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Golf tips: Conquer your fear of the water

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What happened to Russell Knox at TPC Sawgrass' iconic island green hole Saturday is the stuff of nightmares for most amateur golfers. Knox dunked three consecutive shots into the water, eventually finishing with a 9 -- and effectively ending any chance he had of winning the Players.

For any of us who have stood on the tee and peered over an expanse of water, trying to figure out how to navigate it safely, Knox's struggles were hard to watch, and yet comforting to know even the world's best golfers are proof golf is hard.

If you haven't seen it, or just want to commiserate, here's a video clip of Knox's troubles:

 

 

So why does a carry over water create anxieties like no other shots? In the opinion of PGA Professional Chad Parker, General Manager and Director of Golf at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta, it's the "all or nothing" aspect of carrying a water hazard that heightens the stakes.

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"It adds a level of finality to the shot," Parker said. "It's your one chance to hit the shot, and if you don't hit it well, not only does it hurt your score but the golf ball is going to be gone.

"It's scary to have that kind of consequence to the shot. It adds another layer of anxiety to the shot that a normal shot over a bunker doesn't have."

Parker said it's very similar to why many amateurs play under generous "gimme putt" rules:  the anxiety of having to sink every putt can be a lot of pressure when all you're trying to do is have fun and enjoy each other's company. That's why it's almost impossible to sit on the sofa at home and understand what it's like to stand over a must-make four-footer that could cost a touring pro hundreds of thousands of dollars.

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"Anybody who plays golf for a living on Tour will tell you how important four- or five-foot putts are," Parker said. "They can mean the difference between winning and losing."

So other than avoiding water holes altogether -- or hitting the worst-looking ball in your bag as a sacrifice to King Neptune -- how can amateurs conquer their fear of water hazards?

Parker offers these three tips:

1. Hit the right club

For example, if you have a 150-yard carry over water, hit the club in your bag that you know will easily travel that distance, even if you hit it a little fat. Don't hit something that requires maximum effort and solid contact.

"You need to have a good understanding of how far you hit your clubs," Parker said. "Most people that I teach, they remember the shot they hit that one time when it was downwind and the stars aligned and they hit it dead-solid perfect. So their 7-iron went X number of yards. And they start thinking they should do that every time.

"Especially as the handicaps go up, the likelihood of that person hitting the ball solidly goes down. So they're going to have shots that they hit solid that might fly 160 yards, but most of the time they hit it between 145 and 155."

And that 10 or 15 yards may mean the difference between landing on the green or reaching into your bag for another ball. 

"You really have to have a good understanding of a comfortable yardage for whatever club you're hitting," Parker said. "And you have to be realistic, especially on a carry shot like that. If you mishit it and it goes in the water, you're done."

2. Choose the right target

If there's water on the right and your ball flight is a fade, don't take a chance at aiming for a pin that's tucked near danger. Instead, consider playing it safe -- aim for the biggest part of the green -- or even where you might be able to bail out if you shot goes offline.

The chances of you pulling off the perfect shot that's not only the correct distance but the correct line? Parker said even Tour players will tell you those are pretty long odds.

"Like the shot on No. 17 Sunday at the Players, for most people it would be a terrifying shot to aim at," Parker said. "It's terrifying for the pros to aim at. Imagine an 18-handicap getting up and trying to hit that shot. They'd be lucky to be within 30 feet of the hole. If they got one close, there's almost 100 percent chance it was because they would have missed their line."

Getting on the green and two-putting for par is a whole lot better than splashing one or more balls and walking away with a huge number. Play it conservatively and go to the next hole unscathed.

3. Be in the right frame of mind

You've done everything you can physically to hit the right shot. Now get your mind thinking positively. Don't let the water psych you out.

"It's just another golf shot," Parker said. "If you have a sound routine that you got through before you hit shots, then the shot over water shouldn't be any different. The only thing that is different is the way your body is reacting to the challenge.

"If you're not thinking about the consequence, and instead are thinking about the process you're taking to hit the golf shot, then the water shouldn't matter."

Parker said the more you think about what can go wrong, the higher probability that it will. Instead, take the water out of play in your mind and focus on where you want to hit it, instead of where you don't.

"Eliminate the negatively, because if you think about how you don't want to hit it in one place, either you'll hit it over there or you'll do something so crazy in your golf swing to overcompensate for it," Parker said.

"Have a clear thought in your mind. Instead of thinking, 'Don't hit it in the water,' you should be thinking, 'I want to hit my 9 iron 130 yards to the left-center of this green.' That should be your swing thought and then try to execute that positive vision in your mind."

 

 

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