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Even the Best Players get the Jitters

Written by Charlie Epps on 01 March 2009.

Raise your hand if you've never been nervous on the first tee before any type of even semi-important golf tournament.

Raise your hand if you've never been nervous over your opening drive on the first weekend money game you've played against your buddies after some time off from the game.

I doubt many of you lifted your hands. I know for sure that the honest ones among you didn't. First tee jitters happen to everyone, and I mean everyone.

Last month, I made some predictions for the 2009 golf season. I predicted that Phil Mickelson would win the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black.

Well, last month I was in Scottsdale for the FBR Open. I went out there to work with Angel Cabrera, my student, my compadre and the 2007 U.S. Open champion. Prior to the first round on Thursday, Angel was practicing right next to Mickelson. So, every now and then, I checked out Phil's swing—I wanted to see if my prediction was on target.

Mickelson was striping it on the range. He didn't miss a single shot. I talked to Butch Harmon, Phil's teacher, about Phil's game, and Butch said Phil is feeling great.

"He's feeling mean and green," Butch told me. "He's ready to go."

Angel was playing in the group behind Phil for the first round, so I made my way up to the first tee to check out Mickelson. I wanted to see him hit his first shot of the year. He gets up there and they announce his name, "Phil Mickelson, three-time major champion" and all that. There had to be 5,000 people on that hole alone, and the crowd roared when they announced Phil, who went to college down the road at Arizona State.

So Phil steps up and addresses his ball, and remember: he hadn't missed a single shot on the range while warming up. What does he do on the first tee?

He hits it dead out of bounds. Phil unleashed a nasty pull-hook that started right of right and ended up somewhere near Lake Havasu. It might still be bouncing around somewhere out there in the desert. The crowd went "Ooooh" in disapproval. Phil didn't play well that day. Finished with a 76, and the next day's 73 wasn't much better. He missed the cut.

That's golf. It happens to everyone.

It made me think back to a Houston Open I played in back when it was at The Woodlands. I approached the first tee feeling great, thinking I was about to throw down a great round. I was pumped and ready to go.

I stepped up full of confidence and promptly cold-topped my opening drive. Dribbled it a few yards in front of me. I was horrified, and I got the same "Oooohs" from the crowd like Phil did...but what no one there knew was that I went on to par that hole after topping my drive.

The point is we're all starting a new golf season. We're going to hit some bad shots. The best way to combat the situation is to just step up and go at it again. It's no big deal, and we all need to remember it happens to everyone. Sometimes the nerves take over and the ball goes places we don't want it to go.

So don't worry about it when it happens to you. It just happened to the No. 3 player in the world in front of 5,000 people...and I still say he's going to win the U.S. Open this year.