Most of the time, when we hear of a player collapsing under the pressure of tournament golf, the breakdown happens somewhere late in the event. Maybe it's a final-round stumble (see Rory McIlroy's final round at this year's Masters), an errant shot that leads to a big score, or sometimes a lapse in concentration that leads to a careless mistake a la David Toms, who, at this year's Players Championship, missed a short easy putt to stay in the playoff. (He hadn't missed one that short all week, and played brilliantly up until that point.)
These late-round blunders may have cost some players a few victories, but what about players who struggle early on? Early, as in, before they tee off? You probably don't hear much about that, since most television broadcasts catch players as they make the turn and play the back nine. It may surprise you, but even better players sometimes struggle to feel comfortable before they tee off. Some players actually lose the tournament (or at least fall down the leaderboard) because they're not mentally fit to play that day.
Point being, the first tee is an anxious place for just about everybody. No matter how well you hit balls in your warm-up, you never really know what kind of day you're going to have until you finally tee off and head down that first fairway. Unfortunately this nervous reaction causes tension and quick swings early in the round. Being at your best on the first tee requires some mental muscle and a way to let out the nervous energy. First, before you tee off, focus on your goal for the entire round, not just the first tee shot. Don't be nervous! Instead, I teach my students to be excited before they play and realize that the first tee shot is one of many for the day. It's at this moment where you want to trust your ability and trust your normal shot pattern. Once you do that, shift your focus to the process of the shot instead of the potential consequences of where that first tee shot may go. The process includes verbalizing and visualizing the exact shot you want to achieve. For instance, you might say, "I'm hitting a driver toward the right center of the fairway with a 10-yard draw." This focuses your mind on a single, positive intention, instead of the distraction of what could go wrong. In other words, don't get ready to tee off and think, "I hope this goes straight, not into the trees or out of bounds." That kind of negative thinking will lead to poor shots! The key is to stay positive. Think positive and you're more likely to see positive results more often.
Once you have your mind set on a positive outcome, it's time to get your body relaxed and ready with a physical drill. I like to warm up with this clap drill to remind me of the proper impact position, and it works wonders to let go of that nervous energy. To start, address the ball as I'm doing here, without a club and with the hands pressed together. From here, keep your gloved hand still and start rotating your body back and let your ungloved hand swing back with your body. Once you reach the top of your swing, your gloved and ungloved hands should be in line with each other, pointing at or just behind the golf ball. From here, swing down and through, and be sure to keep your left hand in the same position. At impact, clap your hands! This drill not only helps you stretch and release tension, but actually helps you from a technical standpoint, too, by training your body to remain stable at impact and rotate more effectively. When doing this, I feel relaxed and I'm accelerating my right hand to squarely clap my gloved hand. When done correctly, I feel the stretch of the backswing and freedom of letting my right arm swing freely on the downswing. I take this feeling to the first tee to keep me relaxed and committed to the first tee shot, as well as the first few holes during my round.
Give this drill a try the next time you're feeling tense or anxious before your first tee shot. It will help distract you from thinking negatively and relieve some of that unwanted nervous energy. Then come time to tee off, stay positive! Even if you do happen to hit less than a perfect first tee shot, don't fret. The game is played over 18 holes, and there's plenty of time to recover. Have fun, stay positive, trust your swing and, most of all, enjoy your round!
Rick Sessinghaus, Psy.D., PGA, is known as "Golf's Mental Coach" and is the author of Golf: The Ultimate Mind Game. He's director of instruction at Chevy Chase CC in Glendale, Calif. His website is ricksessinghaus.com.