5 Traits Every Great Golfer Must Possess
Professional golfers are not, and rarely ever have been, elite athletes in the traditional sense. Early in his career, Jack Nicklaus smoked cigarettes on the golf course for crying out loud.
Seriously, the next time you see Steve Stricker run a 40-yard-dash in 4.5 seconds please let us know. Ditto that on Rory McIlroy dunking a basketball from the free-throw line…or just at all for that matter. Instead, it takes a truly special mixture of physical and mental talents to produce a professional golfer and then a commitment to improve those natural abilities to realize a great one.
Certainly the mechanics of the swing have to be there, but there are multiple variations of the science that have succeeded over the years. Rather, the division of good to great, professional golfer to proven champion happens more above the shoulders than below them. The absolute self belief, ability to focus and commitment to winning are just several of the traits required by today’s most successful champion golfers.
Here then, are the top-five attributes we would seek when building the next world-class professional golfer.
Confident Bordering on Cocky
Professional golfers come with a significant amount of confidence that allows them to take on the most challenging golf courses under pressure-packed circumstances. Champion golfers have a knack for turning that confidence into just the right amount of cockiness to turn potential into glory.
In fact, the better the golfer, the cockier he is, and often, more arrogant he can be both on and off the golf course. It’s a unique aspect of the psyche accomplished golfers must own if they are to achieve success on the loneliest of stages and under the brightest of lights.
Sometimes, the trait makes them enviable and admired among fellow players and fans. Other times, those same qualities make them rather unlikable to both. The results, however, are often quite obvious.
Some major champions simply ooze this cockiness during competition. Tiger Woods comes to mind, as does Sergio Garcia and Greg Norman. Others hide it beneath an outwardly easy-going persona. Yet as with Phil Mickelson, Rory McIlroy and Fred Couples, that cockiness is most certainly there. The difference is, it's hidden just slightly under the surface.
Outwardly displayed or not, every elite golfer has the cocky gene to one level or another. The extent to which they do, however, goes a long way as to how great they ultimately are.
Short-Term Memory Loss
Even the greatest golfer can miss a gimmie putt for a key birdie or a crucial par save. The most talented can have a solid shot hit a pin and roll back into a hazard.
The difference between the great golfers and those who fall short of that distinction is often the ability to forget and move on from a bad shot or a terrible break immediately after it occurs.
From start to finish, a professional golfer’s career is a constant procession of “the next shot.” Though they vary in degrees of difficulty and pressure, the next play is always the most important, and many times, it follows a truly forgettable gaffe or unexpected break.
The conclusion of last week’s Players Championship was the perfect example of the power of short-term memory loss.
Following a terrible double-bogey on the 14th Sunday, Woods quickly put it behind him and finished the final four holes in one-under par. By stark contrast, Garcia hit his tee shot on 17 into the water and then followed that up with another into the drink to take a quadruple bogey.
Woods won The Players because he put his mistake behind him. Sergio lost because he couldn't do it fast enough.
A Singular Focus
There are, at any given time, a multitude of things going on during a golf tournament that can distract a golfer from his trade. Galleries, opponents, weather and even wildlife can take the focus off the preparation for and the execution of a critical golf shot.
It’s the players who can block it all out and focus only on the strategy and shot at hand that find success, especially when the stakes are at their highest.
Perhaps, more than any other athlete, professional golfers have the unique ability to focus solely on the shot at hand, seeing nothing but the golf ball and the target and the best possible path to get the former to the latter. That focus becomes increasingly important later in tournaments as galleries grow equally with the pressure players feel.
That focus is all the more intense for the truly elite golfers who are typically playing in front of large galleries, often in the biggest tournaments and with television audiences that number in the millions. With all that going on, the ability to concentrate completely on one little white ball and a target often hundreds of yards away is amazing at best, impressive at the very least.
A Creative Mind's Eye
Today’s elite golfers can hit the ball farther than ever before. They also can hit it farther off line than ever before, meaning the ability to see and then pull off recovery shots is at a significant premium unlike ever before.
Visualizing an escape route from a tree-lined prison, a flop-shot from a tight lie or even a pitch that takes advantage of the slope of a green is a remarkable quality that great golfers use to steal strokes and save shots in key moments. Often, that creativity is the reason golfers survive, other times, it’s the exact reason they thrive when the most is on the line.
The perfect example of the power of improvisation is Bubba Watson’s 2012 Masters escape from a tree-lined prison that earned him his first-ever green jacket and major championship victory.
Watson’s “banana wedge” from the trees on the 10th hole essentially won him the playoff over Louis Oosthuizen, an accomplishment that wouldn't have been if not for the ability to visualize the shot enough to trust he could pull it off with the pressure on him.
A Competitive Fire That Burns
For some, it’s a fear of losing. For others, it’s a flat-out obsession to win and be the best. Whatever the motivation, every champion athlete owns a fire for victory that simply can’t be extinguished. Given the singular nature of professional golf, it’s an absolute trait in the greatest golfers who've ever played the game.
Indeed, the names of the most competitive golfers run parallel with that of the most accomplished in the sport. One fist pump from Tiger Woods, putter raise from Jack Nicklaus or stare down from Nick Faldo is all you have to see to understand what winning means to the game’s best.
It’s something that lives inside the psyche of these incredible talents and comes spilling out during the most intense moments.
Tiger didn't win the 2008 U.S. Open on a torn ACL because it felt good. He did it because he refused to feel the sting of defeat even through the pain of walking, much less swinging. Nicklaus managed to win the 1986 Masters at the age of 46 not because he found the fountain of youth, but because he hadn't let himself lose the passion for victory.
Bottom line, for some, winning is a welcomed result to playing well. For the truly elite, it’s the only acceptable result.