Golf Competition

Competitive Golf: Lessons that Every Golfer Should Learn

Have you ever wondered why competitive golf feels so much harder than a normal round of golf?

It’s amazing how scratch amateur players (and even pros) can play so much worse in tournaments. Sure, sometimes the course conditions are more challenging. But for the most part, nothing has changed from a normal day, it’s still golf!

Yet, when most people sign up for a tournament at their home course, a wager with a friend, or a more formal event, things go sideways.

Sound familiar?

First off, let me say I’m not judging at all. I’ve been there myself.

While I can’t say I’ve “mastered” tournament golf, I’ve gotten a lot better over the past three years. After competing in 100+ tournament rounds since 2016, I know I can help you improve your tournament round scoring average.

I’ve played in all kinds of different events and experienced more “pressure” than I thought possible on the golf course. I’ve played in amateur events, mini-tour events, and even went to pre-qualifying Q-school for the Korn Ferry Tour in August of 2019.

After working with top instructors like Boyd Summerhays and even working with a top sports psychologist, it’s been a fun journey. I hope this post will help you shoot better in tournaments but more importantly, have more fun as well.

Why is Competitive Golf So Different?

So why is tournament golf so different than a normal round with friends? Is it the pin locations? The fast greens? Playing with strangers? Or something else?

While all of these can contribute to higher scores, I think the biggest factor is the pressure that golfers put on themselves. I know I’ve been guilty of this in the past as well. But when has adding extra pressure on yourself actually made you play better?

If you’re like 99% of people, the answer is a huge NO! To help you play with less stress, let me start with a quick story.

What I Learned from Q-School

As I mentioned in the intro, I went to the Korn Ferry Q-school qualifying in August of 2019 in Lincoln, Nebraska. There was a total of 85 players, 5 of us amateur golfers, the other 80 were pros.

The course was amazing. It was a par-71, 7,100 yard monster with super thick rough and greens rolling at a 13 on the stimpmeter. The course was extremely difficult but fair. Add on the pressure everyone felt and it was a crazy week.

I shot 71-73-78 to miss the first stage by three shots. It’s easy to look at the scores and say I didn’t do well on the last day, but honestly the last 27 holes weren’t great. But the point of going to Q-school was really for one thing… to learn what part of my game needed improvement the most.

To me, going to Q-school was an accomplishment in itself. Two and a half years prior, I was barely breaking 80 and working at a full-time office gig. But in 2017, I left a lucrative six-figure career behind to chase a childhood dream and become a writer.

After three incredibly muggy and long days of tournament golf, I learned more about my game than the previous 100 tournament rounds combined. Not to mention all my competitive golf from age 10-20.

Shooting 71 on the first day of Q-school, with so many nerves, was one of the best feelings of my entire life. But I didn’t always start out this way, in fact, I used to do so bad in tournaments I threatened to quit the game more times than I care to remember.

As I said, I don’t know if anyone can “master” tournament golf but I know these tips will help you shoot lower scores.

If you’re interested more in the process of becoming a pro golfer, check out this article.

Competition Golf 1

How to Play Competitive Golf Like a Pro

Practice As You Play

Before even going into the components of playing great in tournaments, it’s important to look at you how normally play golf. I see so many guys that play friendly rounds but don’t keep a legitimate score. Instead, they drop a ball if it goes out of bounds, take a foot wedge, and drag three footers.

While obviously you can’t do any of that in tournament golf, it also doesn’t prepare you either. Instead, practice like you are in a tournament leading up to the event.

Keep legitimate score, count penalty shots, and finish out on every hole. This way when you are in a tournament standing over a three-footer, for a clutch par, you won’t be as nervous. Use casual rounds with friends to train your game so tournaments feel like any other day.

Don’t Make Any Swing Changes Before Your Tournament

Another important tip to playing solid in competitive golf is to practice accordingly the week of the event. The week before or the week of the event is not the time to make any drastic swing changes. The last thing you want to do it in tournament golf is worry about technical swing changes.

Instead, spend your time practicing your routine, short game, and putting the week of the event. I suggest spending 70% of your time on short game so you can salvage par from anywhere.

One of the biggest lessons I learned in Q-school is the importance of getting it up and down. During the first round, I pulled out my short game wizardry and got it up and down from all over the course.

I got up and down 6/7 times which helped me keep momentum and only drop one shot. While par saves aren’t as sexy as birdies, they usually keep the round alive.

Study the Course

If possible, I always recommend playing a practice round at the tournament site. It’s really difficult to walk into a tournament blind and shoot your best number. While it’s not impossible, it makes things harder.

So if you can, get out there and test out the course before the event. If possible, try to play the day or two before as it will be similar conditions to the event.

I remember in 2017 I was playing in my first US Open Qualifier. The week prior, I went to the course, did my practice round, and took lots of notes. But I didn’t consider how much the course would change over the next seven days.

By the time the qualifier came around, it was like playing a brand new course. The rough was nasty thick, the fairways were firm, and the greens were rock hard. Had I played the day before, I would have been much more prepared. Needless to say, I didn’t even sniff a qualifying position.

While I know it’s not always possible, try to play as close to the tournament as you can. I also suggest buying a yardage book, taking notes, and studying each hole. After the practice round, spend some time thinking back on each hole to create a strong game plan.

Have a Solid Pre-Round Routine

Once you’re at the site and ready to play some tournament golf, I recommend getting there a little earlier than normal. For example, if you normally have a 45-minute pre-round routine, get there 65 minutes early. This will allow you time to check-in, spend extra time on the greens, and not rush yourself.

There is nothing worse than feeling like you are rushing to the first tee. This can easily screw up the first few holes and make it harder to bounce back.

Warm Up With Intention

By giving yourself enough time to warm up, make sure you do it with intention. Don’t just go to the range and bang a few 7-irons and drivers. The goal of a pre-round warmup is to get loose, build confidence, and not wear yourself down.

Everything I do before my tee time is to get myself ready for the event. Here’s a look at my pre-round warm-up:

  • Arrive 75 minutes before tee time
  • Roll putts on the putting green for 20 minutes (focusing on speed)
  • Spend time chipping and pitching. I like to do some bump-and-runs, pitches, and bunker shots to learn how firm the greens are playing. This usually lasts for 20 minutes.
  • Hit the range. I like to hit the range for about 15-20 minutes. The key here is to not overdo it. I see so many young players hit a full bucket before teeing off. Instead, focus on getting loose and hitting 5-7 clubs you will hit during the round.
  • Putt with one ball for 5-10 minutes going through my full routine.
  • Head to the first tee!

Have a Game Plan For Each Hole

Once you’re loose and ready to tee off, it’s time to strategize your game plan. Having a tee box strategy on every hole is crucial to playing solid tournament golf.

Competitive Golf

My First Tee Jitters Nightmare Experience

Every golfer has had the “pleasant” experience of the first tee jitters. But I want to share a very personal story with my own experience of first tee jitters.

Let’s turn back the clock to the fall of 2004. I was a senior in high school and dreamed of playing college golf. My dad and I traveled from Oregon to Southern California for a walk-on tryout. Let me also preface this with the fact that I wasn’t a high school stud either.

While I normally shot in the 70s, I weighed 140 pounds and maybe hit it 230 yards. Luckily, I had a strong short game. Needless to say, I was far from a high school phenom.

So I get to the course, meet the coach, and even meet some of the guys on the team. I’m set to tee off with the coach and two players. The first hole is a Par-4 right next to the putting green, probably around 400 yards. It’s an elevated tee box hitting over a canal to a tight tree-lined fairway.

I remember standing over the ball and then swinging so fast that I nearly missed it entirely. I cold topped it right into the hazard in front of everyone. It was, by far, the worst moment of my golfing life. The rest of the round didn’t go well and needless to say, the coach wasn’t impressed.

Overcoming First Tee Jitters

Despite my atrocious tryout, I walked on the college team in the fall. I qualified and played two years of very uninspiring golf. After taking a break from the game from 20-27, only playing very recreationally, I got back into the game at 28 years old.

After shooting around par at Pebble Beach and Spyglass Hills from the tips, I signed up for my first competitive event in ten years. The first tee off in this tournament was a little different than college.

I roped a drive 300 yards straight down the fairway, hit on the green, and made birdie. I beat the curse! Not to mention, did the same at Q-school. If I can overcome the jitters, you can too.

So do I still get nervous on the first tee?


But pretty much everyone does, even Tiger Woods, experiences them as well. As Tiger once said, “If you don’t get a little bit nervous on the first hole you shouldn’t even be out here.”

If you suffer from first jitters, I promise you can beat them just like I did. Here’s how…

Overcome First Tee Jitters

If you want to shoot low in tournaments, you have to understand the first tee shot is just the first tee shot. If you hit it good, it doesn’t mean the rest of the round will go flawless. And if you top it or hit an awful shot, it doesn’t mean you will play bad. The first trick is to un-attach any meaning to the first tee-ball.

The next tip to overcome first tee jitters is one I got from my mental coach. He said that so many players get tight and try to swing smooth and easy. This leads to a lazy swing and not staying aggressive.

To offset this, get rid of any tension before your pre-shot routine. Before your name is announced, take 3-4 really hard swings with your driver. I’m talking long-drive contest hard.

Swinging this hard will help you get rid of tension in your arms and help you stay relaxed. Also, don’t forget to take a few big deep breaths as well. Get rid of any negative vibes and be excited about the tournament.

Finally, stick to your pre-shot routine and hone in on your target. By picking a very small target, you will stay focused on it, instead of thinking how nervous you are feeling. Then…swing!

Have the Right Attitude

Another thing I’ve noticed from myself and other players I’ve competed against is the importance of having the right attitude during the round. As you know, golf is a long game and tournament golf is even longer.

To play well consistently, you need to have an optimistic and positive attitude. If you have the wrong attitude, you are setting yourself for failure. As Payne Steward said, “A bad attitude is worse than a bad swing.”

And he’s 100% right!

Sure, things will go wrong at times, but remember, it’s golf. While you can’t control lip outs, bad breaks, and bad swings, you can control your attitude. With the right attitude, your toughest shots become manageable and your best shots become even better.

Here are a few ways to stay positive during the round.

Keep Breathing

If you find yourself getting down during the round, take ten breaths. In through the nose and out through the mouth. Studies have found that ten deep breaths are enough to break your state and let you refocus on the present.

Laugh It Off

Sometimes, you just have to laugh it off. Even if you want to score well, sometimes the golf gods just don’t let it happen.

Instead of cursing, throwing clubs, and getting mad, just laugh. I always think of this Bobby Jones quote to stay loose when playing in tournaments.

“Golf is the closest game to the game we call life. You get bad breaks from the good shots; you get good breaks from bad shots – but you have to play the ball where it lies.”

Stay Patient During the Round

While having the right attitude is key for competitive golf, staying patient is another key to success. As I mentioned, tournament golf can take 4-6 hours and can really wear you down. It’s easy to get frustrated or anxious when it feels like the golf Gods are against you. But you have to stay patient even if you’re scoring bad, the course is playing hard or your group is tediously slow.

As Bobby Jones said, “Competitive golf is played mainly on a five-and-a-half-inch course…the space between your ears.”

Stay Present

Another tip that I know will help almost everyone is to stay present. You can’t change any shot previously and worrying about the closing holes won’t help you either. Be where your feet are!

As Ben Hogan said, “The most important shot in golf is the next one.” Instead of dwelling on the past or thinking about the future (in a good or bad way), focus on the shot at hand.

If you struggle with staying present, I suggest wearing a rubber band on your wrist. Anytime you notice yourself thinking about the past or worrying about the future, snap the rubber band. This small pain will remind yourself to stay present and focus on the next shot.

Finish Strong

The final tip for playing well in tournament golf is to finish strong. I’ve noticed that if you’re playing well, sometimes around hole 13 or 14, you try to play it safe and protect your score. But this can lead to some cautious swings and some big numbers on the back nine.

Instead, stay present and focus on each shot at hand. This is not the time to start adding up your score and thinking about celebrating. To offset future thinking, try to nail your pre-shot routine as much as possible. You want to hone in on your breathing, target, and visualization.

Stay present and patient until you hole the final putt on 18. Shake hands with competitors and then celebrate!

Final Thoughts on Competitive Golf

In my opinion, few things in life are rewarding as playing well in tournaments. It’s so much fun to see your hard work come together when you need it most.

Use these competitive golf tips to have more fun and shoot better scores. Remember, playing in tournaments is a process. The more you compete, the more comfortable you will get and likely the lower scores you will shoot.

But don’t forget, tournament golf should still be fun. If you find yourself dreading events and not having fun, take a break and get back to enjoying the game.

If I could leave you with one thought above all else, be your own best friend out there. Golf is hard enough without beating yourself up. Instead, congratulate yourself for good shots, get over bad shots quickly, and enjoy the process.

Michael Leonard

Michael Leonard

Michael is a friend and contributor to the Left Rough. He is a full-time writer, freelance writing coach, and creator of Inspire Your Success. He’s also an aspiring professional golfer who’s been playing for 20+ years and regularly competes on mini-tours & amateur events.

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