Optimism In Golf


By Bob Carney

Martin Seligman, Ph.D., is famous for determining that optimistic people—teachers, baseball managers, West Point cadets, students, insurance salespeople—are more successful than pessimistic ones. This is true, Seligman found, despite the fact that pessimists are often more accurate than optimists. Being practical can be a serious disadvantage in life. “Success requires persistence, the ability to not give up in the face of failure,” Seligman writes in Learned Optimism.

For me, this was the hardest piece of the grit puzzle to grasp. Don’t we all know optimistic people who fail over and over? In a time when we rely increasingly on data and can predict so much, how does one dare dream beyond what that data says? What does believing things will turn out right have to do with making them turn out right?

Everything, it seems.

“When we fail at something, we become helpless and depressed, at least momentarily,” Seligman says. “Optimists recover from their helplessness immediately. Very soon after failing, they pick themselves up, shrug and start trying again. For them, defeat is a challenge, a mere setback on the road to inevitable victory. They see defeat as temporary and specific, not pervasive. Pessimists wallow in defeat, which they see as permanent and pervasive.”

On the 72nd hole of last year’s Northwestern Mutual World Challenge, Zach Johnson hit his approach shot into the water fronting the green, seemingly handing the tournament to Tiger Woods. “I got caught up in the moment,” Johnson said later. But he gathered himself, miraculously holed his fourth shot from 58 yards, and then won in a playoff. It was something Woods himself might have served up to an opponent.

Six years earlier, in the final round at the 2007 PGA Championship, Woods three-putted the 14th hole for bogey while his nearest pursuer, Woody Austin, was making his third consecutive birdie. Woods’ lead, once five, was down to one. What was going through his mind, reporters asked later: “I said to myself, You got yourself into this mess, now earn your way out of it.” He did, birdieing the next hole and eventually winning by two strokes.

Ask yourself: Where do you fall on the optimism spectrum? When you fail, do you see it as a personal defeat? (It’s me, doing it again.) Do you see it as permanent? (This always happens, always will.) Do you think it’s evidence of failure in other parts of your life? Or do you consider it something that happens to everyone at times—and not a pattern for you—and that for the most part, you’re successful?

Seligman says this kind of positive self-talk is crucial to success. “I believe that an optimistic explanatory style [the way we explain things] is the key to persistence.” He also believes that while an optimistic outlook is innate, we can learn to adopt the habits of optimists. For example, if our natural response to a triple bogey is, Here I go, ruining another round, we can begin to distract ourselves from the adversity and quickly move on: Hey, it’s one hole. I’m playing well. Or, like Arnold Palmer famously did, you might blame it on the club you used to hit the disastrous shot and replace it before your next round. It’s about building up your defenses and not letting yourself take the fall.

Rotella likes to tell about a Jack Nicklaus appearance at a fundraiser for the Georgia Tech golf program. At one point in his talk, Nicklaus said, “I’ve never three-putted the last hole of a tournament or missed from inside five feet on the last hole of a tournament.” A man in the audience challenged Nicklaus, pointing out that he’d missed a three-footer at the end of a recent senior event. “Sir, you’re wrong,” Nicklaus said. The man said he had it on tape. He’d send it to Jack. “There’s no need to send me anything, sir,” Nicklaus said. “I was there. I have never three-putted the last green of a tournament or missed from inside five feet on the last hole.” Nick Hastings says this isn’t an example of simply being positive. “It’s about relevancy.” In other words, what’s the point of remembering something negative that won’t help you going forward? Optimists don’t. “It’s about your ability to focus and move toward what you want to achieve as opposed to moving away from what you see as failure,” Hastings says.

Based on his book, Seligman created a questionnaire to measure an individual’s capacity to be optimistic. With the help of New Zealand-based Foresight Learning Systems, Golf Digest had 50 golfers of varying skill levels take Seligman’s test. Included in the group were amateurs competing in events of the Long Island (New York) Golf Association and Metropolitan (New York) Golf Association, as well as members of the World Golf Hall of Fame. The major finding of this project was that higher performing players showed superior optimism. The Hall of Fame members tested 17 percent higher than the lowest scorers. More research is needed to conclusively connect optimism to golf performance, but this study clearly indicates that an optimistic style is a predictor of success in golf.

S2 Tip

Where do you fall on the optimism spectrum? When you fail, do you see it as a personal defeat? Or do you consider it something that happens to everyone at times—and not a pattern for you—and that for the most part, you’re successful?

Making An Impact

Folds of Honor Foundation provides postsecondary educational scholarships for children and spouses of military men and women disabled or killed while serving our great nation. Each year, the PGA of America and United States Golf Association join together to host “Patriot Golf Day” over Labor Day weekend. Golfers are asked to add an extra dollar to their green fees to support the cause. The organization has raised more than $17.1 million for 5,000 recipients in all 50 states and 41 PGA sections.

In Another’s Words

“Optimism is essential to achievement and it is also the foundation of courage and true progress.”

Nicholas M. Butler (Philosopher)