Battling first tee jitters

This is a guest column by Jenny King, the Head Coach of the University of Akron Zips Women’s Golf Team in Akron, Ohio.

We can all dream of having our name atop the leader board one day.

We can all dream of having our name atop the leader board one day.

Congratulations! You just entered yourself in a golf tournament!  So what now?

That initial excitement when you press “Submit” after registering online or once you seal the envelope filled with your entry form is enough to send your adrenaline pumping through the roof! Now it’s time to get to work and get prepared.

I recently took the plunge and entered into a USGA Qualifier for the U.S. Women’s Amateur. It will quite possibly be one of the most pressure packed events that I have played in since graduating from college golf 13 years ago.  There will be a total of 68 players for this one day shoot-out, vying for 3-5 spots.

The other day, I received the tee times and field list. As I was skimming through the list, I notice a trend: these girls are GOOD! They represent colleges from all over the country.

I probably had the “Deer in Headlights” look as I was reading all of the names. However, I immediately gave myself two choices: I can be both intimidated and defeated before I start, OR I can accept the challenge, be grateful for the opportunity, and get to work. I chose the latter.

The King could probably find the fairway from the 1st tee in his sleep.  Some of the rest of us would be shaking like a leaf under similar circumstances.

The King could probably find the fairway from the 1st tee in his sleep. Some of the rest of us would be shaking like a leaf under similar circumstances.

I have no doubt that I will be very nervous when I tee off that morning. However, there are several steps that I will take to help those nerves subside. These are strategies and principles I incorporate into my own game and try to teach to my players at Akron to utilize.

1. Learn the Art of Acceptance

Remember that “Golf is Not a Game of Perfect”. Famous Sports Psychologist Bob Rotella dedicated an entire book to the subject, so it has to be something we all need to be aware of before and during a round of golf.

Golf is more a game of misses. The best players usually have the least punishing misses, but rarely does anyone play the perfect round. Misses are as much a part of the game as those perfectly struck shots. So, we must approach each practice and each round with acceptance.

There will be bad swings, bad holes, missed putts, and bad breaks when playing or practicing. Learning to accept those facts going into each day, we chose to pick up a golf club. Acceptance is calming. I tell myself that there will be bogeys, but stay patient, stick with my game plan, and birdie chances will come my way.

Even "Gentle Ben" lost his cool every once in a while.  But we can't dwell on our mistakes, because there will be more.

Even “Gentle Ben” lost his cool every once in a while. But we can’t dwell on our mistakes, because there will be more.

If we get angry every time something doesn’t go our way, or if we put a bad swing on a shot, it can be impossible to think clearly. Acceptance can relieve stress beforehand, and it is a lack of stress allows clearer thinking. Ultimately, it is clear thinking that can lead to a quick recovery when, not it if, mistakes are made.

Acceptance is a daily practice that requires as much a full commitment as a swing thought. With this one slight adjustment in your approach to practice, your enjoyment in the game will greatly increase.

2. Pre-Tournament Preparation

Obviously, it is important to practice and prepare for your tournament. However, most of us are not professional golfers.

We have full-time jobs or we are full-time students, like the college golfers I coach. Our time is limited, so we have to make our practices and preparations focused on quality. Below I have a set of 3 guidelines that I follow with my team when we are getting ready for our tournaments:

a. Do Not Neglect Your Weaknesses

One of my favorite coaches of all time, Pat Summit, once wrote, “Do the things that aren’t fun first, and do them well.” (Reach for the Summit) Not only is this a great thing to implement in your daily life, but it can also be implemented into your practice routine as well. Therefore, weaknesses must take precedence in our practice routine. Attack those weaknesses head on and watch your confidence rise!

b. Make Short Game a Priority

The first thing that will suffer from not practicing will be your short game. You will not last long in a tournament setting without having your skills around the green polished. The average amateur doesn’t spend near enough time on the practice green. Extra chipping and putting each day will go a long way for your confidence and scoring.

c. Simulate Tournament Conditions

The best way to simulate tournament conditions is to play, play, play. Use the course to your advantage. Nothing teaches golf better than playing the golf course and playing the ball as it lies.

Proper practice can ease the mind. If you step up on the tee and are conscious of the fact that you haven’t put in your best effort to prepare for the event, the nerves will be off the charts and it will be detrimental to your performance

3. The Importance of a Practice Round

There are reasons that PGA Tour professionals play practice rounds and take them seriously.

There are reasons that PGA Tour professionals play practice rounds and take them seriously.

I’m a big advocate for taking practice rounds seriously and taking detailed course notes. I had a smile on my face watching the U.S. Women’s Open on the final day when I saw eventual champion Michelle Wie looking through three yardage books before hitting an approach to one of the greens at Pinehurst #2. Not only did she have her own book, but she also borrowed Keegan Bradley and Ricky Fowler’s yardage books.

Some might say this is information overload, but to me, when you leave no stone unturned when learning about a golf course, you can almost enjoy a home course advantage. I’m not suggesting you play along with 3 yardage books every time, but take detailed notes, especially about the greens and specific targets to aim at off the tee.

4. Consistent Routines

Routines are very important for a golfer. They create a familiarity that can relax and get us into the zone.

Think about your drive to work each day. More than likely you take the same route every morning. More times than I can count I have arrived at work wondering if I even paid attention on my commute. The familiarity of the route zones us out.

It is the same with golf. A familiar, easy to repeat routine is a simple way to land “in the zone”.

a. Warm-Up Routine

Allow yourself enough time to warm-up before the tournament begins. Rushing through a warm-up can create way too much anxiety. Do not give yourself too much time to warm-up, either. Make sure this routine can be timed down to the last minute, so as soon as you are done with your warm-up routine, you head to the tee ready to play.

b. Pre-Shot Routine

It is also very important to have a pre-shot routine that is very consistent before every shot. When Tiger Woods is at his best, they say you can time his pre-shot routine and it is the exact same down to the last second. Now that is what I call the zone!

If you do the same thing, every time, over every shot, then that's one less thing to worry about.

If you do the same thing, every time, over every shot, then that’s one less thing to worry about.

Make sure your pre-shot routine includes deep breaths and positive visualization. See the shot before you hit it and take several deep breaths to help relax. These are easy techniques to add to your routine that will help battle those nerves on the first tee or any shot there after.

Battling the First Tee Jitters starts long before you actually step foot onto the first tee box. It begins the moment you sign up to play, be it in a tournament, with someone you don’t play with regularly, or when you are planning to play an otherwise important round or famous course.

That anxiety and nervousness continues each day leading up to the event. Quality and detailed preparation and routines can and will impact your game in a positive way. Your nerves will thank you for it and you will always enjoy the walk.

Jenny King, Head Coach of the University of Akron Women's Golf Team.

Jenny King, Head Coach of the University of Akron Women’s Golf Team.

A big thank you to Coach King for giving us all some great, sound ideas to help perform our best on the golf course.  You can follow her @ZipsCoachKing on Twitter.

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