My Bob Rotella story took place in Europe on a Kalos Golf cruise up the Rhine River about 17 years ago. Rotella, one of first (if not the first) psychological coaches for professional tour players and perhaps still best known as the author of Golf Is Not a Game of Perfect, was a guest host for the trip, meaning he had been invited on the cruise in exchange for some on-board presentations.
A grand time it was, playing courses in the Netherlands, France and Germany by day, cruising along the river and listening to Dr. Bob in the evening. One night in Cologne a bunch of us went out with Rotella’s daughter, Casey, along for the trip and then a member of the Notre Dame golf team. We bought her more than a few rounds of Kölsch beer to celebrate her 21st birthday.
Rotella would often drive around in a cart to dip into the rounds we were playing. One day I was sitting prettily in the middle of the fairway on the second hole of the Bernhard Langer-designed Golf Club Soufflenheim Baden-Baden in France, a mere wedge shot from the green, when Rotella pulled up on a slight hill overlooking the hole.
I proceeded to neatly hook one, two, three shots dead out of bounds. Fellow golf writer Tom Mackin was looking on and added it all up: “Well, that’s a sleeve.” But Rotella merely drove silently, hauntingly, away.
I think he did refer to the debacle in a subsequent talk, but if so that trauma is lost in the fog of time and seems conspicuously absent from my notes of the trip.
But Bob Rotella books are never far from my reach. His advice often seems simultaneously startling and commonsensical, and always well-illustrated with anecdotes about players of all ilks that he has coached. His tenth book is now out, Make Your Next Shot Your Best Shot (Simon & Schuster, $27), written with long-time Golf Digest contributor Roger Schiffman. A long-time Rotella client, Padraig Harrington, adds a thoughtful forward.
It’s impossible to read Rotella’s advice and not think about one’s own game, no matter what level one is playing at. But this book seemed even more exhortatory to me than usual, in line with the subtitle, “The Secret to Playing Great Golf.” Or, as one of the epigrams he uses as chapter headings puts it, a line from the musical “South Pacific”: “If you don’t have a dream / How you gonna have a dream come true?”
As he writes, “I have been studying the psychology of greatness for a very long time,” working with people to help them reach their optimal performance. “I’m all about exceptionalism, as opposed to normalcy, mediocrity or being average. And this usually starts with dreams.”
I gave Rotella a call and he elaborated on some of the book’s ideas: “The longer you study greatness, the chasing of human potential, the more you understand that you really should pay attention to what you shoot for. That’s why I tell the story about Tiger Woods. This kid told the world at a very early age that he was chasing Jack Nicklaus’s majors record. That was his quest, and he got the whole world excited about it. It got him excited.
“And I say that Tiger may be more talented than Jack and that Jack’s standing may have been too low for Tiger. If Jack had won 25, maybe Tiger would have 27 by now. Even if Tiger doesn’t break Jack’s record, his ‘failure’ still makes him the second greatest golfer in history in terms of major championship wins. Having big ideas and going after them is the point—you might not get everything you chase, but even if you don’t get it all you’ll still be unbelievably successful.”
Rotella maintains a full roster of clients, young and old, pro and amateur, who normally visit his home in Virginia for a couple of days—one day of inside coaching, the second outside.
“Right now a lot of my golfers are going through qualifying schools, where there might be 19 out of 100 qualifying spots. And it’s easy enough to go to a tournament spending all your time thinking, ‘What do I have to do to get the 19th spot?’ Whereas I say, you have to play to win the thing. It’s just a mentality. And you have to expect you’ll have your heart broken some. It takes a lot of patience, a lot of persistence and a lot of ability to bounce back from disappointment because the game is really difficult and the competition is really good.”
Rotella is from Rutland, Vermont, and his father, Guy, lived to be 100. And even after reaching the century mark, would sometimes play golf five days a week. Rotella said, “It’s fascinating what this game can provide for us. When he was in his 90s my father said to me, ‘Don’t take this wrong, because I really love all you kids and love my family and friends but, man, golf has really given me a reason for getting up every day.”
Rotella also relates the tale of Gary Burkhead, an 18-handicapper, who came to Rotella when he was about to retire as vice-chairman of Fidelity Investments. “He said to me that he’d learned from other retirees to have a new goal on hand. He looked at me and said, ‘I grew up relatively poor in Little Rock, Arkansas. I made it in life, was pretty successful, and now I’m taking on a new quest. I work 12-14 hours a day, and now I intend to work 12-14 hours a day on my golf game.’
“You don’t have a lot of people say that to you. So I was absolutely amazed at watching him put that kind of desire and day to day commitment into his golf game. His wife, meanwhile, would go deep sea fishing four or five days a week, so they both had their passions. Gary didn’t quite make his goal of playing in the U.S. Senior Open, but he lowered his handicap to two, won numerous tournaments and club championships. I don’t know that he worries overly about getting everything he’s chasing but he’s having ball because he has a reason for getting up in the morning.”
Rotella, now 72, a scratch golfer himself, still in love with his work, still in love with his wife—his college sweetheart, and thanks to Casey, now a grandfather eight times over, seems to have ample reasons to greet the dawn.
As for the rest of us, no matter our age or level of play, Rotella’s book urges us to remember there are still golf dreams to chase.
This piece originally appeared in the Oct-Nov 2021 issue of Golf Oklahoma, in slightly different form.