One: A Golfing Philosophy
The greatest pleasure is obtained by improving.
-- Ben Hogan
Why does my first session with a player usually last two days? I take this much time in part because I prefer not to jump right into a discussion of the particular problem that brought the player to me. I like to have a general discussion of the client's and my own basic ideas about the game of golf. In my less modest moments, I think of these ideas as a philosophy of the game.
I don't care if my client thinks of them as a philosophy or merely as a set of ideas. I do care whether he or she subscribes to them. If we can't come to agreement on these fundamental principles, it's much less likely that I can help the client. If we do see the game in roughly the same way, it becomes much easier to solve the specific issue that's troubling the player.
To begin with, I believe golf is a game of both confidence and competence. I am not about to tell anyone that a player who lacks physical skills can transform himself overnight into a winner by changing his thinking. If you trust a bad swing, it's still going to produce bad shots. (Though it will produce fewer of them than it will if you don't trust it.) You have to attain a level of physical competence to play well.
Having said that, though, I believe it's impossible to overestimate the importance of the mind in golf. There is no such thing as "muscle memory." Your muscles have no capacity to remember anything. Memory resides in your head. Therefore, no matter how long you practice a golf swing, no matter how skilled you become at it, your muscles alone can't remember it and execute it when the need arises on the golf course. Your muscles and the rest of your body are controlled by your mind. Unless your mind is functioning well when you play golf, your muscles are going to flounder. If your head is filled with bad thoughts, your scorecard is going to be full of bad strokes.
I'm not sure, actually, where the body ends and the mind begins, and I don't believe anyone is. I don't know where the soul and the spirit are located in a human being, but I know they exist. I think it's more useful to consider a human being, and a golfer, as a seamless organism. Your golf swing will not work well if it employs only the torso and not the legs. The torso and the legs are part of an integrated system, and all the parts of that system have to function in order to hit a golf ball. In the same way, what we refer to for the sake of convenience as your body and your mind are in reality parts of an integrated system. All the parts of that system must function properly in order to play golf well.
Golf is a game. It's not a science experiment that can be completed in accordance with immutable physical laws. It's not a jigsaw puzzle where the pieces are designed to fit together and yield a perfect picture. It's a game, and it must be played.
Because it's a game played by human beings on God's green earth, golf is a game of mistakes and unpredictable fortune. If it were not, no one would ever miss a fairway, a green, or a putt. On top of that, there would be no sudden gusts of wind, no unfortunate bounces, no imperfections in the turf. Every ball would go exactly where you wanted it to go, and the winning score in a golf tournament would be something like 50 strokes per round.
If you truly love golf, you must love the fact that no one shoots 50, that golf is an inherently imperfect game. If you spend your time fighting the fact that golf is a game of mistakes and trying to make it a game of perfect shots, you're really saying that you don't like golf. You want it to be some other game -- billiards, maybe. No one has ever perfected golf -- not Ben Hogan, not Jack Nicklaus, not Annika Sorenstam. I don't believe anyone ever will.
The players I see trying to force perfection into golf don't look to me as if they're having a very good time. They think that when they finally get the game down perfectly, they'll be recognized and adored for it. I envision them as 90-year-olds, still wondering when the game will come together perfectly. In the meantime, they've played countless rounds with scowls on their faces. They walk off the course looking frightened, unhappy, frustrated -- looking like anything but an individual who's just spent four or five hours playing a beloved game. They look like they've just stepped out of a Siberian prison camp instead of a golf course.
These might be people who will spend hours talking about how much they love the game. But when they get honest about their feelings, they'll admit that while they might love reading about golf, swapping stories about golf, even practicing golf, they don't actually love playing golf, at least not while they're doing it. After a round, they're still consumed by tension and anxiety. They're unpleasant to be with.
If this is your attitude toward golf, why would you make it your hobby? Still more, why would you make it your profession?
Golfers who truly understand and love the game accept it, rather than fight it. They realize that the essence of golf is reacting well to its inevitable mistakes and misfortunes. They know that they can separate themselves from their competition, not by perfecting their games, but by constantly striving to improve and reacting well to mistakes. I remind players that if there's one thing they should always be proud of in their golf games, it's how well they react to mistakes. I tell them that they will never have complete control of the golf ball. But they can control their attitudes.
The biggest mistake most people make is to respond passively to what happens on the golf course. They let how they play dictate their attitude. If the ball is going where they want it to go, they have a good attitude. If it isn't, their attitude is bad. They start thinking badly. When you're playing well, it's fine to go with the flow. But when you're playing badly, you need the discipline to control your thoughts and think only about the way you want to play.
Mastering this concept goes a long way in determining two critical outcomes. One is how good a player is going to get at golf. The second is how much fun he'll have along the way.
Golfers who have fun along the way understand that golf is first a game you play within yourself. You win that game by resisting all the mental temptations and pitfalls I'll be discussing in more detail later in this book. You win it by bringing both your mind and your body to bear on the test of golf as well as you possibly can.
Golf is the most honest of games in that you can't lie to yourself about how well you're doing in that personal game. The great players I work with are usually brutally honest about what went on in their minds during a round. I sometimes have happy professional clients talk to me after they've shot 75. Of course, they understand that 75 isn't a good score for a professional golfer. But they're happy with the way they played. By "the way they played," I don't mean how many strokes they took. I mean that they're happy with the attitude they maintained during the round, with their concentration, their focus, their thoughts. A player can control those things. He can't control his score.
Conversely, I've had clients shoot 65 and tell me very candidly that they were exceedingly lucky to do so. It can happen for a round or two. Maybe a player gets good bounces. Maybe he sinks some putts with less-than-trusting strokes because he misread the green. For a round or two, a player might get away with thinking poorly, but he knows that it will catch up with him. So it's quite possible that a player who shot 75 will be cheerfully optimistic about his game, and a player who shot 65 might be concerned.
I'm particularly impressed when this happens because another part of my philosophy is that a player is not the number at the bottom of his scorecard. A player's worth as a person is not directly correlated to the score he or she shoots. A golfer whose mood and self-esteem are determined by the score he shoots for a given round or tournament has a very superficial approach to both life and golf. On the other hand, a player has to care enough about the scores he shoots to want to practice and improve. Otherwise, he's wasting my time and his money talking to me.
I want players to understand that while it's important to have dreams and goals in golf, the pleasure comes from chasing those dreams more than it does from catching them. I can't guarantee any player that his dreams will come true. I can't predict when they'll come true. What I can guarantee is that a life spent chasing dreams is a life well spent. Anyone who does this will get to the end of his days and look back with a smile. He will have had a ball. Once a player understands this, it gives him remarkable peace of mind. He can weather the inevitable downs in a game of ups and downs. He doesn't get critical or judgmental about himself. He knows that in the end, things will turn out well. He's an optimist.
There's a difference between chasing dreams and daydreaming. Daydreamers sit on the couch and think that it would be nice to be winning tournaments, or scoring in the 70s. But they do nothing about it from one round of golf to the next. Consequently, they never improve. There's no satisfaction in that.
Golf is full of fine lines and balances. The idea that you mustn't define yourself by your golf score, but at the same time must care about it and want to improve it, is one example. Another is the balance between being a sponge and being bullheaded.
The sponge is a golfer who listens to anyone and everyone who wants to offer advice about his game. One week he's convinced that the action of the hands is the key to greatness. The next week it's the ratio between his shoulder turn and hip turn. Pretty soon, the sponge is so full of conflicting ideas that he can barely start the club back. He's thinking too hard, trying to sort out all the advice he's gotten.
The bullheaded player doesn't listen to anyone. He's uncoachable. He's been doing it a particular way for a long time and he likes doing it that way, even if he rarely breaks 90.
A successful golfer has to find a balance between the two extremes. You have to be true to your unique personality and skills, to relish the quirks that set you apart from others. You've got to love doing things your way. You have to love your talent and your game more than you love anyone else's. But you have to be amenable to improving your game. To be a great golfer, it's very important that you're self-reliant and have the ability to function independently, make decisions for yourself, and trust your instincts. But in order to get to greatness, you're going to have to surround yourself with some good people, people who will offer advice and help. On the amateur level it might be a club pro whom you respect, and trust, and make the only teacher you listen to for help on your swing. On the professional level it might be Butch Harmon or David Leadbetter. You're going to have to learn that there's a time to listen to such people and a time to be self-reliant. You'll have to learn the difference.
You must take responsibility for the talent you have. I dislike it when someone says to me, "I don't have the talent to be No. 1." I dislike it just as much when someone says he hasn't got the talent to win his club championship or to have a single-digit handicap, or to break 90. The fact is, we don't know exactly how much talent anyone has. Talent is a mixture of physical and mental qualities that is immeasurable. When people think of golf talent, they think of Annika Sorenstam. But I don't know how physically talented Annika is. It's no knock on her to observe that I don't know of any other sport she's great at. She's great at golf because she devoted her time and energy to it, obviously. Whether she could have gotten great at any other endeavor is something we may never learn.
The question is not whether you have great talent, because we'll never answer that definitively. The question is whether you're willing to put in the time and energy to develop the talent you have. Sometimes a player will tell me that "If I had Tiger's (or Phil's or Davis's) talent to go along with my attitude, I'd be awesome." I always disagree. I disagree because I believe a great attitude includes loving your talent above anyone else's. It's part of the foundation of a great attitude.
You must also find a balance in your life. I know very few people who manage to keep their lives in any sort of rigid, systematic balance. I smile when someone tells me he's got his life broken down into blocks: eight hours for sleep, eight hours for work, four hours for family, three hours for golf, and maybe an hour for working out. Real people are always out of balance in some way. Maybe one month they're so immersed in work that they don't find enough time for their families, their golf, their fitness. But they recognize the imbalance and correct it the next month. Maybe the period of imbalance is much longer -- measured in years, rather than weeks or months. It's fine for an aspiring professional to devote five, seven, or ten years to improving his golf game and establishing himself on the Tour, almost to the exclusion of all else. But at some point, the balance must be redressed.
On the golf course, there's a fine line between playing to play great and playing recklessly. A reckless player hits his driver off virtually every tee. He fires at sucker pins he has no business aiming at because he's convinced that's what playing to play great is all about. It isn't. A player who's playing to play great loves a great drive more than he fears the rough. He likes making putts more than he cares about three-putting. He loves chipping it in more than he loathes not getting up and down. But he may have a conservative strategy for certain holes. The conservative strategy is what permits him to always make a confident, even cocky swing. When the moment is right, when he's got a scoring club in his hands, he takes dead aim at the hole. But only when the moment is right.
The player who plays to play great understands that good can be the enemy of great. He knows that if he gets too concerned about not being bad, he might not free himself up enough to be great. He doesn't care very much about making cuts or Top 20 finishes. He plays to win.
If he does this, he controls his destiny as a golfer. I want clients to understand this. They have free will. The choices they make with that free will determine the quality of their golf game and the quality of their lives. If you consistently make the right choices, you're destined for greatness. I'm not suggesting that this necessarily means you're going to win all the Grand Slam tournaments or all your club events, or even all your Saturday morning Nassaus. I'm saying that if you make the right choices, you will someday look back on your life, or that part of your life that was devoted to golf, and say, "Wow! That was great."
Thoughts to Play By
Golf is a game, and it must be played.
Let your mind control the ball. Don't let the ball control your mind. You may not always control the ball, but you can always control your attitude.
Love your talent and your game more than you love anyone else's.
Good can be the enemy of great. Always play to play great.
Improve by working on both your physical skills and your mind, because golf is a game of both confidence and competence.
There is no such thing as 'muscle memory.'
If you truly love golf, you must love its inherent imperfectability.
The essence of golf is reacting well to the game's inevitable mistakes and misfortunes.
The biggest mistake most people make is letting what happens on the golf course control their attitudes.
A player is not the number at the bottom of his scorecard.
The pleasure of the game comes from chasing dreams more than catching them.
You control your destiny.
Copyright © 2004 by Robert J. Rotella
Introduction: My Top Ten
All of the rings and all of the money and all of the color and display -- they linger only in memory. The spirit, the will to win and excel, these are the things that endure. The quality of any man's life is the full measure of his commitment to excellence and to victory, regardless of what field he might be in.
-- Vince Lombardi
I teach the psychology of greatness. The way I teach it varies.
When I first begin to work with a client, I like to arrange for him or her to come to my home in Virginia. We spend a couple of days together, some of it in conversation and some of it on the golf course. I get to know the client thoroughly. He is immersed in my ideas about using the mind to achieve greatness, about playing to play great, about bringing the best possible attitude to play and practice.
After that, the nature of my contact with my clients may change. Some of them still like to come to Virginia periodically for a long session. But others prefer shorter talks on specific issues and problems that have arisen in their careers. I might meet them for lunch or dinner in a town that's hosting a golf tournament. We might chat on the putting green or the practice range. Sometimes we talk over the phone while he's in a hotel room and I'm at an airport.
This book is akin to that second category of counseling sessions. In fact, it arises partly from them. When I talk to a player who says, "Doc, I'm having trouble trusting my swing," I review the fundamental ideas about the necessity of trust and why it helps a golfer produce the best shots he's capable of making. Players have often wished I had a book, a handbook if you will, that could serve the same function and reinforce those conversations. This is that book.
If you're completely unfamiliar with sports psychology as I teach it and with its application to golf, you might want to consult one of my earlier books, like Golf Is Not a Game of Perfect. It's my primer on how great golfers think.
Often what I hear from readers of those earlier books is something to the effect that, "Your ideas were really helpful right after I read them, Doc, but lately they don't seem to work well." What that tells me is not that the ideas have gotten less effective. It tells me that over time, the reader has forgotten some of them. Or he's reverted to old ways of thinking, perhaps without realizing it.
This doesn't surprise me. The players with whom I work individually are prone to the same problem. If the issue is trusting the swing for instance, they might be able to do it very well in the months after we have our initial session. It's one of the things I stress. But over time, a golfer is exposed to a barrage of contradictory ideas. People are telling him to think about the way his hands cock the club or the ratio between his hip turn and his shoulder turn. If he's a professional, he gets this sort of advice from renowned instructors on the practice range at Tour venues. If he's an average player, he gets it from magazines and television. Pretty soon, instead of trusting his swing and thinking about his target, he's thinking about pronation while he's on the golf course. He's trying to swing while his mind sorts through bits and pieces of conflicting advice. That's difficult to do.
When this happens with one of my established clients, I review the essentials with him. This book is an effort to do the same thing for readers. It's a distilled version of what I teach.
So often, in those telephone sessions, I return to ten fundamental points of good golf thinking. If Moses hadn't already copyrighted the name, I would be tempted to call them my ten commandments for playing great golf. I know that if a player adheres to them, he can find out exactly how low his skills are prepared to take him on any given round. Here they are:
I. Play to play great. Don't play not to play poorly.
II. Love the challenge of the day, whatever it may be.
III. Get out of results and get into process.
IV. Know that nothing will bother or upset you on the golf course, and you will be in a great state of mind for every shot.
V. Playing with a feeling that the outcome doesn't matter is almost always preferable to caring too much.
VI. Believe fully in yourself so you can play freely.
VII. See where you want the ball to go before every shot.
VIII. Be decisive, committed, and clear.
IX. Be your own best friend.
X. Love your wedge and your putter.
These ideas may sound obscure or strange to you. If you finish reading this book, they won't. I intend to explain each of them, and by the time I'm done, you will understand why they're so important. I hope you'll want to re-read them often.
The first person who suggested the format for this book to me was the late Davis Love, Jr. He and I worked together on the staff of Golf Digest Schools before his tragic death in a plane crash in 1988. He told me once that he wished there was a book of instruction on the mental side of golf, broken down into topics. He thought that a player could carry the book with him or keep it close by. When he needed to refresh his thinking about a particular issue, he could consult the book, read it for a few minutes, and come away with sound advice aimed at his problem. Not only do I owe the idea behind this book to Davis Love, Jr., I owe him so much more. He taught me a lot about golf, and he was a great friend. That's why the book is dedicated to him.
I hope readers will use this book as Davis Love, Jr., envisioned. You might want to read it in its entirety first. After your first consultation, I intend the book to be available as a handbook. You may want to consult some chapters, like "A Golfing Philosophy" on a regular basis, because it's so easy to lose track of the fundamental ideas in that chapter. If you're getting ready for a tournament and you feel the need for some advice on putting, for example, or acceptance, or game plan, you can go right to the chapters on those topics. Read as much as you need. Use the thoughts at the end of each chapter for a quick refresher. Put the book aside and come back to it when you need it again.
Sometimes people ask me if I teach psychological "techniques." I don't. The word "technique" suggests to me some sort of mental parlor trick. I don't want you to have faith in a technique. I want you to have faith in yourself. Your mind can be a powerful tool that will help you realize your dreams and aspirations. But you have to control it and use it properly. You have to coach yourself. You have to believe in yourself.
What I teach is both simple and difficult. It's simple, for instance, to say that you have to be committed before you start your swing, that doubt and indecision can ruin a shot. But on the course, it's not so easy to be committed. It takes discipline and practice.
The fact that it's hard is one reason it's worthwhile. Having control of your mind and using it properly can separate you from the competition, whether it's at your club or on the PGA Tour.
I believe that virtually every golfer has the potential to be much better than he or she is, and that using the mind is one essential way to improve. You will never know if you have the ability to be the best player in the world, or the best player in your club, unless you commit yourself to developing both your physical and mental skills. This book can be part of that commitment.
"Commitment" can be an imposing word. It can suggest that using your mind properly is an onerous chore, that you might shoot lower scores, but enjoy the game less. Trust me. The players I know who have the best minds also have the most fun playing golf. They understand that it is, in the end, a game. They have a ball finding out how good they can be at it.
So can you.
Copyright © 2004 by Robert J. Rotella