with a thousand cuts, lagging all game from long distance.

The bottom line is that games like Twenty-One help your mental game and confidence immensely. Win or lose, you’ll be simulating the exact pressure you’ll feel over a putt on the golf course. As you get better and better with the game on the line in Twenty-One, so too will you get better when faced with an important putt or shot on the golf course.

Good luck! Hope you enjoy the game and please share any of your own ideas for practicing under pressure.

And please let us know if there are any other areas of your game that you're struggling with. We have a great network of experts in the TT community who can help get your game back on track!

-Rick, PGA

20 Replies

  1. Rob_Roth1

    I have played 21 a bunch of times with putting and chipping and it's a great way to add pressure.

    For my overall game there is nothing like a game of nassau or wolf to get the juices going and see what part of my swing stands up and what falters under pressure.
  2. Tom C

    There was a game we made up and used to play as Jnr's, I wouldn't say it would help under pressure but looking back I think it taught us to think and act fast as you didn't have time to contemplate your shot, you would just have to hit it.

    There would be two of us and we would have a clikka tube with 20 or 21 balls, whatever it holds, all marked up as yours. Pick a hole on our chipping green (was very small) choose a wedge and start. Aim was to get as many in the hole as possible, more than your opponent obviously, 1 point per ball but you lose points if your opponent knocks one of your balls in.

    Apart from trying to hole them the game became all about tactics, you hole one or two and then you 'accidently' duff a couple into his line so he cant run it in, or if he has one on the edge you try to knock it in before he does. Then when you get blocked off you try different shots, trying to hop over the blockade or going for slam dunks.

    It might not sound like much but it was good fun to play, a fast game where you didn't spend time looking at the lines or lie or thinking how would I play this shot, you would just react and hit it.
  3. CKoetter

    I've never personally played 21, but have done sudden death on the putting green when we need to settle a tied match.

    I do like the thought of games on the range, but for me I'll pretty consistently hit poor shots on the full range, then more often than not get on the course under pressure and hit the exact shots I need. Can't hit a draw on the range, but will do it on the course once I see the shot that needs to be hit.

    In regards to games to strengthen different parts of the game, I have really been focused on getting, and keeping, my up and down % at or above 50%. So what I do is go to our clubs short game facility and either play a game against myself, or someone else if available.

    The game is obviously to get up and down. I like to play 2 games in 1:

    - Pick 5 different locations at different distances and varying pin locations (greens on the short game facility have 3 flags)
    - Choose the pin
    - Drop 3 balls per location
    - Ultimate goal is to get down in 6 strokes
    - Repeat for all 5 locations
    - If playing with a partner alternate shots to keep the pressure high

    Generally for me if I can get down in 7 strokes its a win, since I'm over 50%. (granted since its a practice facility there are a lot of ball marks on the green, you aren't always in control of the roll.)

    The second game is total strokes at the end, ending up at 37 strokes or less, which generally means I got down in 2 50% of the time and all of the other times I averaged 1-over. This can be adjusted depending on your goals. When playing with another person I try to stay inside of those same guidelines, but obviously the goal is to beat the other person. One caveat is that depending on the handicap differential between me and the other player, one of us may get strokes on the total number at the end to determine an overall winner. It's not a science but more an agreed upon give.

    When playing this by myself, sometimes I win and sometimes I don't, but bringing another player into the mix really amps up the game and I generally meet my personal win criteria. To the point where in some games with other players I've gone on streaks of 6 - 8 straight up and down's.

    All in all, competition should elevate your game, and if it doesn't you're either in your own head or setting unrealistic expectations for where your game is at that point in time. I'd like to hear what other games Team Titleist members are playing to see if it's something I can incorporate. 21 will be the next game I play on the practice greens to see if sharpen those skills.
  4. Tyler H

    Thanks for the great practice game Rick. I look forward to utilizing this in my practice sessions. I can see this paying dividends on the course.

  5. Sam K

    Looking forward to trying 21! Thank you very much for sharing. In all manner of competition, mental game and process are key.

    The difference in a good marksman and a great marksman: Knowledge paired with methodical trigger time (to the point of muscle memory). However, even great marksmen choke when the enemy is returning fire. For the purpose of golf in this application of pressure, might I suggest taking your shots while standing in a fire ant hill? Every swing after that will consist of far less "pressure". haha

    Ok maybe don't do that.
  6. Jack H

    Sounds like a great drill! Thanks for sharing! I always enjoy hearing how others practice, that I may better my own practice.

    I am a huge Jordan Spieth fan and love the videos his instructor, Cameron McCormick, put out on how Spieth practices. Great drills to test how you can do against Spieth.

    Have fun practicing!

  7. Deno

    Looking forward to a "21" range practice game. Thanks for the tip Rick.

  8. RWartanian

    That sounds like a great game if you practice with a buddy. I like to go practice on my own, so after a warm-up, I try to visualize and play a few holes of my home course. I'll take driver and if I stray off-line, will hit a punch shot, or if on-line approximate what I have left to the green. And will hit a pitch or chip for good measure. Just to get in the sequencing of swing types you'd typically have on a hole.
  9. Speedy

    Tyler H

    Thanks for the great practice game Rick. I look forward to utilizing this in my practice sessions. I can see this paying dividends on the course.


    Thanks Rick and Tyler, this may be fun to do in Wincy....
  10. Rick V., Team Titleist Staff


    I have played 21 a bunch of times with putting and chipping and it's a great way to add pressure.

    For my overall game there is nothing like a game of nassau or wolf to get the juices going and see what part of my swing stands up and what falters under pressure.

    Rob, can you remind me how to play Wolf? Can you only play with three players or am I thinking of something else?
  11. Rick V., Team Titleist Staff

    Great ideas, everyone. Please keep them coming and thanks for sharing!

  12. Dave N

    Sounds like fun, I'll have to try this.
  13. greg p

    At some point, this dropped out of my practice sessions. Thanks for the reminder about the importance.
  14. Tom B

    Rick, and everyone, we usually play when there is only 3 of us and we can't play a match. Here's the rules for 3, but much the same for 4. Figured this was easier than typing them out.
  15. Steve W

    Have played a variation of 21 where closest to hole must make the putt to get point. A hoot to play with 3-4 others. The putts can be ridiculous - great fun. Another game to help is the simple "draw back" game. Every missed putt must be placed a putter length away from the spot it stops and then played from there...tough game, no tap ins or gimmes.
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