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5 ways to overcome your nerves on the first tee

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I have a recurring dream (seriously!) that I’m playing in some Tour event and my name is announced on the first tee. I wave, the crowd is on both sides of me, and I step up confidently, but I cannot get the ball to stay on the tee. Every time I try to tee it up the golf ball just falls off. Right hand… falls. Left hand…. falls. Both hands? Falls. Of course, I don’t know I’m dreaming, but I’m mortified. Well, thank goodness it is only a dream and it never became a reality. But I often think of this whenever I see some younger player or journeyman playing in a big event paired with a big name. I don’t know how they do it!

So imagine you’re magically transformed to the first tee on Sunday at Augusta National in your first Masters showing; you’re paired with your co-leaders Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. They both step up and rip it down the middle, 300+ yards, and the 20-deep crowd is roaring loudly. Now, it’s your turn… how would you handle it?

One of my close friends, Casey Wittenberg, has played Tour golf for the last 10+ years. You may remember him because of a top-12 finish at Augusta as an Amateur out of Oklahoma State, or maybe as the Leading Money Winner and Player of the Year in 2012 on Web.com Tour, or maybe you remember him as the guy paired with Tiger at the Olympic Club on Sunday at the 2012 U.S. Open.

Obviously, I watched intently during the Sunday final round, Tiger and my friend Wittenberg in a twosome; remember, this was Tiger in his heyday. Casey has the honors on the first tee and he steps up and rips one down the middle like he’s done a million times before. I think I was more nervous than he was. I couldn’t wait to ask him what he was thinking and how he put everything out of his mind to hit such a wonderful shot.

So in this article I want to share with you the things that he told me and how he coped with one of the biggest rounds of his life, with the biggest star of our generation, and under the intense pressure of the U.S. Open final round on TV for millions to see. Hopefully these thoughts help you with your first tee nerves; whether it’s playing in a tournament, or a golf league with your buddies, or with just the starter watching.

1) Slow Down

You must resist the urge to move too fast and let the adrenaline take over, which throws you out of your rhythm. Take a few practice swings focusing just on tempo. It may also help to get a song in your head that relaxes you. Your brain may be going a million miles an hour, but take a few deep breathes and slow down your thoughts and movements. It’s easy to let your swing get too quick on the first tee given the extra adrenaline and wanting to “get it over with,” so slowing down will help you hit a more relaxed tee shot that has a better chance of finding the fairway.

2) Put things into perspective

I know this is difficult to understand at the time, but a first tee shot counts just the same as any other shot throughout the round. Over the course of 18 holes, chances are that the first tee shot will have very little effect on your score or finish in the event. Whether you hit it in the rough, fairway, bunker or trees, you can still make par. And if you hit the ball out of bounds, well, you get an extra drive to warmup and get settled into your swing for the day and you can always make up the strokes throughout the round. One drive does NOT a round make.

Plus, if you duck hook it or slice it off the planet, now you know to make an adjustment for the day!

Perspective comes through experience and experience comes through mistakes and learning from them; I’ve learned that the less I worry about that first tee shot, the better drive I hit, and the more pressure I place on myself, the worse drive I hit. So why make that one shot such a big deal? Give yourself a break, it’s just one stroke.

3) Focus on your routine

All you can control is yourself and the ability for you to put yourself into a position mentally and physically where you have the possibility to hit a good shot. And the first thing you must do is focus on the things you can control, such as your routine… you know, the way you approach every single shot. It should be the same one you always do, take the same amount of time once you begin it, and have all the right pieces in place before you pull the trigger. If you re-arrange it or add another waggle or two, you will throw yourself off and diminish your ability to do what you know you can do.

Focus on what you can control and not the outcome.

4) Take a timeout if you need it

Yes, you must stay in your routine, but if you find yourself panicking or letting the demons take over, then back off and start again. Take a few deep breaths, or whatever you need to do to relax as best you can, then get back into your routine. As stated earlier, you have a high probability of moving too fast whenever you get nervous so “slowing down” might make you go back into your normal routine.

5) The first tee is all style points

No one remembers where you hit the ball on hole No. 1 when the tournament is over, they only remember the winner. No one cares about the guy who hit the pop up, or the 314-yard drive on the first tee. The first tee only gives you style points, not your final score. Hitting the fairway is nice, but it’s not a death sentence if you don’t. So relax… as best you can!

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Tom F. Stickney II is the Director of Instruction and Business Development at Punta Mita, in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico (www.puntamita.com) He is a Golf Magazine Top 100 Teacher, and has been honored as a Golf Digest Best Teacher and a Golf Tips Top-25 Instructor. Tom is also a Trackman University Master/Partner, a distinction held by less than 15 people in the world. Punta Mita is a 1500 acre Golf and Beach Resort located just 45 minuted from Puerto Vallarta on a beautiful peninsula surrounded by the Bay of Banderas on three sides. Amenities include two Nicklaus Signature Golf Courses- with 14 holes directly on the water, a Golf Academy, four private Beach Clubs, a Four Seasons Hotel, a St. Regis Hotel, as well as, multiple private Villas and Homesites available. For more information regarding Punta Mita, golf outings, golf schools and private lessons, please email: tom.stickney@puntamita.com

16 Comments

16 Comments

  1. Nigel Kent

    Jun 4, 2018 at 9:13 am

    I was by the left-hand rope where most 1st-tee drives finished in round 1 of the 2003 Open at Royal St Georges .Wet ,windy, a fairway 18 yards wide at that point,shaped like a hog’s back . Tom Watson hit his 2nd from about 8ft away , made par .Then up steps Tiger, hits a 2-iron into the wispy 12″ rough on the right. Ball-spotters, marshalls,30 or 40 people at the ropes, NOBODY saw it !While they’re searching Tiger & caddy wander as slowly as they can from the tee (5-minute search time doesn’t begin til they get there.) In the end it’s a lost ball , buggy-ride back , 3 off the tee , Tiger takes 7 (triple bogey).
    In the interview after his round Tiger just brushes it off with something like “If you told me I’d be 3-over for the round, I’d take it . It’s just that those 3 went on the 1st hole “

  2. CW

    May 14, 2018 at 6:07 pm

    I HAVE THE SAME DREAM!!! Not on a tour event specifically but certainly on a nice golf course with people I care about watching…

  3. Cam

    May 10, 2018 at 10:36 am

    I find picking a target in the sky above the fairway – like a cloud – is a lot easier objective to go for – just do a pre-swing towards it and it puts me in the right positions to get off the mark.

  4. ogo

    May 9, 2018 at 11:27 pm

    Take a good swig of bourbon whiskey and all your nerves will calm down… and many pros do just this …. believe it 😮

    • scotty

      May 10, 2018 at 10:22 am

      Aye…. a wee dram of Scotch whiskey will wash away all yer fears on the first tee … guaranteed.

  5. Joey5Picks

    May 9, 2018 at 3:54 pm

    “… and you can always make up the strokes throughout the round.”

    No, you can’t “make up” strokes. If you hit the first tee shot OB, then birdie the next 17 holes you didn’t “make up” for that tee shot. Your score is 2 strokes higher than it would have been, period.

    • Elliot mcdongle

      May 9, 2018 at 7:30 pm

      I think we all understand the “literal” sense of that. But if you parred 17 holes and doubled one, would you rather post the double bogey on hole 1 or hole 18? Probably 1

  6. OG Golfer

    May 9, 2018 at 3:17 pm

    Threesomes are a rare sighting on Sunday at Augusta… but I’ll try to imagine.

  7. Al Czervik

    May 9, 2018 at 1:14 pm

    Let me suggest #6: pregame heavily.

  8. TheCityGame

    May 9, 2018 at 1:01 pm

    You hadn’t come out of your dream when Tiger hit one 300 down the middle on 1 at Augusta.

    He’s the left trees like 10 times out of 10.

  9. Ron

    May 9, 2018 at 11:59 am

    I’ve found the first tee to always one of my better shots of the day because you can slow down your mind and body and let the adrenaline do the extra work. Focus on a smooth swing with good tempo and you’re golden.

    • James T

      May 9, 2018 at 2:20 pm

      Great point! This was also Jack Nicklaus’s advice… let the adrenaline supply the power, just make a smooth swing.

      For me, I like to yak it up and make jokes with my foursome to take my mind off the drive. I’ll be talkin’ right up to the final waggle. Almost always works.

  10. Xav

    May 9, 2018 at 11:06 am

    I would say playing a higher lofted club such as a hybrid, fairway wood or long iron off the first tee to have a higher probability of putting it into play. I found if I swing a hybrid off the first tee and remind myself to swing easy I usually get my round off to a good start. It may not be a high towering long drive but I get the mojo for the round flowing as opposed to making a higher risk, aggressive shot with driver. And inevitably shanking it. I would also add that one should also ignore what others are doing around you in terms of pulling driver. Stick to your strategy and strengths.

    • TheCityGame

      May 9, 2018 at 1:04 pm

      Have you ever teed off in a stroke play tournament on a 450 yard par 4 first hole and just watched the first 7 guys in your flight pound driver down the middle?

      And you’re going to punch a 4 iron out there 200 yards?

      The whole point of this article is to get away from having to do what you suggested.

      • Xav

        May 9, 2018 at 4:21 pm

        First Tee Jitters are first tee jitters regardless of the club you have in hand. You think Tiger wishes he could have some re-does with a more consistent club in his hand. No one wants to go OB and lose 2 strokes at the starting gun. I don’t care what the 7 guys in my flight have done an how well they striped it. It’s my match, my strategy and my end result that count.

        • 3PuttPar

          May 11, 2018 at 10:24 am

          Amen to that brotha! At the end of the day you’re playing the course (excluding match play). My strategy, go to a reliable shot/club that you know will take one side of the first hole out of play.

          I fade the ball with my woods and hit my long irons straight with maybe a baby cut. If I know I have room down the right, I’ll hit driver, 3 or 5 wood knowing that I’m 99.99% of the time not going left. If there’s trouble right, I don’t care if its a 600 yard par 5…I’m hitting 4 iron and keeping one in play.

          Get one out there that is playable. In this game, you’re only as good as your misses. Don’t let nerves on the first tee bully you into playing a shot that feels like a gamble.

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