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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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Instruction

WATCH: Two drills to help you stop hitting it fat

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Here’s a response to a question on my Instagram page from Neil Riley. He asked if he should steepen the angle of attack in the downswing in order to stop hitting fat shots. In this video, I share two of the reasons why golfers might be hitting fat shots, as well as two drills to practice that will help them stop hitting it fat.

 

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Changing your golf swing? Consider this before you do

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Golfers I have taught over the years have an almost uncanny ability to put the golf club on the ball (to varying degrees, of course). I have seen well-hit shots from an incredibly wide variety of positions. I’ve seen closed faces, open faces, steep swings, flat swings, outside-in paths, inside-out paths, slow and fast swings, strong grips and weak grips ALL hit the golf ball solidly at times. How? Well, thinking about this may very well help your swing, especially before you decide to change something in it. Let’s take a look at a few examples to explain.

Strong Grips/Closed Clubfaces

We’ll start with the example of a strong grip that tends to get the clubface quite closed to the arc in the swing and at the top of the swing. If that is left alone in the downswing, the shots are very predictable: low and left (for a right-hander), sometimes barely getting off the ground. But many golfers hit the ball in the air and straight with a strong grip; in fact, many hit high blocks to the right. How? Well, they open the face on the way down and usually “hold on” through impact. They adapt to the closed clubface to make it work, and that’s the point here.

Now, if they reach good impact consistently like a Dustin Johnson, Graham McDowell and several others do with a closed clubface, we have no problem. But often club golfers do not; in fact, many slice and top the ball from a shut face at the top.  They do so because opening a closed face is a very shallowing move and prevents one from releasing the club properly (it’s a power outage as well).  Functionally, however, opening a shut is far better than releasing it from there, for obvious reasons. If the trail hand pronates, the face goes from closed to really closed. So golfers simply learn to open it.

So along comes some well-meaning friend who says your clubface is really closed at the top. You look at many great players, and sure enough, your face is clearly shut. So you correct it. What happens next is also very predictable: high and very right, and very thin with many topped shots. Why? Because you only corrected part of the problem. You fixed the shut face, but now you’ve taken a square clubface and massively opened it as a force of habit. You have ingrained that move into your swing because you had to open your old, shut clubface in the downswing. Correcting only ONE thing made your swing worse. Your swing is now dysfunctional.

That’s why if you commit to one change for the sake of improvement or consistency, you have to commit to both changes. If you don’t, you’ll get worse… not better.

Steep Swings

Here’s another: many amateur players start the downswing with the golf club far too steep. Maybe it’s over the top, maybe not (you can be just as steep from inside the ball). But when the golf club is too vertical in transition, it can result in any one of a number of impact mistakes: namely fat, slices and toe hits. So the idea of “flattening the transition” (good idea) becomes your priority, but there’s always a catch. Most experienced golfers correct steep through one of a few different ways listed below:

  • Raising the hands (standing the club up) to avoid fat shots
  • Tilting the torso back or away from the target to avoid opening the face
  • Sending the hands away from the body to avoid toes hits
  • Raising the swing center

You get the picture here. You learn to get the club on a better plane (flatter with the butt of the grip pointed more at the golf ball), but you’ll likely still have one of the “fit-in” moves left into impact. So a flatter club, which is by far a better way to square the face, might result in a shank if you’re used to sending your hands away from your body to avoid a toe hit. Raising the hands might top. Tilting the torso back away might hit shallow fats or tops. So you fixed the steep transition, but your impact is worse! Again, you’re dysfunctional.

Remember, if you commit to one change, you MUST commit to both.

Weak Grips/Over-The-Top

One more: Golfers who start out with a weak grip (as most do) slice. So as a reaction, they come over the top and swing outside-in. So they fix the grip, and of course, the result is predictable. They pull the ball, generally low and left (for right-handers). You get the pattern here. They need to learn a new swing direction, and on and on.

The lesson is clear; a single correction of a swing issue can be sufficient, but in my experience, two corrections must be tackled for long-term improvement. What to correct first? Well, you’d have to consult with your teacher or coach. As a rule, I try to get better impact first if I can get someone there from where their swing is now. Some other teachers may prefer a different sequence, but I think they’d all agree that a two-part correction is ultimately in the works.

I’ve always believed that teachers can disagree widely on the prescription, but they should be pretty much in unison regarding the diagnosis. Learn the swing flaw AND your reaction to it before you decide to make a swing change.

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How to use your handicap to lower your scores

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The fastest way to improve the game of an amateur, or a handicap golfer, is to use the established handicap as a guide to direct and then to measure that improvement. The measurement component is simple; as the game improves, the handicap goes down. Using the handicap as a guide is a bit more complex because the player must be dedicated, determined and disciplined enough to stay within the improvement process. And before I share with you the process, I want to share the foundation, or the rationale, that makes it work.

“Placing the ball in the right position for the next shot is 80 percent of winning golf.”

— Ben Hogan

Not all that long ago, I was present when a friend of a client of mine was complaining that no matter what he did with practice or lessons he just wasn’t getting better. He said that if he could just break 90 once he could “die a happy man.” It sounded like an opportunity to be of service to me, so I agreed to a playing lesson. The short version of that lesson was I told him what to hit and where to hit it — and he shot 87.

Was he happy? Not on your life! Angry, not quite… but really upset. Why? The poor guy said he didn’t have any fun!

The day of the playing lesson, I met the player on the range while he was warming up. I observed that he should never hit a driver, so I didn’t let him. I observed he couldn’t hit a long iron, so I didn’t let him. I had him tee off with a six iron on the par 4’s and 5’s, which he hated. And if he could have controlled his putting distance a bit better he wouldn’t have three-putted three times. No penalty shots, no water balls and no OB’s. All we did for 18 holes was try to put the ball in play and to keep it in play. He hated it. So much for dying a happy man.

During this playing lesson, I used the player’s handicap as a guide to maximize his playing ability, and I used his ability to help him make the best score he could at that time. So how did I use his handicap? I could see this player was no better than an 18, so I added one stroke to the posted par for each hole. Par 3’s became Par 4’s. Par 4’s became Par 5’s, and Par 5’s became Par 6’s. Once his par was established, he played each hole to get on the green according to that par adjustment. For example, the 210-yard par-3 became a 210-yard par-4. So instead of trying to get on the green from the tee, we used a strategy to get on the green in two and then two-putt for a 4, or “his par.”

I advocate every player use this handicap game-improvement system. A 15-handicap adjusts 15 holes so his par changes from 72 to 87; an 8-handicap adjusts eight holes so that his par changes from 72 to 80. I use this process for plus handicaps and professionals as well. A plus-4 adjusts four holes so his/her par changes from 72 to 68. Using this mindset, my playing lesson shot 3-under his par of 90.

I’ve had clients cut their handicaps in half in just a few months by adherence to this process. It works in lowering scores because it eliminates most “unforced errors,” and about half of all dropped shots at all levels are a direct result of unforced errors. Unforced errors occur when something is attempted that the player can’t do or shouldn’t do. The fewer unforced errors per round, the lower the score. It’s as simple as that.

I strongly urge golfers to chart each round of golf in order to identify every unforced error. Just email me at edmyersgolf@gmail.com and I will send the game-improvement scorecard that I have my clients use to evaluate their performance.

Posting lower scores is how handicaps go down, and all handicaps plateau when the player is faced with the realities of what he/she can and can’t do. For example, an improving handicap golfer may require the need to use clubs or hit shots not previously necessary. The playing experience reveals what needs practice, and practice is where the player should learn what can and can’t be done. Rule of Thumb: if you can do it 7/10 times in practice, you can consider doing it in play.

In the opening paragraph, I stated that dedication, determination, and discipline are required to stay within this improvement process should the player decide to implement it. But I should have said it takes a whole lot of all three. Experience tells me that players say what they feel, but do what they want. Neither is a plan for progress.

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