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Golf Is Not a Game of Perfectby Bob Rotella
On My Interprectation of Dreams
I have two things in common with Sigmund Freud. I have a couch in my consulting room. And I ask people to tell me about their dreams. But there the resemblance ends.
The couch is in my basement rec room, near the Grounds of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. The picture frames above it hold not the psychoanalyst's carefully neutral art but a print of a golfer swinging a mid-iron and a flag from the 18th hole at Pebble Beach, signed by Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Tom Kite. A four-and-one-quarter-inch putting cup, sunk into the floor, and a universal gym complete the decor. And no one lies on my couch. They sit, and we talk face to face.
Freud believed dreams were a window into the subconscious mind. From them, he spun a web of theory that, too often, boils down to a belief that people are the victims of circumstances beyond their control — of childhood traumas, parental mistakes, and instinctive impulses.
But the dreams I ask about are not the ones that crept from the unconscious the night before. They are the goals and aspirations a golfer has been carrying around in his or her conscious mind.
The dreams I want to hear of excite some fortunate people from the time they wake up each morning until they fall asleep at night. They are the stuff of passion and tenacity. They might be defined as goals, but goals so bright that no one need write them down to remember them. In fact, the hard task for the professionals I work with is not recalling their dreams, but occasionally putting them out of their minds and taking some time off from their pursuit of them. The dreams I want to hear about are the emotional fuel that helps people take control of their lives and be what they want to be. Time and again, I have heard stories of dreams that are intimately connected to the ability to play great golf. In fact, this is the first mental principle a golfer must learn:
A person with great dreams can achieve great things.
A person with small dreams, or a person without the confidence to pursue his or her dreams, has consigned himself or herself to a life of frustration and mediocrity.
Pat Bradley had some of the most exciting dreams I have ever heard. When I first met her, in the early 1980s, she had won a number of tournaments, but she wasn't convinced she knew how to win. She wasn't even sure she was innately gifted at golf. As a kid, she had concentrated most of her attention on skiing. She hadn't won many important amateur events, and she hadn't attended a college with a great women's golf team. She was a good player who just slowly and gradually got better, until she was making a good living as a professional.
She sat on my couch and said, "I'm past thirty. I want to win more. I want to win majors. I want to be Player of the Year at least once. And I want to be in the LPGA Hall of Fame."
At that point, I didn't even know what it took to get into the LPGA Hall of Fame. I quickly learned that, in all of sports, it's the hardest Hall of Fame to enter. A golfer has to win thirty tournaments, at least one of them a major. Very few make it.
I said to myself, "Wow. This woman has a great head."
Just talking with her exhilarated me. She was so intense and so excited. She had a quest.
We worked for two days on how she could learn to see herself as a winner, to think effectively, to play one shot at a time, to believe in her putting and herself. We talked periodically thereafter, and still do.
The first year after our visit, she won five tournaments, three of them majors. She nearly won the Grand Slam of women's golf. I attended the one major she lost that year, the U.S. Women's Open in Dayton, Ohio. She lipped out putts on two of the last three holes and lost by a shot or two.
Afterward, we talked, and I told her I was glad I hadn't been carrying a million dollars with me, because I would have bet it all on her to win the Open. That was how impressive her attitude and confidence were that year.
Pat continued to win, and in 1991, with her fourth victory that year, she qualified for the LPGA Hall of Fame. The induction ceremony was at the Ritz-Carlton in Boston, and Pat invited my wife, Darlene, and me. We came into the lobby and saw Pat and her mother, Kathleen. We exchanged hugs.
"Hey, before you leave, we have to talk," she said.
"What do we need to talk about?" I asked.
She looked at me and said, "Where do we go from here? Bob, we've got to find a new dream. What's next?"
Pat is still trying to figure out what comes next. For a while, she thought that the 1996 Olympics would include golf and be played at Augusta National. She had always dreamed of playing at Augusta, and she had always dreamed of being an Olympian. The prospect of doing both fired her up, until the International Olympic Committee dropped the idea.
Now she's searching for a new dream. And she hasn't won since 1991. I know that when she seizes on a new dream, she will win again. Her dreams propel her.
I heard something similar from Byron Nelson recently. Tom Kite and I were giving a clinic at Las Colinas Country Club, outside of Dallas, and we were flattered that Byron and his wife, Peggy, showed up to listen to what we had to say.
After our presentation, during the question period, Byron raised his hand.
"People have often asked me where my mind was the year I won eleven tournaments in a row," he said. "I've never had a good answer, until now, when I listened to what you and Tom were saying about going after your dreams.
"When I was a young player, my dream was to own a ranch. Golf was the only way I was going to get that ranch. And every tournament I played in, I was going after a piece of it. First I had to buy some property. Then I had to fence it. Then I had to build a house for it. Then furnish the house. Then I had to build barns and corrals. Then animals. Then I had to hire someone to look after it while I was touring. Then I had to put enough money aside to take care of it forever.
"That was what I won tournaments for. It's amazing, but once I got that ranch all paid for, I pretty much stopped playing. I was all but done as a competitive player."
Tom Kite is a great example of a person who dreamed huge dreams, and kept dreaming them in the face of all kinds of supposed evidence that they were foolish.
A few years ago I was down at the Austin Country Club working with Tom the week before the Tournament of Champions. He had to go inside to take a phone call, and while I waited for him to return, a tall, athletic-looking man walked up to me and introduced myself.
"You're Bob Rotella, aren't you?" he asked. "What are you talking to Kite about? You know, he really thinks you're helping him."
We shook hands, and he identified himself as an old friend and competitor of Tom's from boyhood days.
"I went to high school with Tom and played golf with him," the man said. "Ben Crenshaw was right behind us. Ben won the state championship twice. I won it once. Tom never won it. I thought I was way better than him. He seemed to be always shooting three over par. How did he get so good?"
There was a long answer and a short answer to that question.
The short answer was that Tom had a dream and he never stopped chasing it.
As a boy, he was small, needed glasses, and wasn't even the best junior golfer at his club. His dream seemed so unlikely that when he was fourteen or fifteen, his parents took him to see Lionel and Jay Hebert, the former touring pros. Tom's father wanted the Hebert brothers to tell Tom something discouraging, to tell him how high the odds were against him.
The Heberts, fortunately, demurred. "He'll find out soon enough how hard it is," they said. "Let him go after it."
When Tom and I first met, dreams still motivated him. He wanted to win more tournaments, including majors. He wanted to be player of the year. He wanted to be the leading money winner.
He has fulfilled those dreams. Now he has new ones. Two days after he won the U.S. Open for the first time, he called me up. He knew what would happen when he returned to the Tour. Everyone he met would want to congratulate him. Reporters would want to interview him about the Open. Fans would mob him. Faced with those distractions, a lot of new Open champions have suffered letdowns. Tom was determined not to be one of them He wanted to test his self-discipline. He wanted to be a player who used the Open as a springboard to even better performance. And he did.
I suspect Tom will attain his new dreams as he did the old ones, because he has always been willing to do what was entailed in the long answer to the question posed by his boyhood rival.
The long answer would have recounted how hard Tom worked, on both the physical and mental aspects of his game, how often he endured failures, how often he bounced back, as he pursued those dreams.
The man I was speaking with had made a common mistake in assessing Tom. He confused golfing potential with certain physical characteristics. Most people carry in their mind an image of a golfer with potential. He is young, tall and lean. He moves with the grace of the natural athlete and probably has excelled at every sport he's ever tried. He can hit the ball over the fence at the end of the practice range.
But while I certainly wouldn't discourage someone with those physical characteristics, I've found that they have little to do with real golfing potential.
Golfing potential depends primarily on a player's attitude, on how well he plays with the wedges and the putter, and on how well he thinks.
It's nice when Tom gives me a little of the credit for his achievements, but the truth is that he had a great attitude before I ever met him. He had a backyard green and sand trap as a boy, where he developed his short game. He refused to believe he couldn't achieve his goals. Those qualities of mind were and are true talent and true potential. I believe that with his mind and attitude, if Tom had decided as a five-year-old that he wanted to be a great basketball player instead of a great golfer, he would have been an All-American in basketball. That's because talent and potential have much more to do with what's inside an athlete's head than with his physical characteristics.
I'm sometimes asked if there is a distinct champion's personality. I see no evidence that there is, because the champions I've worked with cover a broad spectrum of personality types. They come from cities and small towns, poverty and wealth, athletic parents and nonathletic parents. Some are shy and some are gregarious. Tom Kite and Nick Price, if they were in law and accounting instead of in golf, might well find they had few common interests.
But they and other champions all have a few common characteristics. They are all strong-willed, they all have dreams, and they all make a long-term commitment to pursue those dreams.
In fact, I think it's often more difficult for a person branded with what most people perceive as potential to become great than it was for, say, Pat Bradley.
When everyone around you is telling you you have great potential, and they expect you to win all the time, you can quickly start to hate and despise the potential you have, to perceive it as a burden. Val Skinner, one of the players I work with on the LPGA Tour, has struggled with that problem. She came to the tour as the Collegiate Player of the Year, and she hits it a long way. When she didn't win immediately, she got frustrated and critical of herself. She's had to work hard to realize that her physical talent is only one factor in her golfing ability — and not the most important factor.
Most people use only a small percentage of their innate physical ability, anyway. The golfer whose attitude enables him to tap a higher percentage of a relatively modest store of God-given talent can and will beat the one who doesn't know how to maximize what he has.
On the ohter hand, a player with no dreams has little real potential. Not too long ago, a young man from another university came to Charlottesville to see me, looking for help with his golf game. I asked him what his dreams were.
"I don't know," he said. "I'm a pretty talented golfer, a pretty talented student. I do pretty well at both. My dad's got a pretty good company, and I guess after college I can go to work for him and make a pretty good living, so I'm not worried about the future."
The conversation floundered for a while. Finally I asked if there was anything he really loved doing, anything that truly excited him. He perked up immediately.
"Oh, yeah! I love going to see our school play basketball. The team is so awesome, so good, so into it. They're like on a mission, Doc. I'd stay up all night in a tent to get tickets to the games. I go on the road with them."
His school indeed had a successful basketball program. The team had been to the Final Four several times.
I stopped him and told him, "I don't want to break your heart, but you must realize that if your school's golf program was as good as its basketball program, you couldn't play."
He asked why.
"You have talent, but your school recruits basketball players with both talent and attitude," I said. "Your basketball coach dreams of winning national championships. He recruits only players who are totally committed to winning national championships. If you're not, he doesn't want you. Because if you're not, you're not going to work on free throws every day until you become an excellent free-throw shooter. If you're not, you're not going to play defense every night."
Free throws and defense, I said, are like the short game in golf. They require not so much talent as determination and commitment. And they are usually what separates teams that win national championships from aggregations of slam-dunk artists.
I asked how many times that year his golf coach had talked about winning the national championship.
"Not at all," the boy replied. In fact, the team had felt it did very well just to qualify for the NCAA tournament, where it failed to make the cut. They had a party after the tournament was over.
"That's the point," I said. "You have to look at what you're aiming for, because that's going to influence your level of commitment. I guarantee you that guys on your golf team practice when they want to practice. I guarantee that they spend all of their time on the range working on their swings and that no one's ever over at the practice green working on the short game. And I bet most of you spend a lot of time justifying being so-so golfers because you're at a very demanding school, academically, and you spend too much time studying."
I told him it would be harder for him to achieve great things in golf than it would be for his school's basketball players to achieve great things in their sport, because he would have to do it himself. He would have to set his own goals higher than his team's, and commit himself to achvieving them. It would be an individual quest, and sometimes a lonely one.
That's because the world is full of people happy to tell you that your dreams are unrealistic, that you don't have the talent to realize them.
I never do that. Whenever someone introduces me or identifies me as a shrink, I am tempted to correct him. I'm not a shrink. I'm an enlarger. I am not in the business of telling people that they don't have talent, that their dreams are foolish and unnattainable. I want to support people's talent. I believe in human abilities.
If someone came to me and said, "I'm forty-five years old, my handicap is 25, and my dream is to make a living on the Senior Tour," I would say, "Fantastic! You're just the kind of person who excites the living daylights out of me. Just the fact that you're shooting 95 and you're talking about being able to shoot 70 every day means you have the kind of mind that has a chance. I live to work with people like you."
I would not guarantee this fictitious duffer more than a chance. The next question would be whether he could keep that dream in front of him for eight or fifteen years.-The right thinking can quickly and substantially lower the score of any golfer who has been thinking poorly. But there is no rapid, miraculous way to go from a 25 handicap to scratch, no matter how well a golfer starts to think. Improvement takes patience, persistence and practice.
If a golfer chooses to go after greatness, whether he defines greatness as winning the U.S. Open or winning the championship at his club, he must understand that he will encounter frustration and disappointment along the way. Tom Kite played in and lost more than a dozen U.S. Opens before he finally won one. Big improvements require working and chipping away for years. A golfer has to learn to enjoy the process of striving to improve.
That process, not the end result, enriches life. I want the people I work with to wake up every morning excited, because every day is another opportunity to chase their dreams. I want them to come to the end of their days with smiles on their faces, knowing that they did all they could with what they had.
That's one reason golf is a great game. It gives people that opportunity.
Copyright © 1995 by Robert Rotella
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