During the night session on the Arthur Ashe Stadium, Nadal beat Golubev with a 6-3 7-6 (7/1) 7-5 victory.
A player ranked 98th in the world who recently ended an 18-match losing streak on the ATP World Tour did not sound like the most testing of opponents for the world number two, but that was doing the Kazakh a disservice.
If Nadal is a player who plays with a healthy margin for error, Golubev is precisely the opposite, but he possesses one of the biggest forehands in the game and it was a shot the Spaniard was to learn a lot about.
Nadal has had a shaky time since losing the Wimbledon final to Novak Djokovic and he was broken in only the fifth game. But that merely fired the second seed up and he promptly reeled off four games in a row to clinch the set.
It was Golubev who was dictating play, though, and he put himself in a winning position in the second set as he moved into a 5-2 lead.
And he should have levelled the match but he blew a 40-0 lead and five set points in all in the same game as Nadal broke back, and the Kazakh then missed another two chances on his opponent's serve.
The Spaniard made it four games in a row with another break as Golubev got involved in his other favourite sport, arguing with the umpire, and, even though the outsider forced a tie-break, he rather fell apart to allow Nadal to move two sets up.
Golubev continued to mix thumping winners with wild shots but there were enough of the former to put him two breaks ahead in the third set.
It looked as though this time it would be enough, but Golubev could not find the big shots when the crunch moments came and Nadal sealed victory with a trademark forehand winner down the line, setting up a second-round clash with Frenchman Nicolas Mahut.
Nadal's serve was broken six times, once more than in seven matches when he won the title 12 months ago, but the Spaniard was content with his start against a difficult opponent.
He said: "I was practising very well all week. For sure I was nervous. That's normal. It's normal to start the tournament like this with some nerves.
"And what happened today, he didn't help because he played very fast all the time. All the shots, he was trying to hit a winner on almost every shot. So it was difficult for me to find the rhythm.
"But it's a positive start winning in straight sets, even if it was unbelievable that I won in straight sets. But it is a victory in straight sets.
"I'm happy for the victory. I'm happy to come back to New York. I think I didn't play that bad. But the mental part was positive tonight. The tennis for sure can improve. I have to play a little bit more inside the court. But I am confident I can do it."