You get to your golf course early. Hit a large bucket of balls, work on your chipping and pitching, then then putt for 20 minutes. You’re fully warmed up, mentally comfortable and step to the first tee. You then proceed to knock one out of bounds or cold top your tee shot. Or worse yet, you hit the fairway and lay the sod over your approach shot. What went wrong? Why are you so out of kilter? Has this ever happened to you?
A lot has been written about the first tee jitters, but this is more than combating nerves. It’s about conditioning your mind. Most of last season, and early this year, I was plagued by these poor starts, but I’ve learned there are several tricks you can play on yourself to ease the transition from warm up to game time.
Don’t discount the need to warm-up physically, and you should experiment to learn how many swings you need. When I was younger, I would often start my round just as the sun was coming up but without the benefit of any warm up. I’d notice that it took about four holes until I had my golf senses fully activated and I was in rhythm. Doing the math, I figured this came out to about 12-15 full swings. Now, I’ll stretch, and hit a minimum of 15 balls (five sand wedges, five 7-irons, and five drivers) and that’s what I require to get loose. Then, I’ll start work on the mental side by simulating play of the first two holes of the course using my full pre-shot routine. I’ll sight targets with my range finder, check wind direction, pull the right club and hit. In essence, I’m getting my brain into game mode from warm-up mode. This is an important concept because most folks rake range ball after range ball when practicing or warming up. When you rake, there’s little focus and no consequences. Hit a bad shot and just pull another. During the simulation, you pressure yourself to hit a good shot. This is what most players struggle with on the first hole because their brains are in rake mode, not consequence mode. Get to consequence mode and you’ll feel more relaxed. You should feel like you played your course but reversed the nines. You want to feel like you are hitting your tee shot on #1 with nine holes under your belt.
Next, I’ll move to the putting green and roll putts of various lengths for about five minutes. Then I’ll take one ball and start playing holes. The key is to make it hard on yourself. Start with a 50-foot putt from the fringe. Mark your ball, go through your full pre-shot routine on every putt and hole everything out. Don’t worry if you three-putt because the goal here is not to score but to feel some pressure. Make all the starting putts difficult. Use big breakers, downhillers, and long uphill putts. This is game mode.
Both the physical and mental warm-up are important. Most courses have a practice putting green where you can do the majority of your work. But some don’t have a driving range. The next best thing to driving balls is hitting bunker shots. It’s essentially a full swing and the impact of club into sand will jar your golf muscles and senses into order. Hit 10 or 15 bunker shots and you’ll be close to warmed up. With no bunker, try hitting pitch shots and then playing a short game of up-and-down.
The key is to trick your mind into thinking you are in game mode during warm-up. These are the techniques I’ve successfully employed. Give them a try and let me know if they work for you.