The Best Advice I Ever Got: Pearls of Wisdom From the Golf World

January 17, 2014

Golfers crave advice. On the practice tee, in the locker room, at the bar. And why not? Wisdom can influence the way we approach not only golf but also business, love and the rest of life's pursuits. With that in mind, we asked the world's finest players, coaches, caddies—and other lovers of the game—a daunting question: What's the best advice you ever got? While the learning didn't need to be golf-specific, in many cases it was. What follows is a compendium of knowledge from some of the biggest names in the game, from an 18-year-old college phenom to 93-year-old longtime USGA president Sandy Tatum.

STEVE STRICKER, 46, who has nine PGA Tour wins since turning 40:

I got advice from Jay Haas when he was in his late 40s. I said, "Jay, how do you continue to play so well out here?" He said, "If you're going to come out here and play, be prepared. Give it your all. Don't wish you were back home or doing something else. Focus on the job and the game." That was the key for him when he was on Tour; it was strictly his business, and when he was home, it was strictly family.

SEAN FOLEY, 39, swing coach to Tiger Woods and Justin Rose:

My dad, Gerry, gave me a book when I was 14, an autobiography of Gandhi. What stuck with me was that we need to be the change we want to see in the world. Be a man of action. Whatever else, I want my children, the kids I coach, and my Tour players to look at me as someone who does as he says. When you don't do what you preach, then you lose respect. And once you lose respect in a relationship, it gets difficult.

Johnny Miller and Lee Trevino

Marvin E. Newman/Sports Illustrated
Lee Trevino told Johnny Miller to "hit it low" to avoid choking.

JOHNNY MILLER, 66, 25-time PGA Tour winner:

The best advice I ever got came early in my career, from Lee Trevino. In 1972 or '73, he told me, "If you're choking, baby, just hit it low. It doesn't have time to get off line." If Greg Norman or Payne Stewart had gotten that advice—to hit a three-quarter punch shot when they were nervous—they would have won two or three times as many majors. How many times have you seen Tiger hit his stinger and miss the fairway? Not much. The punch shot is the most valuable tool in finishing up championships; it was my go-to shot under pressure. I teed my ball way low, aimed my driver down the left side of the fairway, leaned into it with my left shoulder, and hit a low fade.

JIM MCLEAN, 63, founder and owner, Jim McLean Golf Schools:

My dad, John, worked for Boeing in Seattle for 44 years, and he said to make sure to listen to a lot of different people. Don't close yourself off. That's been helpful for me with my golf schools. And Ken Venturi told me to teach the fundamentals of golf that have stood the test of time, because those are what stand up under pressure.

BO VAN PELT, 38, Tour winner, Ryder Cup veteran:

When I turned pro, my dad, Bob, told me that if I played like I was broke and hungry, I'd never be either one. Don't take things for granted and get complacent.

ANNIKA SORENSTAM, 43, Hall of Famer, golf icon:

One day as a kid I was hitting balls on the range and it started to rain. I called my dad to pick me up. As we were driving away he saw all the other kids still practicing in the downpour. He said, "Annika, in life there are no shortcuts to success." Those words inspired me throughout my 15 years as a pro golfer, and they still do to this day, as a mom, businesswoman and philanthropist.

JASON DAY, 26, 2010 HP Byron Nelson champion:

When I was 7 or 8, I'd get angry with myself and I'd want to throw a club. My dad would always say, "Never say die." I think it was on a TV ad back home. But it stuck with me. As I progressed through my amateur career, I often started off slow and came from behind to win.

DONALD TRUMP, 67, real-estate and course developer:

Nick Faldo once emphasized to me the importance of tempo. He said it's what keeps all the elements of the golf swing together. Whether you hit the ball hard or soft, you need tempo. It's up to the individual player to find their best tempo and to keep it throughout the game. Over the years, I realized he was absolutely right. It is always my thought when playing under pressure.

KENNY G, 57, Grammy winner, scratch golfer:

My instructor, Craig Koy, told me that when you start getting more pleasure out of shooting a good score, even when your swing isn't at its best, that's when the game gets really fun. On a day when your swing just isn't there, yet you scrounge around the course for a 68 or 78 or 88 because you keep grinding and refuse to give up? Well, that's the real fun.

Graeme McDowell and Ernie Els

Getty Images
Ernie Els (right) urged Graeme McDowell to enjoy the good times.


GRAEME McDOWELL, 34, 2010 U.S. Open champion:

Back in 2010, it had taken me a couple months to get my focus back after winning the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. And I remember Ernie Els saying to me, "Make sure you enjoy it. I've enjoyed and celebrated every one of my major wins, because you know what? You never know when it's going to be your last. There are enough tough times." That's true in golf and in life—enjoy it, live it, have fun, laugh, celebrate. Because the tough times are tough.

RICKIE FOWLER, 25, 2012 Wells Fargo champion:

I've always been encouraged to stick with what I do naturally, and to not get a swing coach since my teacher [Barry McDonnell] passed away in 2011.

KEEGAN BRADLEY, 27, 2011 PGA champion:

My aunt Pat [the World Golf Hall of Famer] told me to stay patient, not only on the course but also over the year. Sometimes you think things are so bad, and then a month later you win and you're back at the top. I tend to have a good West Coast, then a lull, and the end of the year is normally pretty good. Staying patient has been the most important thing.

STEWART CINK, 40, 2009 British Open champion:

Keep the main thing. We use that phrase for mobilizing our foundation charity event committee folks, and I also use it when I'm making decisions pertaining to golf, like which events to play, or when new equipment changes are happening. My wife, Lisa, was taught the phrase when she was training to run fund-raising events for a crisis pregnancy center where she is a volunteer counselor. It's simple advice, but it helps narrow the focus in whatever you're trying to accomplish.

LARRY MIZE, 55, 1987 Masters champion: I was 23 or 24, I think it was my first year on Tour, when Gary Player told me, "Don't let your temper ruin all the hard work you've put into your game." In other words, there's no need to practice if you're just going to get mad and throw shots away. I needed to control it better than I was.

JOE LACAVA, 49, Tiger Woods's caddie:

My dad, Joe, who has passed away, told me two things. First, if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all. The second thing he told through a story. When he was in the Army, he trained in Fort Benning. He'd picked up golf a couple of years before he went into the Army. One day, a couple of the bigwigs—generals, or whatever—were about to go play. My dad was a grunt. They said, "Who here likes golf?" My dad had just started playing golf, so he was a fanatic. He raised his hand, along with a couple of other guys. So the general says, "Okay, you, you and you, come with us. You're caddying for us today." The lesson? Never volunteer for anything! [Laughs]

JOHN COOK, 56, 11-time PGA Tour winner:

Ken Venturi once said to me, "We're going to teach you how to hit the ball pin-high, which is the key to playing consistent golf." It's been my philosophy for 40 years. It doesn't matter what club you hit in; you don't want the ball spinning back because you can't control a ball coming backward. You can control a ball going forward and stopping. So when it's, say, a wedge shot, take something off a 9-iron. That's how you hit it close on the green. Kids today don't know how to flight the ball. Everything is 120 percent for them.

BUBBA WATSON, 35, 2012 Masters champion:

When I was 12, my dad said, "You're going to be either a follower or a leader. You want to be a leader and do stuff your way and do what makes you happy." That stuck with me. I play golf my way, practice my way, and it's worked.

ERIK COMPTON, 34, who qualified for the PGA Tour after two heart transplants:

It came from Jack Nicklaus's tennis coach: Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery.

KENNY GREEN, 31, executive director of the National Amputee Golf Association:

My grandfather said, "You'll never realize when you have a good day unless you have a bad one."

DEANE BEMAN, 75, four-time PGA Tour winner; PGA Tour commissioner [1974-94]:

The best management advice came from my son, Darby, who was working on a project doing roads and drainage for a development in Maryland. He was with a good old boy chewing tobacco, and the guy said, "Darby, there's only one thing you need to know about how to manage these people working for you: You can't expect what you don't inspect." It's so concise and straight to the point, it should be on the wall of anyone who manages people and projects. You've got to put the effort in to make sure it's done right. Otherwise, you can only hope.

ANDREW "CHUBBY" CHANDLER, 59, British golf agent:

Stephen Boler, who owned Mere Golf and Country Club [outside Manchester, England], where I was attached, told me that I would make mistakes. But if I made the same mistake twice, I was dumb.

ALISON LEE, 18, 2013 AJGA Rolex Player of the Year [UCLA]:

The game itself has taught me that golf doesn't define you. Good or bad, you can't let what happens on the course consume you. All you can do is your best. Play your hardest. There's much more to life than golf, and no matter what you shoot, there's much more to you.

HUNTER MAHAN, 31, five-time PGA Tour winner:

You know how you get upset when you play badly? It's like you're telling everybody, "Hey, I'm a better player than this!" Well, I was playing in one of my first tournaments at Oklahoma State, and I was getting kind of angry, and my coach, Mike Holder, pulled me aside and said, "Do you think anyone cares how you play out here? You care, your parents care, I kind of care, but do you think your teammates even care? They're pulling for you, but they're trying to beat you. So stop acting like everyone cares. Just play golf."

Hal Sutton

Hal Sutton sought out Byron Nelson, who told him to seek balance in his life.

HAL SUTTON, 55, 1983 PGA champion:

I used to see Byron Nelson at Preston Trail [in Dallas]. I said, "What's the best advice you can give me?" He said, "Try to keep balance in your life." I was constantly trying to change the course of my life and steer it toward perfection, which takes you out of balance. Perfection is very unbalanced.

BILL HARMON, 63, instructor, and son of 1948 Masters champion Claude Harmon:

My dad said something to me that stuck: "I don't know why you get so upset. You aren't that good."

ROGER CLEVELAND, 69, Callaway's chief of golf club design:

I used to give golf lessons to [then] Boeing CEO Alan Mulally, who is now the CEO of Ford and a member of Augusta. He had this little watch. It cost about $12 and it said "working together" on the face. He had everybody wear it. It seems simple, but his philosophy was about everybody being on the same page all the way through the chain, from suppliers to R&D to the customers. Even though a Boeing airplane has two or three million parts and a golf club has five or something, it's still critical.

JIM NANTZ, 54, CBS Sports golf commentator:

My old college coach at the University of Houston, Dave Williams, told me something that I still abide by: Always thank the club professional before and after your round. His long days and tireless efforts should be recognized and appreciated.

SANDY TATUM, 93, former amateur standout and USGA president:

My game held together remarkably well through my 80s, to the point where I shot a 73 on my 86th birthday. But when I hit 90, my game went south without leaving a forwarding address. I haven't been able to break 100 since. I was complaining about this to a friend not long ago, He looked at me and said, "Tatum, just keep swinging." I think that's good advice for anyone. I take what I can get on the course—which is very little—and I'm extremely grateful for it. That's all I can do: Just keep swinging.