Are you a negative golfer? How to put an end to first-tee nerves

Golf Tips

Do you play golf racked by self-doubt, negativity and first-tee nerves? Of course you do. Fear not, help is at hand from European Tour psychologist Lee Crombleholme...

If money was no option I would work with a sports psychologist as often as humanly possible. My general feeling before a round is one of dread – which is odd given golf is my favourite hobby by some distance, my biggest release from having three very small children, and is also, of sorts, my job.

The fear is partly due to the unexpected nature of what’s to come but mainly the very strong likelihood that, in four hours’ time, I will have made the same mental mistakes that I have spent the past 30-plus years making.

Certain situations, for example the first tee, are de rigueur, so breakfasts or lunches at a golf club will be spent casting a suspicious eye over someone’s shoulder at what lies ahead at the opening hole – words might come out of my mouth but inside I will be chatting away to myself over where the best miss is and, wait, is that a white post nestling in those trees?

And that is just one shot. For four hours my antenna is up as my eyes dart from one fairway to another, warning sounds going off in my head when water appears from three holes away and, even when the putts are dropping and the chat is jogging along, I am still stuck with myself and the interminable babble of negativity in the quiet moments.

So I spoke with Lee Crombleholme, who works with a whole host of European Tour professionals. He had just returned from Austria where his stable consisted of James Morrison, Richard Bland, Graeme Storm, Alejandro Canizares, Haydn Porteous, Matt Baldwin, Paul Waring and Lee Slattery before jetting off to Erin Hills with Ross Fisher.

Surely he might make sense of what I (and you, yes you) have to go through on a weekly basis…

Why do I play a sport I love with such dread?

Put simply fear comes from a perceived threat, it doesn’t have to be real. For club players in the club championship, that perceived threat might be that they will never win it or simply that their handicap might go up 0.1.

What happens to all of us on the first tee?

This is a big one. People go into fight, flight or freeze but that is just part of the human experience. Have you ever felt first-tee nerves?

Yes.

Have you ever felt fine on the first tee?

Occasionally.

So what’s the difference?

The perception of others. If I was teeing off first in a group of 16 friends that would be far worse than going off last…

That is something that you have created yourself – your fear is an emotion created by thought rather than the situation.

You can say to yourself that you just feel uncomfortable and that can play it down a bit. When you are fearful you see the shot that you don’t want to hit and the one that embarrasses you so I get my players to ask what a good shot looks or feels like.

Stand behind the ball and ask yourself the question. Channel the focus back into what you want to do rather than what you don’t want to do…

Every player has felt fear and still hit a good shot so it is possible and you can undermine that fear. Fear is labelled as a negative emotion but you don’t have to hit a bad shot so if you can change your perception of what you are capable of then that increases the chances of hitting a good shot.

Jack Nicklaus would often talk of loving that feeling on a Sunday afternoon in a major. You can turn threats into opportunities.

I was at Wentworth this year and one of my players saw it as a threat that the course was easier than it has been as he liked the grind and the higher scoring of it so we had to change his focus to what was good about the changes.

1st tee

A lot of us will play better when having a laugh, is it as simple as that?

Maybe. But if you perceive that you only play good golf when you are having fun, and then you’re not having fun, you might think that this means that you won’t play well. If you get a flat tyre on the way to the course, it doesn’t mean you will play badly. How many people have, say, a bereavement or an injury and then play great.

Why do we all obsess so much about our score?

People put a lot of self-esteem on the result. We attach our well-being to the score, it’s an ego-based mindset, when the focus should be on the best you can do for you rather than always comparing ourselves to others and trying to beat everyone else.

If we do that we will be in trouble as you can’t control what they do. The game wants to draw you to that. We put our scores down after every hole, then we add them up after nine and then after 18 and then put into a computer. We also spend a lot of time watching others play.

Why, maybe half a dozen times during a round, do we persist on hitting the wrong club/shot when we know full well it’s the wrong club/shot?

Tour players do it but they have a caddie to work through the decisions and they will stop them hitting the wrong club/shot too often. Amateurs are bad at playing what I call Hollywood recoveries.

You have to accept that you are going to hit some bad shots and, actually, it’s OK to do that. You’re an amateur, you’re playing for alleged fun and enjoyment and if you are off, say, 10 then you might hit four or five bad shots per nine. You have got to be honest with yourself, if you hit a bad shot then go easy on yourself.

Finally, how do we play with freedom and not racked by the fear? 

Try using the quiet eye technique and focus both eyes on a dimple ALL through the shot. You might put a pen mark on the ball so focus on that. If you can do that then that will help you to block out the other thoughts and you have to do it all the way through the shots.

Lee is the founder of Winning Golf Mind. Visit their website for more information on how to get in touch. You can follow them on Twitter, @WinningGolfMind.

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