One of the very first golf “instructional” books anyone told me I should read after taking up the game in college in the late 90s/early 2000s was Golf Is Not a Game of Perfect by Dr. Bob Rotella. It’s about the mental side of the game, it’s the best-selling sport psychology book of all-time, and it’s one of the three best-selling golf books in history.
Since 1984, Dr. Rotella has coached the winners of more than 74 major championships in men’s and women’s professional golf including Rory McIlroy (2011 U.S. Open, 2012 and 2014 PGA Championships, 2014 Open Championship), Darren Clarke (2011 Open Championship), Keegan Bradley (2011 PGA Championship), and Tom Kite (1992 U.S. Open). Padraig Harrington thought so much of Dr. Rotella that as a show of appreciation, he gave him one of the Claret Jugs from his back-to-back Open Championship wins in 2007 and 2008.
The list of professional golfers Dr. Rotella has consulted is exhaustive. It includes the players listed above as well as Trevor Immelman, Davis Love III, Brad Faxon, Nick Price (who won the Open Championship in 1994 and back-to-back PGA Championships in 1994 and 1995), John Daly, Paul Azinger, Billy Mayfair, David Toms, Scott Verplank, Jeff Sluman, and Fred Funk. Add that to his more than two decades at the University of Virginia where he was most recently the Director of Sport Psychology and is still widely regarded as the world’s top sport psychologist.
Golf Is Not a Game of Perfect was published back in 1995, so it references many of the great male and female golfers of that era: Kite, Nick Price (who won the Open in 1994 and back-to-back PGA Championships in 94-95), Fred Couples (who won the 1992 Masters), Seve Ballesteros, Faxon, Corey Pavin (who won the 1995 U.S. Open), Chip Beck, Glen Day, and Mark McCumber on the men’s side and Pat Bradley (LPGA Hall of Famer and Keegan’s Aunt) and Val Skinner on the women’s side. There are also plenty of stories about some of the greatest players of all time from Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Ben Hogan, and Paul Runyan to Bobby Locke, Byron Nelson, Sam Snead, and Bobby Jones.
I’ve probably read Golf Is Not a Game of Perfect 4-5 times now, but when I decided to read it again recently, I was mainly looking for ideas I could incorporate into my own teaching philosophy. I ended up taking 12 pages of notes. As you might imagine, it’s full of a lot of great material.
Golf Is Not a Game of Perfect is probably the only book on the mental game I would recommend other than Every Shot Must Have a Purpose by Annika Sorenstam’s coaches Lynn Marriott and Pia Nilsson. In fact, when GolfTEC Vice President of Education and Instruction Andy Hilts came and spoke to our class at the Golf Academy, he called Golf Is Not a Game of Perfect a must-read for anyone considering a career as a teaching professional.
One thing I’m continuing to work through in my competitive rounds is nerves. I’m relieved to hear that I’m not alone! “It’s important to differentiate between fear and nervousness,” writes Dr. Rotella. “Nervousness is a physical state. It’s sweat on the palms, adrenaline in the bloodstream. There’s nothing wrong with it – it can even help a golfer.”
“Fear is a mental state. It’s being afraid of making a mistake when you swing the club. Fear causes golfers to try to guide or steer the ball, rather than swing freely. That doesn’t work. Swinging freely makes the ball go straight. Swinging carefully causes disasters. To play his best, a golfer has to feel that once he’s aligned himself and picked his target, it’s as if he doesn’t care where the ball goes. He is going to trust his swing and let it go.” It reminds me of the song “Let It Go” from the movie Frozen.
“Letting it go” is something all of us can learn from. Dr. Rotella says that at one time or another, all golfers are nervous. Eighteen-time major champion Jack Nicklaus actually wanted to be nervous. Nicklaus went so far as to say that 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,” said Nicklaus.
Dr. Rotella also talks about practice. He says that when it comes to practicing, it’s about quality over quantity. According to Dr. Rotella, there are two states of mind in practice: the training mentality and the trusting mentality and that you must spend at least 60 percent of your practice time in the trusting mentality. The trusting mentality means that you shut your mind down except for thoughts of target and routine.
“In the training mentality,” Dr. Rotella writes, “a golfer evaluates his shots critically and analytically. In the trusting mentality, the golfer simply accepts them. In the training mentality, the golfer tries to make things happen. In the trusting mentality, the golfer lets things happen. The training mentality is very thoughtful. The trusting mentality feels like reckless abandon.”
A golfer who spends most of his practice time in the training mentality will generally fall back into that mentality when the pressure mounts because that becomes his dominant habit. He’ll start thinking analytically and won’t be able to just trust his swing and let it go (there’s that phrase again). The style of thinking that works best on the golf course is very simple: target, routine, and acceptance.
The last point that Dr. Rotella really hammers home is that the “weekend player” spends way too much time beating balls on the driving range when he should really be working on his short game. It’s what he can do with his short game that will make the most difference in his score.
“The weekend player ought to make sure he has a few fundamental short shots in his arsenal,” writes Dr. Rotella. “One would be the chip from the edge of the green. The second would be the flop shot from a little farther off the putting surface. And the third would be a sand explosion that got up in the air, traveled about 15 or 20 feet, and could be relied on to get out of any greenside bunker.”
Here’s where I agree and disagree with Dr. Rotella. The chip shot from off the edge of the green? Sure. The flop shot from a little farther off the putting surface? I don’t think so. That’s a really low percentage shot. I think it’s easier for the average player to learn how to hit a soft pitch shot or even more of a hinge-and-hold technique than it is for him to learn how to hit a flop shot. There are no points for style here! You have to get the ball up and down, and a weekender is more likely to blade it across the green and get into more trouble than he is to pull it off.
Either way, once you practice those shots, Dr. Rotella says it’s time to move to the practice tee and starting working on shots to a small target from 40 to 120 yards. These shots develop feel and touch. The short shots around the green save pars, but it’s these longer wedge shots that make birdies. I wholeheartedly agree with Dr. Rotella. Again, the average player would much rather beat balls on the driving range than work on his short game when in reality, he would enjoy the game a lot more if he had a short game that could score. It’s easier to improve your short game, especially if you have limited practice time, than it is to improve your long game.
Dr. Rotella further reinforces his point by arguing that if low scores depend on how well a golfer plays from 120 yards and in, everything that happens up to that point is almost insignificant as compared to what happens after. Says Dr. Rotella, “If you’re not spending 70 percent of your practice time on shots from 120 yards in, you’re not trying to become the best golfer you can be.”
That leaves about 30 percent of a player’s practice time left to work on the full swing. The bulk of that time should be spent with the club (4-iron through driver) he uses when he really has to put the ball in the fairway. Can you imagine if you had a club in your bag you could always count on to get you into the middle of the fairway? With a killer short game (from 120 yards and in), it wouldn’t matter how far back you were! You could always get up and down… and for no worse than bogey.
I guarantee that if you read Golf Is Not a Game of Perfect, you’ll walk away with several ideas you can incorporate into your own mental game. It’s a quick read, but I think you’ll not only be fascinated by the stories of some of the greatest players of all time, you’ll be encouraged by the mental struggles they’ve had to overcome as well. You’re not alone in the thoughts and feelings you’ve experienced out on the golf course.
After all, like Dr. Rotella says, “Even the greatest players are human, human beings commit mental mistakes, and all golfers can learn from the study of those mistakes.” Yes we can. Just remember, whether you’re the casual weekend golfer or a tournament regular, like the golf swing itself, the mental game is always a work in progress.
Next On the Shelf
Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book by Harvey Penick, one of the best-selling sports books of all time.