The fascinating lesson I learned from spending a day with Tommy Bolt

I once had the opportunity to spend an entire day with the late, great Tommy Bolt. Tommy played on the PGA Tour back in the 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s. He had 15 wins, including the 1958 US Open, as well as being inducted to the World Golf Hall Of Fame in 2002.

We met in 2006 through a mutual friend, Jim Dawson. At the time, Mr. Bolt was quite old but still able-bodied and very sharp mentally. He could recall exact situations and stories from his treasured past on the PGA Tour. He competed against many of the greats of the game including Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Jack Nicklaus, and Arnold Palmer. Mr. Bolt shared with me many nuggets of wisdom but his best advice came the second day we were together.

Mr. Bolt asked if we could head to the course where he could watch me play golf, and I agreed. Inside, I was filled with excitement and my nerves were spinning at full force. We arrived at a course near his home in Hardy, Arkansas. After watching we practice my chipping and putting, hit full shots on the range, and then tee off on the first hole, Mr. Bolt left his seat in his golf cart and approached me briskly. He grabbed my arm and very firmly asked, “Son, how many tournaments have you won?” I was a bit stunned. What could I possibly say to impress a PGA Tour legend and world golf hall-of-fame member, after all I had only turned pro about 18 months earlier. I puffed up my chest and replied, “I’ve already won two mini-tour events.” It seemed great in my mind to get off to such a hot start in my short career, but his reply changed the way I thought about golf forever. Tommy Bolt responded by saying, “Your swing is way too good for you to only have 2 wins. It’s time to improve the way you think.”

In my new-found humility, I smiled and politely replied with gratitude. I had been given a great compliment but also a kick in the pants to begin to work on my mind-set like I’ve always heard the greats of the game doing. The more time I spent with him the more I realized he was not a man to give an easy complement. Yes, he was a very nice man and I came to believe that all the old stereotypes of him being a brash and loud club-thrower were a bit over-stated. I think it was all planned. It was strategic. It happened, yes, but I believe it was more staged than an eruption.

Well, whatever his intention, it worked. I went on that day to play one of the best ball-striking rounds I’ve ever played. I hit every fairway but one; I hit every green in regulation but one, and I cruised to an easy 68. After the thrill of playing a near-flawless round of golf in front of Tommy Bolt faded, his words stuck with me. At the time, I considered my short game to be top-notch but I thought my swing was what needed the most improvement. In Tommy’s view, he could see my potential with the swing and he looked beyond technique-based goals because he knew the real key to success… that winning lies in the mind. He knew that what you could perfect in the mind would far surpass any contest with the clubs. It opened my eyes to a whole new way of preparation and a pursuit of improvement churned in me in a whole new way.

This is what I want to share with you. How to win the mental game of golf. I have twenty years experience in competitive golf where I competed in high school, college, and as a professional golfer but I never was taught what I now know. I look back and think, “What could I have accomplished if someone could’ve set me going in the right direction in my mind-set.” After all, the mind-set shapes the way we think about ourselves, which drives the way we practice, which drives the way we compete, which drives the excellence we demand from ourselves. It’s amazing to watch competitive golfers have such highs and lows in competition that they never have in their practice rounds… The difference is all mind-set.

Tommy Bolt was a brilliant man. He had a plan.

Interestingly, I went on to win the US Open qualifier in 2014 at the same course where Tommy Bolt won the US Open back in 1958, at Southern Hills Country Club in my home state of Oklahoma.

He continued, “The most important shot in golf is the tee shot because it sets you up for the rest of the hole. Putting is important too and you need to putt well to win, but there are 18 individual holes with 18 tee shots and if you don’t realize the importance of the first shot on every hole, you will never realize your winning potential.”