Every golfer who's ever faced a critical putt - whether it was for a two-dollar win in your weekend nassau, to win a club championship or in Ernie Els case, to win the Claret Jug and his fourth major championship; knows how your heart rate increases and your hands can shake a bit as you prepare to make the stroke.
As Ernie Els stared down his 15-footer on the 72nd hole of the Open Championship, I couldn't help but think back to last month when I had a eight-foot birdie putt at the PGA Professional National Championship on the final hole. If I made mine, I'd have an invitation to play in the PGA Championship at the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Resort next month. And though Els may not have known making his putt would win him his second Open Championship, I'm sure he knew that missing it would mean he almost certainly would not win.
There is perhaps no better feeling in golf than sinking a putt that you absolutely must have. But if you can't control your emotions and remember a few key points, you'll really struggle to maintain proper fundamentals and give yourself your best chance to sink the putt.
Here's a few key points to remember.
1.) Stick to your normal putting routine: This means going through the same motions as you do for any putt of course. Some people line up putts the same way for 17 holes or 71 holes in many tournaments, but then when the critical putt is at hand, they change everything around. This means more than not skipping steps in that routine, it also means not adding to it. If you line up a putt from behind and down the line, don't add four more angles to study. You have to convince yourself this is just another putt.
2.) Be confident: Way too players think about the consequences of a miss. This fills your head with doubt and makes yours stroke tentative. Picture the ball on the line you choose and it rolling in. Your mental strength is going to be one of your best assets in these situations.
3.) Get the ball to the hole: Did you see how much pace Els' putt had on the final hole? There was NO way that putt would end up short. On the 16th hole, Els left himself about 8 feet for birdie and left the putt one roll short. I'm sure he told himself on the final hole that leaving the putt short would be the greatest mistake he could make and gave it just a little extra speed to make sure it would get there. The worst is hitting an important putt right on line and seeing it stop on the edge. There is no penalty in this case for sending it 3 feet by. This was a do-or-die situation, don't leave it hanging on the lip.
As it turned out, I did make my putt at Bayonet Black Horse (though it turned out, the cut moved one number and so I didn't NEED it - still glad I made it!) and I'll be teeing it up with Ernie Els and others at the PGA in a couple of weeks. And because Els made his critical putt, he'll be sporting one more nice memento in his house.
It was a great end to one of golf's great gentlemen. And the way he hung in there and made his charge was a lesson in golf we can all learn from.