• Dr Bob Rotella
  • July 8, 2022
    Read, recorded or researched
Dr Bob is psychologist to golf's stars. There's a good amount of golf detail in this book but the most striking points are as applicable to life as lob wedges. We are all free to choose how we think. Dream big, stay positive, trust your ability.

The Best Points

Golf is Not a Game of Perfect

Dream big

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 unattainable. 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 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 to scratch. Improvement takes patience, persistence, and practice.

Big improvements require patience and chipping away from years. A golfer has to learn to enjoy the process of striving to improve. That process, not the end result, enriches life.

Free will

They may have learned ways of thinking that work on a driving range or a practice green. What I offer is a way of thinking and playing that works under the fire of competitive pressure that breeds consistency, provides the best chance to "go low” and helps players find a way to win.

The challenge lies not in understanding the concepts I teach, for, as I've said, they're simple and make common sense. The challenge lies in thinking this way every day on every shot. To meet this challenge, golfers must understand the power within themselves. They must learn to tap this power and let it flow into their golf game.

One of my goals in writing this book is to expose people who love golf to the truth about free will. I am convinced that it is the power of will that separates great golfers from those who never reach their potential.

Though I teach psychology, I have never known for sure where the mind ends and where heart, soul, courage and the human spirit begin. But I do know that it is somewhere in this nexus of mind and spirit, which we call free will, that all great champions find the strength to dream their destinies and to honor their commitments to excellence. All great champions are strong on the inside.

You have to choose to think well

The worst thing that could happen to him [Nick Price], he said, was to hit his approach shot close to the pin on the first hole. If he then missed the putt, he became discouraged and timid. He putted worse. This was the state of mind that accounted for the all-too-frequent 76.

Nick let events control the way he thought, rather than taking control of his thoughts and using them to influence events.

"If you're going to be a victim of the first few holes," I said, "you don't have a prayer. You're like a puppet. You let the first few holes jerk your strings and tell you how you're going to feel and how you're going to think. You're going to have to learn to think consistently if you want to score consistently," I went on. "You wouldn't be foolish enough to try a different swing on every shot, would you?"

No, he said.

"It's the same way with your mind," I said. "You're going to have to decide before the round starts how you're going to think, and do it on every shot. You have to choose to think well.

Not many people think that their state of mind is a matter of choice. But I believe it is. Unfortunately, major branches of psychology and psychiatry during this century have helped promote the notion that we are all in some sense victims

Free will (cont.)

People by and large become what they think about themselves.

The idea is so simple that it is easy to dismiss. People become what they think about themselves. It's almost all a person needs to know about how to be happy.

If someone came to me and asked me how to be happy, I would reply that it's simple. Just wake up every morning thinking about the wonderful things you are going to do that day. Go to sleep every night thinking about the wonderful events of the past day and the wonderful things you will do tomorrow. Anyone who does that will be happy.

John Wooden, who won nine national basketball championships at UCLA, expressed the same idea; maybe he'd also read William James. Winners and losers, Wooden said, are self-determined. But only the winners are willing to admit it.

That strikes a lot of people as fatuous. But it's quite realistic if you accept another old concept that has unfortunately gone out of style: free will.

I harp on free will with the players I work with. Free will means that a person can think any way he or she wants to think. He can choose to be a happy person or a miserable person. She can choose to think of herself as a great golfer or a born loser. 

Free will is the greatest gift anyone could have given us. It means we can, in a real sense, control our own lives. On the golf course, it means that a player can choose to think about his ball flying true to the pin, or veering into the woods. She can choose whether to think about making a putt or just getting it close.

Look and react

You cannot hit a golf ball consistently well if you think about the mechanics of your swing as you play.

When someone asks me why this is so, I cannot give a scientific reply. Psychologists and other specialists in human performance may one day figure it out. I simply know that the human organism performs a task like the golf swing much better if the athlete looks at a target and reacts rather than looks, thinks and reacts. 

I don't want to impose religion on anyone, but the only explanation I can come up with for this is that someone created us this way. We are endowed with the most marvelous computer system imaginable, and it is wired to maximize physical performance and grace if a person simply looks at à target and reacts to it.

There is, of course, a time and place for thinking about the mechanics of the golf swing. I am not one of those who try to sell the notion that golf is purely mental and that mechanics don't matter. They do. It is much better to have a good swing than a bad swing. To be successful, a golfer must blend work on mechanics with work on the mental approach to the game. The professional golfers I work with all have swing teachers who help them with their mechanics.

But the time to worry about swing mechanics must be limited and the place to worry about them is the practice tee and only the practice tee.

Create your own reality

Good athletes create their own realities. They think however they have to think to maintain their confidence and get the job done. In basketball, this is called the shooter's mentality. In golf, it's even more essential, because there is no one to come off the bench to replace a player who's struggling.

A golfer has to learn to put aside all thought of past failures and to trust that his next swing will send his shot where he aims it. He has to develop the basketball shooter's mentality.

If he misses a few putts, he has to believe that this only enhances his chances to make the next one. If he hits a tee shot out of bounds, he has to believe that this only means he's gotten the bad swing out of his system. The shot was an accident. It's not the norm.

This may seem, to an outsider, to be absolutely irrational. How can a kid who's just missed twenty-odd shots in a row be confident he's going to make the next one?

The answer is that whether it's irrational or not, it's more effective than the alternative. Would you be more likely to make that shot if he you doubt yourself? Would it help you to start trying to fix some real or imagined flaw in your shooting form?

If you wish to play your best golf, you can’t wait until a few putts fall and a couple of birdies go on the scorecard.

Stages of mastery

In the past decade, thinking about golf psychology has continued to progress backward toward the wisdom of the old Scots. Jim Flick, one of the best of today's golf teachers, says that a player has to pass through three stages: unconsciously incompetent, consciously competent, and unconsciously competent.

Today's best players strive to stay on that third level. Nick Price wants to think only of his target as he swings. He tells me that he's constantly struck by how much better he swings the more sharply he focuses his mind on his target. Fred Couples says he tries to have no swing thoughts at all. 

Focus on the smallest possible target

Before taking any shot, a golfer must pick out the smallest possible target. This may seem obvious to some people. But I'm continually amazed by the number of golfers who don't do it. When I'm at a clinic or pro-am with someone who's just sprayed his ball into the next county, I sometimes ask what he was aiming at when he hit the errant shot.

Usually, the reply is something like, "I was aiming down the left side." Or “down the middle." Or people might say, "I don't know what I was aiming at. I just knew I didn't want to miss left.” 

That's not good enough. Aiming down the middle is the equivalent of trying to go to Los Angeles by flying to an airport somewhere in California.

The brain and nervous system respond best when the eyes focus on the smallest possible target. Why this is so is not important. It just happens to be the way the human system works. Perhaps it has to do with the evolutionary advantage enjoyed by those cavemen who focused on the hearts of attacking tigers, as opposed to those cavemen who merely looked in the tigers general direction and hurled their spears.

It is true in virtually every sport. We teach basketball players to look, not at the backboard, nor even the rim, but at the net loop in back of the rim. We teach quarterbacks to aim, not at the receiver, nor even his number, but at his hands. 

The smaller the target, the sharper the athlete’s focus, the better his concentration, and the better the results. When an athlete locks his eyes and mind onto a small target, the ball naturally tends to follow.

You have the chance to write your own story

Early in 1994, I began to work with John Daly. We sat down together and talked for five or six hours.

He told me about his drinking problems, his marital problems, his suspension from the Tour. He told me that he often found himself out on the golf course, thinking not about his game, but about all of his personal problems. 

I taught John the same philosophy and psychology I teach all of my players. While much of what had happened to him in the past was unfortunate, the only question in front of him now was what the rest of the John Daly story would be. He had, I said, the chance to write his own biography. He could be a hero, overcoming great barriers to success, or he could script a sad ending to his golfing career. But it would be his choice. It is a choice he will struggle with for a long time.


Attitude is what makes a great putter.

Putting is largely mental, and you have control over your mind and attitude. To become a good putter, you must make a commitment to good thinking. You have to fill your mind with thoughts that will help you, not excuses for poor putting. You have to decide that, come what may, you love putting and you're glad that every hole gives you a chance to use your putter, because that’s where you've got a big advantage over all the players who dread putting.

Putting routine

So, you’ve read the green decisively and picked out a line or a target. You may at this point in your routine want to take a couple of practice strokes. Take them with your eyes on the target, not the ball, and certainly not on the putter blade. Use them to make sure you feel the right stroke for the distance the ball has to travel. If you look at the ball or the blade, it will only introduce questions into your mind about the path the blade is taking, mechanical questions that divert you from our focus on the target.

The next step is getting yourself aligned and aimed properly. Though there's no particular stance or grip that makes for good putting, there is one mechanical point worth mentioning in the alignment process. The eyes see the putt better when they are precisely over the ball.

Remember your good shots

The question is, as you stand over a ball and prepare to hit it, which shots do you choose to remember?

A lot of players tell me they don't choose- that the memories of bad shots jump, unbidden, into their mind. Others say they have realistic memories, that they recall both the bad and the good.

But a golfer can indeed choose. Free will enables him to develop the kind of memory that promotes good shotmaking: a short-term memory for failure and a longterm memory for success. A golfer can learn to forget the bad shots and remember the good ones.

One way is to permit yourself to enjoy your good shots. People tend to remember best those events in their lives that are associated with strong emotions, like the birth of a child or the death of a parent.

The problem is that many golfers allow themselves to get very angry at bad shots. That helps plant the memory of the bad shot strongly in their minds. These same players tend to get very little joy or satisfaction from their good shots. They take them as routine events that cause no particular excitement.

If they thought about it, though, they would realize that a gear golf shot is a thing of beauty. They would savor it and celebrate it. I encourage players to do that. It will help make the game more enjoyable. It will help make the memory of good shots stronger.

Courage vs. Fear

He learned what all successful athletes learn sooner or later. Courage is fear turned inside out. It is impossible to be courageous if at first you weren’t afraid.


No matter what happens with any shot you hit, accept it. Acceptance is the last step in a sound routine.

No matter how good you get at this game, a lot of funky, crazy things are going to happen on the golf course. The better you can get at accepting them, the better you're going to get.

Good golfers, I think, have to get over the notion that they only want to win by hitting perfect shots. They have to learn to enjoy winning ugly. And that entails acceptance of all the shots they hit, not just the good ones.

Belief vs. Expectations

Expectations are great if you confine them to long range considerations. It's fine, for example, to expect that if you work at your game intelligently for an extended period of time, you will improve. But expectations can hurt you if they are narrowly focused on the results of a particular stroke, hole or round.

This is not to say you should not think about hitting every ball to the target and believe that every shot will do just that. You should. But there is a fine difference between believing that the ball will go where you want it to go and expecting that it will and being upset if it doesn't. You have to put expectations out of your mind by the time you get to the first tee.

On the first tee, you should have two immediate goals. One is to have fun. The other involves the process of playing, not the results. This goal is to get your mind where it's supposed to be on every shot.


Anyone can develop confidence if he or she goes about it properly. Confidence isn't something you're born with or something you’re given. You control it. Confidence is what you think about yourself and your golf game.

Confidence at the level of any single shot is nothing more than thinking about your ball going to the target. If you're thinking about the ball going to the target, you're confident.

People would understand this better, I think, if confidence guaranteed success. It doesn't. Standing on the tee and thinking about your drive going to the target doesn't guarantee that it will go there. It only enhances the chances. If it guaranteed success, people would more readily get the idea. But they try thinking confidently, and as soon as a shot doesn't succeed, they think, “Well, that doesn't work."

But look at it another way. If you're not thinking about your drive going to the target, what are you thinking about? Obviously, you're thinking about it going somewhere else; into a lake, maybe. And that kind of thinking definitely works. Negative thinking is almost 100 per cent effective.

In a larger sense, your confidence is the sum of all the thoughts you have about yourself as a golfer. You've got to think about what you want your golf game to be. You've got to think about driving it well, wedging it well, being a great bunker player, being a superb putter.

Looking at a hole backwards

Once in a while a player has to play a round on a course totally new to him, without time to inspect it beforehand. In such cases, a golfer has to improvise. He should look at hole diagrams on the scorecard, ask a caddie, or ask a member with local knowledge. Even a plan made up at each tee is better than no plan at all. But whenever possible, plan in advance.

The best way to prepare a plan is to walk or mentally review each hole backward. Standing on the green and looking back toward the tee usually reveals much more about a hole than standing on the tee and looking at the green. It shows more of the tricks and deceptions that the architect may have built into the hole. And it forces you to think strategically about where you want your ball to land on the green, what club would be best for landing it there, and what kind of tee shot will set this up.

Conservative under pressure

I don’t like to see players under pressure make bolder and more aggressive choices than their plan calls for. Too often, the new choice winds up costing them more strokes. Any time you’re not sure, make the more conservative choice.

Important nerves

It's important to dispose of a few common misconceptions.

First of all, choking is not synonymous with being nervous. The fact is that, at one time or another, all golfers are nervous. I visited Jack Nicklaus some years ago, and I remember vividly what he told me about nerves. Nicklaus wanted to be nervous. He liked being nervous. 

One of the symptoms that he noticed as he aged and his performance level started to decline was that he didn't get nervous often enough. "I don't know how you play well unless you're nervous," he said. "Nowadays, I don't get nervous unless I'm in a major and in a position to win. If I could only learn to concentrate when I'm not nervous, so I could get in position to win, then I'd be fine.”

Nicklaus understood what most great athletes do - being nervous can help performance.


Stay in the present and keep your mind sharply focused on the shot immediately in front of you. Avoid mechanical thoughts. Strive to become looser, freer and more confident.

Put the burden of proof on others

You've got to go in there with the attitude that you're better than they are until they prove otherwise, rather than the attitude that they're better than you are until you prove otherwise. Put the burden of proof on them.

Great players lose more tournaments than they win because players with just a bit less talent got more out of their talent in a particular week. Certainly, Nicklaus at twenty-five was better than Larry Laoretti at twenty-five. But that doesn't necessarily mean Nicklaus will be better at fifty-five.

Some golfers progress. Some regress. Some get hungrier and double their commitment. Some lose their hunger, develop other interests, or develop other priorities. The USGA Junior champion rarely goes on to become the Open champion. And what someone did to you in last year's club championship or what you did to him has nothing to do with what will happen if you meet in this year's tournament.

Training vs. Trusting

An athlete who spends most of his practice time in the training mentality will generally fall into the training mentality when he least wants to, when the pressure is greatest. He will start thinking analytically, judgmentally and mechanically. He will not be able to trust his swing and let it go.

The dominant habit is the one an athlete practices most. Therefore: You must spend at least 60 percent of your practice time in the trusting mentality. This isn't easy, because it requires that you shut your mind down except for thoughts of target and routine. The second an imperfect shot leaves your club-face, you will confront the temptation to evaluate and criticize the swing that produced the imperfect shot, to rake another ball up, and to try to fix the problem. 

If you can't learn to resist this temptation, your practice time will be less productive than it should be and you will never be as good as you can be. 

The 60 percent rule is a general guideline. There should be some practice sessions where you spend more time in the training mentality and others where you spend nearly all your time in the trusting mentality.

How to spend your practice

A player ought to spend, as a general rule, no more than 30 percent of his practice time on the full swing. And of this time, the bulk should be spent with the club - anything from a driver to a 3-iron - that he uses when he absolutely has to put the ball into the fairway. How much time should be reserved for the long irons and midirons? Almost none, especially if practice time is limited.


You can make your head a practice range. There is a technique that uses the imagination to fool the mind and body into reacting as if what is in reality nerve-wracking is familiar, safe and comfortable. It is a form of daydreaming that is conscious and purposeful.

Sports psychology has adapted this technique from studies of two natural phenomena: nightmares and nocturnal orgasms where dreams can cause genuine physical reactions.

A golfer can mentally simulate the experience of reaching his goal, whether it be winning a tournament or breaking 100. If he does it vividly enough, he can in effect fool the mind and body into thinking that the experience actually happened. Later, when he actually comes close to that goal on the golf course, he will not experience discomfort or disorientation. He will instead have a sense of déja vu, a comforting and calming feeling that he has been in this situation before and handled it successfully.

If a golfer tells me he wants to win the U.S. Open, I tell him to try to imagine that experience as vividly as he can. He needs to create, in his brain, all the sensory messages that would bombard him as he actually played the last holes of the Open, in contention to win. He needs to smell the grass and hear the murmur of the crowd. He needs to feel the tackiness of his grips, the way the sweat trickles down his forehead and the churning in his gut. He needs to see the way the rough pinches into the fairways, to see the television towers and to see, in his own mind, his golf ball soaring high against the blue sky and landing on the short grass. He needs to imagine something going wrong, to hear the way the crowd noise changes when a ball kicks into the sand, and to imagine himself taking a bogey but retaining his equilibrium. He needs to imagine hearing a roar from some other part of the course and to imagine his response to a competitor reeling off a string of birdies. 

If a golfer tells me his goal is to break 90, I tell him to imagine himself on the way to shooting an 86. Like the professional striving to win the U.S. Open, he would try to simulate all the sensory experiences.