Conquering First-Tee Jitters or How to Tee Off in Front of a Small Crowd


First-tee jitters. We all have had them. I believe this is a universal golf truth.

That includes the best players in the world, past and present. Players like Tiger Woods, who sets up to hit that baby fade on No. 1 at Augusta National in the Masters and yanks that first drive deep into the Georgia pines. Yes, even Tiger gets nervous. We’re all nervous on that first tee. And it can produce funny and not-so-funny shots.

The world’s top professionals have been known to shake on the first tee of the Ryder Cup. They’ve had trouble setting a golf ball on a tee. I know of one player—Miller Barber—who would not tee off when it was his turn. Instead, his playing partner, Raymond Floyd, had to step to the tee and strike the first shot of the 1969 Ryder Cup.

The first tee made me feel ill when I played in high school golf tournaments. There would be about two dozen players and coaches watching in the vicinity of the first tee as we teed off in our matches. My stomach churned and my head felt tight. I often had this panicky feeling that teeing off and playing in competition was a terrible idea. Why did I put myself through this? How could I expect to hit that small dimpled ball and send it where I wanted it to go?

The feeling would pass, but never soon enough.

The first tee has a powerful effect, even in a friendly foursome with no one else around. Have you ever endured that awkward moment when no one in your group wanted to hit first? I have on many occasions. Sometimes I have gone ahead just to get that first shot over with.

With the days getting longer and spring inching closer, soon many of us will be back on the golf course facing that opening tee shot. Inspired by The WORST-CASE SCENARIO Survival Handbook: GOLF, along with guidance from the pros, I offer the following thoughts and tips for surviving that first-tee gauntlet.

NOTE: Please don’t consider this to be a mandatory first-tee checklist. Take what helps; discard or put aside anything that hinders.

Warm up. Take some practice swings. Stretch. This increases blood flow. The muscles start to warm.

Relax. It’s the first of many shots in the round. Don’t rush. Don’t put pressure on yourself. Think smooth, like maple syrup.

Breathe. Take some slow, deep breaths. There’s probably tension in your body—physical tightness and mental nervousness. Take note of it. Embrace it. Then just breathe in and breathe out. This will help.

Have realistic expectations. You know your game. So if you hit your average shot off the first tee, that’s fine. No heroics required. And if you hit a poor-for-you shot, don’t beat yourself up. (Remember Tiger in the pine needles.) Your first shot is a starting point. Nothing more, nothing less.

Select the right club for you. Maybe it’s not the driver. Perhaps it’s a 3-wood or hybrid. That’s OK. Play your best game on that particular day. Don’t stress about what could be, or what others are doing or thinking. Pull the club and hit the shot that suits you.

Stick to your routine. As The WORST CASE SCENARIO Survival Handbook: GOLF notes, your “routine is especially important on the first tee.” So do your normal thing in terms of practice swings, address and more. There’s a sense of familiarity and comfort in your routine that will help you hit that first shot.

Don’t analyze your swing. Your body and muscle memory will take over, which is especially helpful if your mind and body are flooded with crazy thoughts and adrenaline when you’re standing on the first tee. Don’t overthink. Put yourself on autopilot. Tee the ball; hit the ball.

Focus on a target. Pick a spot where you want your ball to go. Picture that shot in your head. Not only can this help your outcome, it puts a positive thought and image in your mind.

Easy on the grip pressure. Consciously relax your hands on the club. Your grip will naturally tighten as you swing, so be sure not to grip the club too tightly at address, which is easy to do when you’re nervous. Too much grip pressure can put tension in your swing and make it harder to release the club.

Annika’s secret. If swing speed or tempo was on a scale of 1 to 10 scale, Annika Sorenstam always tried to swing at a 6. Not ever over-swinging—and especially not rushing it on the first tee—Annika was a pure ball-striker and arguably the greatest female player in the history of the game.

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Neil Sagebiel

Neil Sagebiel is a golf writer and author of two golf books published by St. Martin's Press, THE LONGEST SHOT and DRAW IN THE DUNES. He lives in Floyd, Virginia.

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