As an athlete, you're either going forward, holding steady or going backward. If you give up going forward even for a moment, you run the risk of going the other direction. There is a natural ebb and flow in all sports, including golf. Few, if any rounds, are mistake free. Yet, mistakes are rarely the definition of a round. Instead, the reaction to the mistakes are what dictates the score. When you are playing to win, mistakes will happen. They are mistakes of effort and risk. Without them, the reward would be great, but with them the player plays on and continues to play with freedom. Playing with freedom isn't playing careless golf or without strategy, it is simply living on the edge of good and great. Protection happens when you play to not make mistakes. It is a mindset of knowing what you don't want and allowing that to be your guide instead of what you do want.
Juniors learning to play tournament golf will often have enormous swings in their scoring. They might shoot 67 one day and 79 the next. These are players who probably aren't protecting their scores, but are instead playing with effort and risk. They probably drive their parents nuts and maybe even themselves, but they are on the right track. The junior who consistently shoots 72 to 75 is probably winning tournaments left and right, but the ability to go low is a learned skill and won't happen if a player protects her score.
Two groups never protect; those working to catch the leader and dominant players. If you're four shots back going into the final round, you have the mindset of doing whatever it takes to catch the leader. You might take more aggressive lines on holes or give your putts a chance to drop. You're willing to play with danger to achieve your goal of winning. With that mindset, there is acceptance of mistakes and recoveries allow the player to get back to the task at hand. Often, match play allows players to play without protection and it's a path to what is possible if that approach were consistent in stroke play.
Dominant players of every era seem to have a natural ability to stay out of the protection mode. They keep the pedal down and accelerate whenever possible. Their mindset isn't as much about winning as it is about playing their finest golf. Their mistakes are often big and costly, but they don't seem to be as bothered and are often known for their recoveries as well as their good shots. Tiger, Phil and Lorena come to mind as players who didn't play to protect. Earning a good check isn't the goal and success for these players is the W. When the W is out of reach, you can often see the motivation lag, but the mindset doesn't change much.
If you want to find a way to score under pressure and go low, you will have to learn to play without protecting your score or your ego. Here are some things you can do to work toward this goal:
Pre-shot Routine: Choose what you want. This sounds simple, but so often, players talk or think about what they don't want. After you choose, commit to it and hit the shot. If you can't commit to it, you're probably still worried about outcome and safety. The best thing about playing tournament golf is, you don't know what will happen. If you want security, you've chosen the wrong sport. Accept that and commit to what you want.
Post-shot Routine: Accept what you did and refocus. Players who play to protect against a big number are often the ones who make a big number after a mistake, because they have a hard time forgiving themselves for the mistake and are slow to recover. Dominant players love the challenge and understand they created the opportunity to show their skills.
Execution: Hit the shot that's called for in the moment. Players who protect want to be comfortable and secure, but great golf is about creativity and learning to hit shots you fit to the situation. Players winning at the highest levels of the game will do whatever it takes to get the ball in the hole. I often hear coaches or parents say to never hit a shot that you haven't mastered, but I completely disagree. Cookie cutter swings and straight forward shots are rarely what garners you a win. Learning to curve the ball, use any club in your bag around the green and seeing exactly what you want to do with the ball are more commonly what will earn you a trophy. Here are a couple of extreme and fun examples.
The point of these shots is, the greatest players create what is needed in the moment. They don't get in the woods or into a tree and say, "How'd I get here?" Instead, they say, "How do I get out of here and score?"
Mindset: This is the toughest thing to change, but probably the most important. If you're a competitive golfer, there will always be something to lose. It might be a simple bet or it might be a major championship, but whatever there is to lose will always lurk in your mind when you get out of the moment. Dominant players don't allow what they have to lose to dictate their decision making or their play. If you listen to the announcers on any weekend, they will knock the risk taking leader each and every time, but they should actually be lauding them for keeping their style intact when it matters most.
As a coach or parent, you will walk a fine line between teaching your student strategy on the course and not teaching them to protect. Your cues need to come from what you want to see, not what you don't want. You must accept effort mistakes and teach recovery. You need to coach away from security and green light danger when you know your players have the skills to pull it off. If they don't pull it off, you can't judge the player, but you can judge the play. What shots are needed under pressure to get it done next time?
No matter what sport you play, there will be times when you will want to protect your lead, your position or your score, but as soon as you do, you will stop your own momentum. There isn't security in being a leader and yearning for safety or comfort won't get you to the top. Play the game for what you want and accept what happens. That's the simplest way to view playing without protecting.