Golf Jitters: Painful and Agonizing, But Reparable

Will Leivenberg@@will_leivenbergFeatured ColumnistNovember 24, 2009

UNITED STATES - APRIL 26:  Phil Mickelson during the first round of the EDS Byron Nelson Championship on the Tournament Players Course and Cottonwood Valley Course at TPC Four Seasons Resort Las Colinas in Irving, Texas, on April 26, 2007.  (Photo by S. Badz/Getty Images)
S. Badz/Getty Images

The only way I ever made it off the tee successfully was with my own, patented, swing.  Of course that was only after my personally constructed pre-shot routine. 

Don’t be fooled, a man’s swing thought is a precious thing and can never be revealed.  But a pre-shot routine, well that’s a whole different set of clubs. 

On an objective level, it appears almost foolish, even ridiculous, that a tiny, white ball can generate such tension, confusion, and intimidation in golfers. And yet everyone, from the pros to Joe-shmo’s, has their own approach to quelling the intense mind and body absorbing jitters in golf, whether on the first tee or standing over a three-foot putt on the 18th hole. 

For some it’s a hip wiggle and others a slight push forward of the hands.  Some people have a specific image they need to visualize whereas others choose not to think at all.  But really: What is it about golf jitters that spook golfers to the point of almost entirely missing the ball and effectively shattering their confidence for the rest of their rounds?

The theory that appears to most resemble reality is that the first tee creates an inner-struggle for golfers because of the infinite realm of possibility. 

Literally, the ball could go anywhere. 

For any golfer who has hit on the driving range, we have all "tried something different" and then seen the ball exit the driving range fence and crash into a backyard. 

Or perhaps we rushed our swing a bit, only to find that after scanning the range the ball advanced only three-feet and sadly to the left.

The point being that while those shots remain meaningless on a driving range, they tend to, without reason or intent, rush to the front of golfers’ minds when on the first tee or when hovering over an important shot. 

I’m the guy you hated to watch on the driving range and then hated to play with on the course—why? 

I’m kind of like Charles Howell III: excellent driving range player, but a hardly above average on-course player.

On the driving range I felt bound by nothing.  Just pick a spot—a low shot 115 yards or a three-wood with a fade—you name the shot, I’ll find it in my bag.  But once I stepped onto the tee box, the golf course had a power over me.  It was as if the sand traps, lakes, and hazards became magnets for my golf ball. 

I don’t know if it was self-doubt or general nervousness, but I could rarely hit a decent shot on the first tee, forcing me to scramble back the rest of the round to remedy the mistakes of the opening holes. 

You’d think that after performing as Daddy Warbucks on stage in front of 350 people, making the game-winning three-pointer in a championship basketball game and pitching a shut-out in a playoff baseball game I would be prepared for being in the spotlight—nope. 

“And now on the first tee, from Sherman Oaks, California, Will Leivenberg.” 

In multiple tournaments, I vividly remember that as I bent to plug my tee into the ground, my legs would weaken to the point of tripping over myself, my arms would tense up and the sweat beneath my Titleist hat dripped relentlessly like a broken faucet.

If the physical aspect of first tee jitters wasn’t enough, the inner taunting and mental anguish swirling through my mind was almost intolerable.

“Don’t go right like you did in the practice round,” I’d tell myself, or “Remember to release the club after impact, but keep your head back.” 

My pre-shot routine was what ultimately became my backbone when on the first tee in the last few years I played competitive golf. 

I feel like I specifically combined the routines of Els, Goosen, Mickleson, and Tiger; four of my favorites.  I felt most similar to these champions in that I was long off the tee, but relied on my touch around the greens to score.  I can envision my pre-shot routine without any strain or effort at all because when I found what worked, it really became a natural component of my golf game.

In a way, I went through my pre-shot routine almost as if it were a checklist.

Once I found my spot in the tee box that lined up with the shot I wanted to hit, I would place my club just behind the ball to make sure my club height matched up with the height of the tee—check. 

I would take two very slow, deliberate swings in which I would try to feel every motion of every part of my body working together—check. 

Three steps to the left and I was directly behind the ball—check. The club is in my right hand, take a deep breath while viewing my battle ground—check.

As I exhale, I walk slowly into my stance—check. 

Go time: One look at my target, one look at the ball, a deep breath, and then comes the swing thought.

As mentioned, my swing thought is something I choose to keep private. But here is a glimpse into its origins .


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