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Calm those nerves: Even for seasoned pros like Annika Sorenstam, first-tee jitters can be intimidating

By Katharine Dyson, Special Contributor

Annika Sorenstam is now 37 years old and has more than paid her dues to her profession. Why wouldn't she want to move on and do what so many young women dream about: have their own family and the time to enjoy it?

Teeing Off
On the first tee you might feel like you're under more scrutiny that you really are.
Teeing Off

Certainly she doesn't need the money, nor the fame. After a brilliant 15 year career, she has all that. Still, I along with so many other fans, will miss her. Just when the competition between her and Lorena Ochoa was heating up and more and more people were flipping the remote to LPGA Tour events, we hear this is her final season. I'm sad about this, but I understand. Even for her, the clock is ticking.

Annika is a class act. I once asked her why she thought more women didn't play or stopped playing. Her answer: "Time constraints." We also talked about the intimidation factor, something even she relates to.

Remember in 2003 when she was playing as the only woman in the PGA Tour's Colonial Golf Tournament in Fort Worth, Texas? After sending her first drive soaring straight down the middle, she dropped her shoulders feigning a crowd-pleasing, little, weak-kneed wobble as she walked off the tee. Heaving a great sigh that she was safely off, those of us watching realized that, "Hey, she is human after all."

Talking about that day she said, "I was extremely nervous. I didn't want to let myself down. I didn't make the cut, but in my mind I know I can. That doesn't mean I want to do it again."

To put it all in perspective, if Annika, one of the top women golfers in the world with 88 career wins, can summon up a little respect for the first tee, is it little wonder that we mere mortals struggle with it? Even the most confident of women can get all tied up in knots when they find themselves on the first tee, especially when playing with men or someone they don't know very well or want to impress.

As I walk up to the tee, my heart starts beating a little faster as I begin a lineup of mental games to overcome the feeling of utter panic. Will I embarrass myself? Top the ball? Shank it into the rough? Dribble it 10 yards off the mound? The pressure of it all.

No matter how many times I have stepped up to the tee, I have yet to hit that first drive with total confidence. I know it's a head problem, and I'm working on it. Wondering how other people dealt with this bugaboo, I asked around.

I was surprised when my 7-handicap friend, Sam, said, "Am I nervous? Always." I was surprised, because Sam always seems so cool.

"Really. What do you do?"

"I try to think, 'Sam you idiot, just hit it easy, smoothly.' I try not to think of anything else. I focus."

Sally, another cool friend who plays to a 12 handicap, told me, "I hit it then forget about it. I think, what's the worst thing that can happen?"

Then I was chatting it up with another friend, a macho-type 5 handicapper who plays at sun-up each morning so he won't have anyone in front of him. He said, "Oh sure. Oh yeah. I have it. But I chalk it up to nervous excitement. I try to make good contact so I don't make an a&#^# out of myself. I say 'Please, God, just let me hit it.'"

The only one who didn't admit to being the tiniest bit nervous on the first tee was my husband. But that's him. Once, when the stove caught on fire, he said, "Think we may have a bit of a problem here," while I was racing to get the extinguisher and dial 911.

Then I asked my pal Laurie who plays to a 25. "Me? I hate the first tee. I beg for mulligans."

Over the years, I've learned a few tricks. If the fairway is tight, I tee off with the club I feel most confident with. It used to be my 4 iron, now it's my 3 TaylorMade Burner hybrid. As my confidence builds, I switch to my 3-wood then my driver. Good equipment helps.

I try to concentrate on just swinging easy, to take lots of practice swings until I am relaxed. I try to breath in deeply on the upswing, breath out with a whoosh on the downswing like golf yoga instructor Katherine Roberts suggests. "When your body is under stress, you go into a fight or flight response as your body floods with adrenalin," explains Katherine.

"Your heart rate becomes elevated, your breathing more rapid. The only way you can control your heart rate is to control your breathing. Applying the principals of yoga, you learn to step back, take a couple of deep breathes and go on from there."

Of course, my friend Paige says, "Just get up and hit the ball. Don't practice much. Don't take too many swings. Just hit it. Otherwise, your head becomes part of the game. Take your mind away from thinking about bad shots ... then you can be good."

I think she's wrong but then you have to know Paige. She hates to practice. She didn't even see the point of a church rehearsal the night before her wedding.

And let's not forget the pre-shot routine. I didn't have one last year. Now I do. Having a pre-shot routine is calming. It helps you to focus. If you don't already have one, get one. If you don't know what it is, ask your pro.

Another thing: If you have a choice, go first and try to remember that by tomorrow, no matter how stupid a drive you make, that will be history, and you will be on to other things. Like shopping.

Or listen to Annika: "In golf, people get nervous, anxious - it's a matter of controlling it and using it to your advantage. With time, with experience, I've a better understanding of myself. I love the feeling of coming down the stretch, and I have to hit that great seven-iron or make that 10-footer. That's what I live for."

Katharine DysonKatharine Dyson, Special Contributor

Katharine Dyson is a golf and travel writer for several national publications as well as guidebook author and radio commentator. Her journeys have taken her around the world playing courses and finding unique places to stay. She is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, Metropolitan Golf Writers of America; Golf Travel Writers Organization and Society of American Travel Writers. Follow Katharine on Twitter at @kathiegolf.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • first tee technique

    Sarah Christensen wrote on: Aug 24, 2008

    I teach my clients proper breathing techniques which really help relieve stress, not just on the first tee, but also in putting.
    Whatever you do, don't hold your breath! Before teeing off, a deep, full inhale/exhale will relieve stress which reduces the amount of tension in your muscles, also giving the added benefit of additional rotation.


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