By Kim Constantinesco

You can be the most talented golfer in the world with a mechanically perfect swing, but if you don’t tap into your potential at the right time, the game can get ugly.

Thoughts, decisions, and feelings set up each swing; the foundation upon which tournaments are won and lost.

On the PGA Tour, the mental “game” is so strong that players are not only able to correct their thoughts on a dime, but they can block them out entirely so that the natural intelligence of their bodies takes over. In fact, in the seconds leading up to a golf swing, many Tour players say that their minds go “completely blank,” even on their first shot of a tournament.

For a sport in which awareness is imperative, oddly enough, performing with an empty mind is what sets golfers up for success.

A Blank Slate

James Hahn doesn’t remember his first PGA shot. He can’t tell you what club he used or if he hit the fairway. He doesn’t even remember who he was paired with. All he knows is that he was playing in Hawaii at the Sony Open. The lack of recall wasn’t due to nerves, either.

“I was unusually calm for me,” the 34-year-old said from the 2016 AT&T Byron Nelson in Irving, Texas. “I’d been waiting for the opportunity my whole life. I had already played that first shot on the PGA Tour so many times in my mind, it was fairly easy.”

Today’s first tee shots continue not to faze Hahn, even with all of the potential distractions.

“You have to shake hands with your walking scorer, and sometimes there are honorary observers that walk with the group, who you have to introduce yourself to,” Hahn said. “You have to get your scorecard and make sure the balls are marked. There are so many things that while you’re doing them, you can get in the zone, so that you’re so focused that everything else just fades away.”

AT&T Byron Nelson defending champion, Steven Bowditch, and 2011 Masters winner, Charl Schwartzel, agree.

“Good thoughts and bad thoughts spring through your head a minute before your first shot of a tournament, but in the 30 seconds before you hit, it’s just full clarity and your muscle memory takes over,” Bowditch said. “Honestly, if anything is in your head, it shouldn’t be in there.”

“Nothing is running through my brain,” Schwartzel said. “I think there are some things in this game you can’t explain. It’s the way it should be. Otherwise, people will try to make things happen and that’s when you’ll get it wrong.”

The key seems to be keeping things in perspective and realizing that the first shot of a tournament isn’t weighted more than other shots.

“The first shot isn’t any different than the twelfth shot on the third day,” Jason Gore said. “They all count the same. A tee shot on No. 3 on Thursday means the same as the last putt on Sunday, if you really look at it.”

Great mindset from a guy with 12 professional wins under his belt.

Letting it Come

The ability to reduce anxiety, critical self-talk, and negative stories golf’s best create about themselves is what separates them from the rest, and there’s no one strategy that works for everyone. One common thread, however, is that everyone has some sort of stress reduction tactic when they’re on the first tee box.

Controlling one’s physiological response through deep breathing is a popular option.

“I try to inhale for five seconds and exhale for five seconds,” 25-year-old Danny Lee said. “I’ve been working on that with a sports psychologist, and it’s been helping a lot.”

Jason Gore from the Byron Nelson

Jason Gore from the Byron Nelson

“You want to exhale as close as you can to the moment of impact [with the ball],” 19-year pro Mark Wilson offered.

“You’re always going to take a breath,” a very centered Jerry Kelly said. “Breathing is, by far, the best stress reduction. Breath is oxygen, circulation, and energy. It’s everything.”

Others downplay the importance of the moment, and prefer to take a more hands-on approach.

“The last thing I do on the practice range is try to hit a shot I’m going to hit on the first tee,” Australian Matt Jones said. “It’s just a golf shot. It’s either going to be good or it’s going to be bad. It’s not that stressful.”

Albert Einstein wasn’t a golfer, but he once said, “The intuitive mind is a scared gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

That lesson isn’t lost on golfers.

“Fred Astaire used to have a dance studio and he put chalk down to practice his dance moves, but once the music started and he was with Ginger, he just danced,” Jason Gore said. “That’s the way I try to do it. On the driving range, you put your chalk down and practice your dance moves, but once you get to the first tee, you go dance.”

And that’s how the best get it done.