We introduced ourselves to our caddies, and the three gentlemen in our foursome teed off - all respectable, middle-of-the-fairway drives. Then it was my turn.
I walked up to my red-marked tee box and set the ball down with trembling fingers. I'd never played golf in Scotland before. I'd never played with caddies before. I'd never played with a gallery watching - a crowd had congregated at the first tee, as tourists tend to do at one of Scotland's most famed links.
I took a mighty backswing, and off went the ball ... straight into the gorse 30 feet ahead. A hush fell. I turned red.
"Ach, first-tee jitters," my caddie clucked sympathetically.
The lad might have been right. It might have been first-tee jitters. Or it might have been the fact that at the time I'd only been playing for a few months and hadn't quite worked out the kinks in my drive.
But six years have passed since then and I've spent a large percentage of those six years improving my game. So why is it that when I step onto the first tee, I still find myself shaking like I did that day at Carnoustie?
I'm not the only one with this problem. Admit it: You've had the jitters yourself, haven't you? Playing in a big tournament, teeing off with unfamiliar partners or, say, golfing with your boss can bring on a case of nerves faster than Hollywood marriages hit the skids.
Searching for a magic pill, I've been asking the three P's - pros, players and psychologists - what can be done. Sadly, I have to report that no such pill exists. We're human, and humans get nervous under stress.
The good news is there are a few techniques that can help out when you find yourself shaking like the proverbial Polaroid picture. Here are some of the most effective golf tips I've found:
Slow down. John Marino, head professional at Old Chatham Golf Club in Durham, N.C., says the best way to combat first-tee anxiety is to take it down a notch.
"Take deep breaths as you get into your stance. Slow your mind and your swing down," he says. How slow? If you feel like you're swinging in slow-motion, you're probably just slow enough.
It's all about the pre-shot routine. "In high-pressure situations it's easy to forget your pre-shot routine, but it's the most important thing," Marino says. "The pre-shot routine is the best way to get into the right frame of mind."
Focus on your shot, to the exclusion of everything else. Don't let yourself get distracted by your partners, your scorecard or the cell phone ringing in the distance. Think about making a nice smooth swing and nothing else. Picture yourself making the right swing, then execute.
Use your anxiety to your advantage. "You can ease first-tee jitters, but you can never get rid of them. You just learn to control them and use the anxiety to your benefit," Marino counsels.
"Use it as a motivator. Think to yourself, 'Everybody's nervous, but I'm going to be less nervous. I'm going to do my routine, make a nice smooth swing, and hit a nice solid shot off the tee.'"
Try a relaxation drill. Matt Cuccaro, a sports psychologist and director of mental training at the International Junior Golf Academy in Hilton Head, recommends a technique called progressive muscle relaxation. A few minutes before you tee off, wrap your hands around the grip of your club, grip it as tight as you can, then relax.
"Everyone gets butterflies. It's part of being human," Cuccaro says. "What you want to do is get your butterflies to fly in formation."
Trick your brain. Fiona Vick, a sports psychologist who works with Cuccaro at the IJGA, advises players to start with perfect practice swings. "Your brain doesn't know the difference between a real shot and a practice shot," she explains. "It just wants to do what it did last time. So start with good, crisp practice swings."
It works after bad shots too, she adds: "If you make a bad shot, reset your brain by making some good practice swings immediately afterward."
If all else fails, remember that one shot does not make the round. Consider the worst-case scenario: You hit a bad shot. So what? You'll probably hit lots of them during the round, and so will everyone else. Shake it off and move on.
It helps to remember that you're not the only one. Even PGA pros get the jitters. Just ask Darren Clarke, who famously said before the 2004 Ryder Cup Matches, "It's very nerve-wracking on that first tee for everybody, all of the players, with no exceptions."
Clarke's advice was so simple as to be poetic: "Get to the toilet before you play."
November 20, 2006
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