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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: What to do when you’re short sided

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Top-100 instructor Tom Stickney shows you how to avoid compounding a mistake when you’ve missed the ball on the wrong side of the green.

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Why flaring your left foot out at address could be a big mistake

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In his book “Ben Hogan’s Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf,” published in 1957, Ben Hogan recommended that golfers position their right foot at a 90-degree angle to the target line, and then position their left-foot a quarter of a turn outward at a 15-degree angle (Note: He was writing for right-handed golfers). The purpose of the left-foot foot position was to assist in the “clearing of the left hip,” which Hogan believed started his downswing.

Through this Hogan instruction book and the others he wrote through the years, there four categories that defined his advice;

  1. He accurately described what was occurring in his swing.
  2. He described a phantom move that never occurred.
  3. He described something that occurred but to a lesser degree than indicated.
  4. He inaccurately described what was happening in his swing.

As evidenced by today’s modern video, Hogan did not open up his left hip immediately as he described. This piece of advice would fall into the fourth category listed above — he inaccurately described what was happening in his swing. In reality, the first move in his downswing was a 10-12 inch shift of his left hip forward toward the target before his left hip ever turned open.

SPINNING OUT

Those amateur golfers who strictly adopted his philosophy, opening the left hip immediately, ended up“spinning out” and never getting to their left foot. The spin-out was made even worse by the 15-degree angle of the left foot Hogan offered. That said, based on Hogan’s stature in the golf world, his advice regarding the positioning of the feet was treated as if it were gospel and adopted by both players and teachers. Since that time his hip action has been debated, but the positioning of the left foot has remained unquestioned — until today.

THE FLARED FOOT POSITION

The flared position of his left foot may or may not have been of assistance in helping Hogan achieve the desired outcome in his swing. That really is not the point, but rather that over a half-century there has never been a voice that argued against the flared foot position he advocated.

The rest of the golf world accepted his advice without question. In my opinion, the left foot position advocated by Hogan has harmed countless golfers who slowly saw their swings fall apart and wondered why. His well-meaning advice was a poisoned pill, and once swallowed by golfers it served to eventually erode what was left of their left side.

DEAD WRONG

The subject of this piece is not to debate Hogan’s hip action but the piece that accompanied it, the 15-degree flare of the left foot. I’m of the opinion that it is not only wrong. Because of its toxic nature, it is DEAD WRONG.  The reason has to do with the tailbone, which determines the motion of the hips in the swing. The more the left foot opens up at address, the more the tailbone angles backward. That encourages the hips to “spin out” in the downswing, which means they have turned before the player’s weight has been allowed to move forward to their left foot and left knee.

As a consequence of the hips spinning out, players move their weight backward (toward the right foot), encouraging a swing that works out-to-in across the body. You can see this swing played out on the first tee of any public golf course on a Saturday morning.

FOOT FLARE ISSUES

The problem with the 15-degree foot flare is that it promotes, if not guarantees, the following swing issues:

In the backswing, the flared left foot:

  1. Discourages a full left- hip turn;
  2. Encourages the improper motion of the left-knee outward rather than back
  3. Reduces the degree that the torso can turn because of the restrictions placed on the left hip.

In the downswing, the flared left foot: 

  1. Promotes a “spinning out” of the left hip.
  2. Does not allow for a solid post at impact.

STRAIGHT AHEAD

In working with my students, I’ve come to the conclusion that the most advantageous position for the left foot at address is straight ahead at a 90-degree angle to the target line. The reason is not only because it encourages a positive moment of the player’s weight forward in the downswing, but it also improves the player’s chances of making a sound backswing.

THE POWER OF THE LEFT HEEL

There is an inherent advantage to placing the left-foot at a 90-degree to the target-line. It is the strongest physical position against which to hit the ball, as it provides a powerful post at impact that serves to increase both power and consistency.

JACK NICKLAUS

A number of years ago, Jack Nicklaus appeared on the cover of Golf Digest. The byline suggested that in studying Jack’s footwork, they had discovered something that up to that point was unknown. The “secret” they were describing was that after lifting his left heel in the backswing, he replanted it in the downswing with his heel closer to the target line than his toe. The intimation was that this might be a secret source of power in his swing.  This was hardly a “secret,” and something that Nicklaus was probably unaware of until it was pointed out to him, but it’s a demonstration of the fact that his natural instinct was to turn his foot inward, rather than outward, on the downswing.

THE DISCUS THROWER

The discus thrower whirls around in a circle as he prepares to throw. On the final pass, he plants his left toe slightly inward, relative to his heel, because this is the most powerful position from which to cast the discus. This position allows the thrower to draw energy from the ground while at the same time providing a strong post position from which additional torque can be applied. The point is that as the discus thrower makes the final spin in preparation for the throw, he does not turn the lead foot outward. Why? Because if it were turned outward, the potential draw of energy from the ground would be compromised.

The same is true when it comes to swinging a golf club for power, and you can test the two positions for yourself. After turning the left foot into a position that is 90 degrees to the target line, you will immediately note the ease with which you can now turn away from the target in addition to the strength of your left side post at the point of impact. Conversely, when you turn your left foot out, you will feel how it restricts your backswing and does not allow for a strong post position on the downswing.

REPAIRING YOUR SWING

Do you have trouble cutting across the ball? You might look to the position of your left foot and the action of the left hip. The first step would be to place your left foot at a 90-degree angle to the target line. The second step would be to turn you left hip around in a half circle as if tracing the inside of a barrel. The third step would be to feel that you left your left hip remains in the same position as you scissor your weight towards your left toe, and then your right heel, allowing the club to travel on the same path. The combination of these changes will encourage the club to swing in-to-out, improving the path of your swing.

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Instruction

WATCH: Over-the-top vs. over-and-through: 1 destroys a swing, 1 can save it

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This video is about OVER-AND-THROUGH, which is very different than being over-the-top. Over-and-through is a great recovery from a backswing that is not quite in the right position. Over-the-top is flat-out a full default to the ball. See how you can bridge the gap with getting your swing to deliver better to the target!

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