Why Do Some Pros Succeed On Tour While Others Fail And Have To Sell Golf Balls? Part 1 of 3

When Jack Nicklaus was in his prime a lot of people commented that many golfers could hit the ball as well as he could it’s just that they didn’t have the same mental strengths that he had. That’s why he was winning majors while other equally talented golfers had to sell golf balls. So that begs the question…what are the mental strengths that separates the golfers that make it from the golfers that don’t?

Imagine if you found out what they were. Then you could do what do they and you’d improve, right?

That’s called modeling success – find someone who has what you want, find out what they do and then copy them.

Well, I found an interesting study done by Nadeane McCafferey and Terry Orlick that found out the mental differences between top touring pros and club pros.

And what these two did was to interview 14 top professionals from the P.G.A. and L.P.G.A. tours of 1987 and 1988, all of whom had won professional tournaments and also they interviewed 9 golf course teaching professionals as a comparison.

Now although this study was done quite some time ago it still reveals a lot. And you’ll find that the mental attributes needed to succeed in golf at the top level are as relevant today as they’ve ever been.

From the interviews McCaffery and Orlick did they found that the following mental characteristics were common among all the top touring pros…

  • High levels of commitment
  • Quality training
  • Daily goal setting
  • Extensive use of mental imagery
  • A practice plan
  • Pre-tournament plan
  • Tournament focus plan
  • Systematic ongoing tournament evaluation
  • The ability to refocus in the face of distractions
  • A clear understanding of the underlying difference between a good and bad performance

Now let’s go through each of these points in more detail and under each section you’ll see quotes from the top pros that were interviewed. Then after this I’ll show you a comparison between the top touring pros and the club pros interviewed. This is very interesting and you’ll learn a lot from it.

But before you start looking at the individual sections below I just want to say that there were no names mentioned in this study so that’s why none of the quotes are identified. They’re still very interesting though and you can learn a lot just from the quotes themselves.


From this study it was found that all top touring pros thought that the first essential factor that contributed to their success was commitment. And what specifically this meant was that nothing stood in the way of their golf. Their lives were totally focused on golf. Here’s some quotes from these top pros on the commitment needed to succeed at the top level…

“In 1983, I was totally committed and became the leading money winner.”

“I’m really committed to golf, it is my life.”

“I’m at the top level and I’ve worked very hard to get here. I’m still working hard and I’m still very committed. I’m a very disciplined controlling type of person.”

“I work extremely hard to get the success that I do. I have grinded it out and I am proud of it.”

Next on the success list was…

Quality Practice

This study found that the top touring pros felt it was better to have high quality practice rather than focus on quantity. And when they were playing well their practice sessions were often shorter but more concentrated. Here’s some quotes from the top tour pros on practicing…

“I see guys go out there and hit 8 or 9 buckets of balls and I wonder how many of those they hit well. I may go out and hit half a bucket. If I applied myself to that half a bucket and I got positive results I might quit right then.”

“My practice is always with quality shots in mind.”

“Training could be anything from 1 to 3 hours of quality focusing. If I’m having a good time, I’ll stay there. A lot of guys have the physical and technical ability but have no idea as to the amount of time and effort needed for the mental training and waste hours and hours of practice time.”

“As long as I’m concentrating at practice it’s beneficial, but if I’m just going through the motions, I’ll quit. It’s quality time that counts.”

“I can walk away even if it’s half an hour of practice, but I know I got my work done. I go out there with a purpose.”

“I put the ultimate effort into my training, but it’s draining and takes a lot of mental discipline. I give every shot fully intention and attention.”

OK, let’s now turn our attention to…

Goal Setting

In this study it was found that the top touring pros are all very goal-orientated people. They set daily practice goals, daily tournament play goals, tournament goals for the week, long term goals for the year and for several years from now. Their goals are very clearly defined in three separate categories:

1) attainable

2) attainable only if pushed to the maximum of effort, and

3) lofty goals that may or may not be possible, depending upon circumstances outside of the individual’s control.

Also, it was found that the top pros do not set specific score goals because as one put it…

“You can’t shoot 66 on the first tee. Just step up and hit the ball on the fairway on the first tee.”

Now here are some different goal categories that the top pros were questioned about along with their answers…

Defined Goals

“If I don’t set goals I don’t know whether I’ve accomplished anything. With defined goals I can finish my day and say, Great! That’s exactly what I wanted to do. They are defined, refined and achieved.”

“When I set defined goals for myself, I achieve them. When I don’t set goals, I don’t play well.”

“I was always a goal setter and I had three really good years in a row and then all of a sudden I didn’t set goals and it really hurt me.”

Daily Goals

“My daily goal is to have fun.”

“Daily goals vary. It depends on what I’m working on and my swing.”

“My daily goals are mostly for putting.”

Practice Goals

“I do a lot of practicing in my room at night, as far as putting and working on my swing in the mirror, things like that.”

“Like on a practice day, today, I’m going to get the feel of the Golf Course.”

“When I play a practice round, my purpose is to get the feel of the Golf Course.”

Tournament Goals

“Every tournament I set goal’s. Play one shot at a time.”

“For a tournament I set very high goals. I always set goals that are achievable and goals that are not so achievable.”

Yearly Goals

“My goal for this year was to make the Ryder Cup Team and I’ve achieved that.”

“I was so obsessed with becoming player of the year, that now I’ve achieved that, it’s hard to see what’s left.”

Long Term Goals

“A major goal is the LPGA Hall of Fame.”

“I’m setting my goals for five years from now, to be a winner every year.”

So that just shows you how important goals are and what a big impact they have on success. Next let’s look at a very important aspect of golfing success…


In this study it was found that every one of the top professional golfers interviewed mentally experienced the physical action before they played their golf shots. But every one of the top pros had a different way of describing what they do and some did it naturally and always have and others practiced it and imprinted it in their minds which would help their body to perform better.

Also, interestingly, it was found that every top pro golfer does mental imagery on a regular basis, whether it was for seconds or for concentrated hours. Now here are a few comments the top pros related to imagery in many different areas of golf…

Putting Imagery

“When I’ve putted well it is as if somebody took a little chalk and just put the path on the green for me and I saw it, and I putted along that line and the ball goes in.”

Shotmaking Imagery

“When things are going well, my imagery is crystal clear and I do visualization everywhere. I feel the execution of the shot, see the target area, visualize the entire sequence, go through it, and expect it to go into the hole. No thinking, just the doing.”

Best Round Imagery

“My best all time round, I visualized it and then played it. I visualized the night before, the morning and then let it happen. Feel it happen and then do it. When I’m playing well the feel stays with me. I can practice less and the mental part and visualizing maintains the feel. The importance is to feel each shot and visualize it.”

Practice Imagery

“I do a lot of visualization, particularly before bed, fifty times or three times a day depending on how receptive I am on that day. It’s not always positive or crystal clear but it’s not negative and I never visualize a score, just one shot at a time.”

“I do a lot of visualization at night and then the next day when I go to play I’ve already kind of gone over my round and seen what I want to do and I just try and let go and play, out of my mind.”

Winning Imagery

“When I won the U.S. Open, I knew I’d win it and it happened just how I imaged it. Four days of par or better.”

Synchronization Imagery

“I run the shot through my head before I hit every time. Feel and see is all wrapped up into one. You and the club as one.”

Simulation Imagery

“When I’m practicing, I use imagery for quality practice time, like simulation practice. When I’m putting, I practice my mechanics for awhile, then I’ll practice situation type practice.”

“One par three last week, everyday I thought I was going to make a hole in one on it. The visual was there and the feeling and I got up and made a birdie on it three days out of the four. And knocked it within two feet three times. It was the complete image from within.”

Recall Imagery

“The day I played my best round my images were very vivid and really clear. I can remember all the good shots and I can visualize the putts I knocked in from all over the place.”

“I remember shots that were played at critical times during certain events. I can recall them with extreme clarity and bring back the emotion and the situation. The recall helps in other situations, and you can certainly draw upon that. That is why good players who have achieved success go on and have more successes, because they do in fact feed upon those.”

“Last year was an exceptional year for building confidence, so I continue to look at videos and relive those final holes.”

“My best ever eighteen holes was eight birdies in a row and that game helps my visualization for recalling that feel, particularly when I’m down and not making a lot of birdies, I’ll bring that feeling back up.”

That was part one in this three part article series. The second part is coming.  It’s got some good things you can implement to improve your golf game and take it to the next level so stay tuned.

Posted in

Jeff Richmond