In its most pressure-packed moments, golf can be a particularly lonely sport. There is no teammate to pass you the ball, no coach who can, in the moment, help you quiet your mind. You can talk to your caddie for a minute (or several minutes if you're J.B. Holmes or Bryson DeChambeau), but if you want to win a tournament, eventually you're going to have to step up to the ball and make a swing all by yourself. Johnny Miller used to say those moments were his favorite because they separated the good players from the great ones. Great players learn how to handle stress, control their heart rate and maintain their tempo.
What are the most stressful swings that PGA Tour players have to make during the course of a season? We decided to ask players for their thoughts in preparation for the Players Championship, which is held at a venue that -- as one might suspect -- makes several appearances on our list.
18th tee shot at Quail Hollow (Wells Fargo Championship)
Consistently one of the toughest finishing holes in golf, this 494-yard par-4 has a creek that runs down the left side of the entire hole, leaving a player no choice but to try and hammer driver knowing that (with bunkers on the right) there is no bail-out option. Miss right and you have little chance of getting on the green in two.
"It's so intimidating," Graham DeLaet said. "You basically know you can't miss. And it's such a long hole that you have no options but to step up and hit driver."
Tee shot at 17 at TPC Sawgrass (the Players)
In recent years, PGA Tour players would quietly tell you that hitting the island green wasn't actually that difficult. (It's the biggest green on the course, and usually required no more than a pitching wedge for most players.) It made for great television drama, but it didn't stress the players out as much as TV would have you believe. (There are some exceptions; see: Sergio Garcia in 2013.) But moving the tournament back to March, instead of May, has changed that equation considerably.
"You'll see a significant change in the wind," said Jim "Bones" McKay, Phil Mickelson's caddie for almost 20 years. "In May, the wind direction tends to be downwind. That's not a tough read typically. You get out there in March and the wind is like the 12th at Augusta, bouncing around. Everything is harder. If it's cold and wind, you might be hitting 6 or 7-iron there. It's really, really hard."
Tee shot at 18 at TPC Sawgrass (the Players)
This tee shot came up the most when we surveyed players about the shots they stress over the most. If you want a good angle to the pin on the 462-yard par-4, you have to hit a draw that curves toward the lake. If it doesn't curve and you block it, you might as well chip out because you're either going to be blocked by trees or you're going to be in some gnarly rough that's going to make hitting the green unlikely. If you curve it too much, you'll end up in the lake and now you're scrambling to make bogey from 160 yards away. Pete Dye wanted the closing holes on the Sawgrass Stadium Course to be the ultimate test of a golfer's nerve. He didn't want that to be limited to the island green at 17.
"I would call the tee shot on 18 at the Players one of the 10 most intimidating shots in golf," McKay said. "Maybe top-5. That is a really, really scary shot. Obviously, you got penalty area left and it's so easy to go right and have nothing, no angle, no lie. So that's really tough."
"It's the most nerve-rattling shot out there," Zach Johnson said.
"The tee shot at 18 is way more stressful than 17," Rory McIlroy said.
"Probably the toughest tee shot on Tour," Ryan Palmer said.
Tee shot on No. 1 at Augusta National (Masters)
If there is one surprise entry on the list, this might be the one. But when you start to think deeply about it, it makes more sense. Tiger Woods, the greatest player of this era (or any era, arguably) has been flummoxed by this shot for most of his career. The first hole almost always plays as one of the hardest at Augusta, and while the second shot is a bear, it all starts with trying to squeeze the ball between the bunker on the right and the trees on the left with the tee shot. Timing also plays a big role.
"It's the first major the year, and everyone is a little anxious," Rory McIlroy says. "In every group there is zero interaction between any of the players. You can play conservative, but if you do, you're going to have a really difficult second shot. It's really stressful."
Second shot into the 11th green at Augusta National (Masters)
There are more picturesque shots at the Masters, but there aren't many that are harder than the approach on the 505-yard par-4, especially since a significant number of trees were planted along the right side of the fairway in 2006. There is also a large mound just right of the green that will kick balls toward the water.
"You don't want to bail right, although that's the right play because you cannot go left," said Johnson, who won the Masters in 2007. "You've got a lie where the ball is above your feet, but if you're short and right, the ball is going to hit the hill, go [left] and be in the water. Oh, and you're also pumping anything in there from 6-iron to 3-iron."
Second shot into the 15th green at Augusta National (Masters)
The scene of some of the most iconic moments in the Masters, it's more perilous than the second shot into 13 when going for the green, because on 13 there is at least a safe layup option. On 15, though, if you don't go for the green in two, you're facing a tricky wedge from a downhill lie to a skinny landing area. You're almost better going for it, but don't forget to account for the adrenaline.
"From the fairway, the green looks like two table tennis tables strapped next to each other, and you've got to hit them with a 3-wood or a 5-wood," Ian Poulter said. "The wind is swirling, and you're never really sure what the ball is going to do until it lands. Until it's on the ground, you're really just guessing what's going to happen."
Tee shot on No. 12 at Muirfield Village (the Memorial)
A 184-yard par-3 that requires a towering long iron over water, this hole was mentioned by several players as one they start to stress about as soon as they make the turn. The hole can play significantly longer depending on where the pin is on the kidney-shaped green. Trying to judge the wind can be a guessing game.
"When they put the pin on the right, you just have to sack up, because otherwise you're going to have a 50-footer over a ridge that is like putting into a clown's mouth," David Hearn said. "And if the wind is coming off the right and you have to start it over the water and let it drift left, well, good luck."
"When the ball is in the air, you're just 'Please be dry,'" McIlroy said.
Second shot into the green on No. 8 at Pebble Beach (AT&T Pebble Beach, U.S. Open)
Maybe the most iconic second shot in American golf, it's also one of the scariest. Jack Nicklaus calls it the best par-4 in the world, but none of us are Nicklaus, including PGA Tour pros. It requires a shot of at least 175 yards over the ocean to a tiny green down below.
"It really is the most beautiful thing you've ever seen," Paul Azinger said. "Especially on a windy day when those waves are crashing and you can hear that smashing against its rocks, it's incredible. When you get down on the green and look back up at the cliff it doesn't look that far back up, you get up there and you look, it's not that far uphill back to the tee.
"But when you're up on the fairway and looking down to the green it's like, wow. Inevitably the first few times you play you airmail the green or you come up short because it looks so far downhill you think you're going to get there and you don't. Then once you hit it over the green, you realize you never want to do that again. You have to be short, especially in a U.S. Open."
The tee shot on 16 at TPC Scottsdale (Waste Management Phoenix Open)
The second shot on 18 at Harbor Town (RBC Heritage)
The tee shot on 17 at PGA National (Honda Classic)
The tee shot on 12 at Augusta National (Masters)