Business Irish

Tuesday 14 August 2018

Mind over matters: The Open secret of Padraig's success

Dr Bob Rotella believes positive thought can win the British Open and much else in life, writes Fearghal O'Connor

Padraig Harrington with the famous Claret Jug after his gripping British Open victory at Carnoustie in 2007.
Padraig Harrington with the famous Claret Jug after his gripping British Open victory at Carnoustie in 2007.

Fearghal O'Connor

Ten years ago Ireland's Padraig Harrington became the first Irishman in 60 years to win one of golf's greatest prizes, the British Open at Carnoustie. Without the calming presence by his side that day of world-famous sports psychologist Dr Bob Rotella it might have been very different.

Today, Rotella sees the closing moments of that famous day as one of the great examples of the power of positivity in action. It is a power he tries to teach his clients - everyone from top golfers and sports stars to corporate leaders - to bring to their own lives on and off the golf course.

Bob Rotella
Bob Rotella

Heading into the final hole Harrington had victory in his grasp, only to suffer a series of calamitous disasters. Two final wondrous shots barely rescued a double bogie that put him into a nail-biting play-off against Sergio Garcia, who, no doubt, could not believe his luck.

Speaking from his home in the US, Rotella recalls the tense moments between the 18th hole disaster and the winner-takes-all play-off.

Harrington had just hit an embarrassing six on a par four in the biggest game of his life but Rotella knew the Irishman needed to focus on the last two sensational 'up and down' shots that had just saved the situation from a heartbreaking defeat on the 18th green.

"I made sure I was the first person he saw when he came out of the scorer's trailer. All I wanted to say to him was 'that was the greatest up and down I have ever seen in my entire life'. A lot of people asked me later was it the greatest I had seen. Well, I wasn't really caring at that moment but I knew it was what I wanted him thinking."

The positive thoughts worked. Harrington stepped up and birdied the first hole of the playoff and went on to claim the famous Claret Jug.

The golfer would later recall his final cool-as-ice three and a half foot winning putt: "I rolled it in the middle. It was all very routine, flowing and fluid. It was pure Bob Rotella stuff. I looked at where I wanted the ball to go, and how it was getting there."

Rotella, who will speak at the Pendulum Summit in Dublin in January, believes this type of positive visualisation is key, whether you are trying to win the British Open or achieve just about anything else in sport, business or life.

"Just the other day one of our top basketball players came to me because he was really struggling. He had been so worried about letting his coach down that he got nervous about missing shots. Spending a lot of time visualising yourself playing great, seeing yourself making those shots, can really help."

Another key to Harrington's success is a resilience born of a love for the game, says Rotella.

"If you love the game then you love the fact that it's a game of mistakes and doesn't always go the way you want. You have to be able to hang in there and be strong and go on to the next shot. Padraig is a very optimistic human being and optimism is a requirement if you want to excel at this game. He has a lot of it."

Harrington, it is said, tends to overthink his game.

"Anybody who wasn't a child prodigy is going to overthink or over study the game," says Rotella. "They are always trying to figure out how to catch the guys that are better than them. Padraig is a great learner and a great student and he is very honest with himself. I think the fact that he played other sports has very much helped him with the game. And he is excited to play every time he tees up. Whether the result is what he is looking for or not he is ready to go again. That's what you have to be able to do."

Harrington is perhaps an example of a great golfer nurtured through long hours of practice and self improvement.

Rory McIlroy on the other hand might be seen as the child prodigy, born with a golden club in his hand.

"It's an interesting point," says Rotella. "I think Rory has probably worked very hard at his game too but it took Padraig a lot longer to get there. He had to work harder because it didn't come as naturally to him. But his attitude was always 'I'm going to do what I gotta do'."

And Harrington was never going to settle for just being pretty good, says Rotella.

"He had some big ideas in his head. He didn't care that no one from Ireland had won a Major in decades. He had the belief to say 'I'll do it'. Padraig's perception of his talent as a young kid was probably greater than other people's perception of what his talent was. But as long as you have that in your head you will figure out how to do it. You don't care whether it is hard or if you have to delay gratification longer than someone else. A lot of it comes down to an optimistic attitude. You know in your head that something fantastic could happen to you if you really apply yourself and Padraig has a lot of that in him."

Missing a couple of shots does not mean you are going to lose the tournament, says Rotella. "It just means you missed a couple of shots. You have to keep going. That is where optimism plays such a big role. Part of that is knowing that fantastic things are going to happen to you in your life if you keep persevering. Your life unfolds the way it unfolds but you got to apply yourself in the right way to see how it is going to unfold. Some people give up on their lives or their careers or having good things happen to them before they happen. You have to persevere with belief."

If Rotella has one tip for the average golfer to improve, it is to clear their mind of unnecessary thought as they step up to hit the ball.

"We want people to unconsciously react to the target. Your last thought is very important and if you get that in the right place and not let any conscious thought get in there between you and the ball you are going to do a lot better."

Rotella says that the equivalent in your life or your job to stepping up to a golf ball with an unencumbered mind and hitting it instinctively is to get out of bed every day in a great mood.

"When people are in that state of mind they usually have a pretty darn successful day. The great performers get there a lot more of the time and they stay in that state of mind regardless of the tough things that happen during the day. In business there can be a lot of disappointment, there's a lot of people saying 'no, I don't think so' and you have to be able to stay in the right state of mind and love the challenge of it."

Rotella firmly believes this approach can be applied successfully to many other areas.

"Golf isn't that different from life. It can be hard. It can be rewarding. It breaks your heart and disappoints you at times. You find out if you really love golf or if you really love life a lot of the time when it isn't going your way. The challenge is getting through all the tough times."

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