01. You have to get excited. Listen, I get it. Nobody likes hitting a tee ball 40 yards dead left in to the gunch. But being a great escape artist begins with having a positive mindset. I've always been a big believer that bad attitudes make for bad punch-outs. When I would make the long walk from the tee box to the ball search area near the course's outer property line, I always made it a point to start imagining the opportunities that awaited me. Will I be stymied behind a tree, wide open, buried, plugged, unplayable, OB, lost....or worse? There's limitless possibilities and I think thats what makes it fun. You have an amazing chance to frustrate your playing competitors and wow onlookers by getting it safely back in play! Taking what others might view as a bad situation and salvaging a bogey with a high quality punch-out was the hallmark of my game and probably what I'm most remembered for.
02. When my punch-out game was on.......and I mean really on, patrons and playing competitors alike would stop what they were doing and watch my escapes. Low punches, medium trajectory, lofted wedge punch-outs over trees, it really didn't matter, the ball would almost always end up harmlessly back in the fairway. It got to a point in my prime where my punch-out game was so good that I could almost guarantee bogey or better no matter how off line my tee ball was. It wasn't uncommon for my playing competitors to sarcastically say "nice bogey" as they watched my tee ball sail 60 yards dead left because they intuitively knew I was going to make a great escape and salvage the hole. There are big hitters and there are short game wizards, but I can honestly say for a 5-7 year stretch I was the best punch-out player in the game.
03. Practice makes perfect. I took a lot of comfort and pride in knowing that I would never find myself in a punch-out situation that I hadn't practiced before. It's called preparation. Whether it was a left handed punch out from my knees to avoid a cactus or a belly punch out from under an abandoned car, I was never surprised because I had seen it before in practice. People still talk about the punch-out I made in the '92 Yucatan Masters while laying on my back with my ball suspended in an Acalypha bush. Was that a great punch out? Sure. But people don't realize I had practiced that shot hundreds of times prior to finding myself in that situation. I think that's what set me apart from my peers at that time. While they were busy dialing in their drivers and honing their short gmes, Ernesto and I were deep in the 'bush' putting in the work that very few other players were willing to commit to.
04. You've got to have a ball hawk as a caddy. Ernesto was like a hunting dog. I swear that guy could find a ball anywhere. Woods, weeds, desert, jungle, water, it didn't matter. I'll never forget the 18th hole at the '91 Los Mochis Masters where I hit a tee ball so far right it ended up in a pile of abandoned tires in a barrio adjacent to the club's swimming pond. A good four minutes in to the search and after removing at least 3 dozen tires, Ernesto somehow found the ball resting on a hubcap from a '71 Peugeot 304 Wagon. After an extended discussion with a rules official, I hit this great little 3-quarter punch-out back in play and turned what could have been disaster in to a double-bogey to miss the cut by 12. A good caddy can make all the difference.
05. Respect the roots. One of the biggest mistakes I see amateurs make when they attempt to punch-out is not taking in to account the topography and ground conditions under the ball. It's paramount. People sometimes forget that they're technically off the golf course. You have to respect the fact that you're in an area that has geology as its greenskeeper. I've seen more than my share of playing competitors sprain a wrist or injure a hand because they didn't respect the awesome power of the earth's surface. You have to be ready for anything.....roots, rocks, stumps, appliances, hard pan, rebar, cactus and play your shot accordingly. That's why my method of aggressively flinching just prior to impact eliminates any "surprises" at the moment of truth and cuts down on potential injuries.
06. It's always the smallest branches that get you. In the '95 Soledad de Graciano Sanchez all I needed to do was finish with a bogey on 18 to make the cut on the number and advance to match play. After blowing my tee ball dead left in to a Guarombo orchard, Ernesto found my ball and set me up for a very standard 'back to the target' one armed flip punch out. Perhaps it was a lack of concentration or maybe it was arrogance, but I didn't even notice the thumb size limb about five yards in front of me. Naturally, I clipped just enough of it to help careen my ball in to the Telmex corporate hospitality tent where I took an inadvertent illegal drop and ended up making quad. Moral of the story, respect every branch.
07. Never be embarrassed to putt it. I get it, nobody wants to be seen using a putter 170 yards from the green. But the name of the game is getting the ball back in play by whatever means necessary. I see players today try to hit the sexy shot instead of the smart shot and their scorecard ends up paying the price. Even though I am most known for my aerial punches, most people might be surprised to know that my first thought when I assess a situation is, can I putt it? That's why I had my tech team at RAM specially outfit my Zebra putter with 7 degrees of loft for just such occasions. It's these types of little things that gave me a leg up on my competitors when it came to punching out.
08. Enter and exit the woods with swagger. I made it a point to begin every ball search with extreme cockiness and arrogance. Whether it was berating a volunteer or blowing off a star struck child attempting to help me in the search, I wanted everyone to know that this was 'my office' and I'm busy at work. Once the ball was found, I liked to really make an 'over the top' production out of how difficult the shot was going to be. I might audibly complain about how bad the lie was or engage in a long discussion with Ernesto about how incredibly tight the window was I was attempting to go through. That way if I pulled the shot off I'm a heroic shot maker and if I don't, I get credit for attempting the near impossible.
09. Never take an unplayable. Listen, I'm the first to acknowledge that it's possible to get in some pretty tough spots off the tee, but I would always do everything in my power to avoid taking a penalty. You have to remember, my fans didn't come out and spend their hard earned money to watch me take drops. They came to see punch outs and I wasn't about to let them down. Did this get me in trouble on occasion? Sure. But the looks of wonderment on a young fan's face as I whistled a little hold off 6-iron straight sideways to the safety of the fairway made it all worth while.
10. When things go south, rapid fire. Every once in a while you'll get in to a situation where your first punch out attempt can put you in an even worse position. Whether it's a bad luck ricochet, a whiff, or an embedded ball that gets embedded even deeper. This is not a time to 'reset' and patiently go through a long drawn out process of evaluating your next shot to minimize the damage that has clearly already been done. It's time to rapid fire. The reality is that you had one chance to get out of trouble to save the hole and you blew it. At this point you'll be doing your playing partners and everyone else a favor by just taking indiscriminate rapid hacks at the ball until you finally escape trouble.