Why Do Some Golfers Handle Pressure Better Than Others?

Michael FitzpatrickFeatured ColumnistApril 18, 2013

AUGUSTA, GA - APRIL 13:  Angel Cabrera of Argentina waves to the crowd on the 18th hole during the third round of the 2013 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club on April 13, 2013 in Augusta, Georgia.  (Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images)
Andrew Redington/Getty Images

What separates golfers in terms of their ability to perform well under pressure?

Why did Tiger Woods seemingly make every important putt for 15 years, while other extremely talented players couldn’t roll a golf ball through a basketball hoop when the heat was on?  

Why do the Europeans continue to perform better than the Americans at the Ryder Cup, which is arguably the most pressure-packed event in all of golf?

Why does a guy like Angel Cabrera continually perform well on golf’s biggest stages, while guys like Matt Kuchar and Brandt Snedeker seem to have a very difficult time holding it together on Sunday afternoon at the majors?

This is an age-old question that golfers, swing coaches, historians of the game and sports psychologists have tried to get a handle on for many years. And if anyone truly knew the answer to that question, well, let’s just say that he or she would probably be a household name by now.

There are likely many different aspects that go into creating the perfect pressure golfer. Some of these factors players can control, such as their drive to be the best, their level of practice and preparation, and their confidence and belief in themselves.

But we also know that our personalities are largely shaped by our environments. So, how does a player’s upbringing in terms of his economic standing, geographical location and the way in which he began playing the game of golf contribute to his ability to handle pressure on golf’s biggest stages?

Take a guy like Cabrera. Cabrera quit school at age 10 and began caddying at a local golf club in Cordoba, Argentina, because he and his family needed the money. Heck, Cabrera needed money so badly that he even began street fighting in his spare time in order to earn some extra cash. Cabrera learned the game of golf while caddying and slowly but surely fought his way up into an elite class of players who have won multiple major championships.

Obviously, Cabrera was blessed with an abundance of natural talent, and he of course had to put in the time and effort to create a world-class golf game, but it’s difficult to overlook his upbringing when evaluating why a guy like Cabrera is a gritty, hard-nosed competitor who never seems to crack under major championship pressure.

In fact, if you look at the top 30 golfers of all time in terms of their number of major championship victories, 23 out of those 30 (or 77%) came from lower income, blue collar-type families and neighborhoods.

So does a blue color-type upbringing, which forces a player to scratch and claw his way to the top of the golf world, have some kind of effect on the way in which a golfer handles pressure and competes for tournament titles?

It’s difficult to say, but it’s also quite difficult to overlook the fact that out of the 30 players who have won the most major championships in golf history, 77% of them have come from lower income, blue collar-type families and neighborhoods.

Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Walter Hagen, Arnold Palmer, Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh, etc. all came from households and neighborhoods that were not economically conducive to golf, which is, of course, a very expensive sport.  

Lee Trevino once said, "You don't know what pressure is until you've played for $5 a hole with only $2 in your pocket."

Tom Lehman once said, “You haven’t been a golf pro if you haven’t slept in your car.”

There is no hard data on what goes into making a perfect pressure golfer, and of course Jack Nicklaus, arguably the greatest golfer of all-time, came from a fairly well-to-do family and was afforded every opportunity when growing up.

But it is again difficult to overlook the fact that the large majority of the top 30 career major championship winners of all-time came from caddy yards, were assistant club pros or were simply brought up in lower income, blue collar-type homes.

Perhaps there is a level of toughness and determination to succeed that comes with this type of upbringing that is conducive to handling the most intense forms of pressure on the golf course.

Or perhaps this is just another feeble attempt to try and answer the age-old, yet largely unanswerable, question as to why some golfers handle pressure better than others.  

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