Dr. Bob Rotella never thought he would work in golf, let alone at The Open Championship. Now, however, at 71 years of age and with nine Champion Golfers on his coaching resume, he ranks as one of the most successful coaches in the history of The Open.
Not a traditional coach in the technical sense, Rotella is widely considered the leading psychologist in the world of golf and sport, with his clients in men’s and women’s golf claiming over 75 major championships whilst in his care.
A sports psychologist who happened upon coaching the game of golf nearly half a century ago, Rotella’s success is extraordinary. Here, we look at the life, philosophy and career of one of golf’s greatest minds.
Born in Rutland, Vermont in 1949, Rotella’s first experiences with an Open Champion were long before he began coaching golfers.
“As a kid, I caddied a decent amount, and I got to caddie a lot for Bobby Locke, because his wife was from my home town,” Rotella said. “So I got to caddie for a guy who won four Open Championships, and that was a lot of fun. He was an amazing putter, and he was an interesting man.
“He liked to play the ukulele and sing, he didn’t practice a lot. There was no range at Rutland Country Club, so he just hit 9-irons or wedges down the 18th fairway and I’d shag caddie for him.”
Quality of practice over quantity has long been a staple of Rotella’s teachings, which have been published in numerous books over the past three decades. Inspired by the incredibly efficient Locke, alongside many other athletes in team sports, a young Rotella became driven to study psychology at university.
“I was really interested in performance,” Rotella said. “I wasn’t interested in abnormal psychology or clinical psychology, I was really interested in performance psychology.
“I wanted to study greatness. I wanted to study a very positive psychology. I never would have guessed I would have been working in golf, because I was really into team sports growing up.”
Rotella was an elite athlete in his own right, excelling in lacrosse and basketball, and would go on to coach those two sports while starting a doctoral program at the University of Virginia in the mid-1970s. It was then, in 1976, that Rotella happened upon the game he still coaches today.
“I was giving a talk to basketball coaches in Madison Square Garden in New York,” Rotella said, “and someone from Golf Digest was there, and liked it. They asked me to go give a talk to their advisory board for Golf Digest.”
Among the select members of the Golf Digest advisory board were legendary figures Bob Toski, Jim Flick, Davis Love Jr and Sam Snead, The Open Champion in 1946. After the board members loved Rotella’s speech, he quickly started working with players and through word of mouth began to build his coaching stable.
“I’ve had a ball and got to work with a lot of great people, and I think the best part was they all called me, I never called any of them! They were very ready to take an honest look on the inside of their mental game when they came and saw me, and I was very honest with them and I tried to keep psychology very simple and understandable.”
Rotella’s first students to win Open Championships were Ian-Baker Finch in 1991 at Royal Birkdale, and Nick Price at Turnberry three years later. Rotella’s work with the Australian and Zimbabwean respectively showcased the effectiveness of the Vermont native’s techniques for the first time on the world stage.
Price, a player who had immense talent and considerable global success in the early 1980s, did not win a PGA Tour event from 1984 to 1990. The Zimbabwean only won one worldwide tournament in that time, the South Australian Open on the PGA Tour of Australasia.
After beginning to work with Rotella, Price would win 14 times on the PGA Tour from 1991 to 1994 and rise to number one in the world. The pinnacle of those triumphs arguably came at the 123rd Open Championship in 1994, where Price’s mental fortitude proved unstoppable, despite a near-perfect back nine from Jesper Parnevik.
While Price’s birdie-eagle-par finish at Turnberry will forever live in the folklore of The Open Championship, it was yet another example of an incredible result from a Rotella student, stemming from dedication to process.
“I’m not very outcome-oriented, which is hard for people to understand,” Rotella said. “But the truth is you get into a process of playing one shot at a time and going and getting it, and you let outcome happen. You get outcome by being process-oriented, so it’s a game of scoring but it’s not a game of adding up your score until the round is over.
“You can make a lot of mistakes, you can do a lot of things wrong, and the myth is that you have to play perfect to win something like The Open, and the truth is, if you went back and watched every Open, you might find an exception now and then, but in general the winner makes a lot of mistakes.
"They miss a lot of shots, they miss some putts that they could make, and yet they still win because they just keep going and that’s what you have to be able to do.”.
Shortly following Price’s victory, Rotella released the first widely available book of his teachings, a tome that has since become one of the most influential in the sport, Golf is Not a Game of Perfect.
That same year, John Daly claimed The 124th Open at St Andrews under Rotella’s stewardship, before David Duval won The 130th Open in 2001 and Ernie Els won The 131st Open in 2002, both also ascending to the top of the world rankings en route to their triumphs in golf’s original major.
The school of psychological thought Rotella has built his golfing philosophy around is the idea of free will, where golfers can choose to be confident, choose to be focused on their process of hitting shots and choose how to react to adversity.
It is no surprise then that Rotella has had such success in The Open, and the man his students fondly call ‘Doc’ believes the challenges and difficulties of links golf have had a large part to play in that regard.
“The first thing that hit me about links golf,” Rotella said, “was how many players I worked with, who had a tendency to be overly-analytical or overly into their golf swing, got to The Open on a links golf course, when the weather was windy and cold and blowy, and immediately started playing golf. It was amazing how they immediately became creative players instead of technicians.
“It was wonderful how many guys just intuitively did a lot of stuff that we wanted them to do, as long as the weather was bad, and the ball was running, and the course was firm and fast and playing like I love seeing links golf played.”
Rotella often preaches a focus on process, a focus which in doing so creates positive outcomes, and believes the lack of airborne control on a dry links course creates that form of focus naturally.
“I think a lot of people look at it as the purest form of golf, because the ball is bouncing on the ground a lot more. You probably have less control over the ball, so it brings out more imagination, more creativity, more feel.
“I think it really allows people to play the game, and I think that’s what a lot of players really love about it. I can’t think of anybody who I’ve ever worked with who doesn’t really love links golf.”
Around the early 2000s, Rotella’s influence on British and Irish golf became even more prominent. The American began to work with two of Ireland’s best golfers in Padraig Harrington and Darren Clarke.
Neither player had won a major in their careers, but by 2007, both men had been in and around the world’s top 10 for nearly a decade.
Harrington has often credited the work he has done with Rotella since the turn of the millennium for his successes, and he was the first of the modern crop of Irish players to get over the line in golf's original major.
Harrington’s initial success in 2007 wasn’t at all straightforward, however. Standing on the 18th tee at Carnoustie in The 136th Open Championship with a two-shot lead, Harrington hit two balls into the water, before getting up and down for a double-bogey six. Rotella was one of the first people to speak with Harrington after the round, and was focused on nothing but positives.
“When he came out of the scorers tent,” Rotella said, “I was waiting on the steps and all I did was have a big grin on my face and give him a high five and say that was the greatest up and down I’ve ever seen in my life, because that’s where I wanted his head going into this play-off.
“We had probably 10 minutes on the putting green, and it was all about the great up and down and lets go play a great play-off and get our head in the right place for the play-off, which he did. And he came back and played 18 beautifully in the play-off.”
Speed of play, and the quickening of a routine, is often considered a sign of feeling the pressure in an important championship. But Rotella, who preaches a consistent, decisive pre-shot routine as the ‘rod and staff’ of any golfer, does not necessarily agree.
“I remember walking in the play-off with David Frost, who had watched Padraig play for a long time, and David Frost was absolutely amazed at how short and quick Padraig’s routine had gotten, and how he just got up to the ball, took a look and went. He said: ‘Wow, Padraig used to be slow, I can’t believe how little time he takes over that ball and how he just turns it loose, he is so decisive it’s amazing!'”
For Rotella, the satisfaction he receives from helping the likes of Harrington to victory is part of his career’s purpose and ambition, ever since he studied the concept of greatness as a student.
“My life is about helping people with their dreams, and you know how much it means to all these players. When you realise how many guys and gals put this much time and energy into chasing their dreams, it’s a big deal.
“And for someone like Padraig, who took a while to put his game together, it means a lot, and I’ve always talked about the impact it had for Padraig winning. No one from Ireland had won an Open for nearly 60 years and you think about how many guys from Ireland have won since then, it’s pretty amazing.
“It’s not that different than from what happened with Roger Bannister and the four-minute mile. We call it contagious, but it’s amazing how when you see someone else do it from your country, it starts becoming believable and doable, and it just shows what a fine line there is in the game of golf.”
Harrington would successfully defend his Open Championship at Royal Birkdale a year later, before Northern Ireland's Clarke, perhaps contagious through Harrington’s success, finally had his day in the sun at The 141st Open Championship at the age of 42. Clarke famously went into the week with no confidence in his game, before turning it round with Rotella on Wednesday evening.
“By the time the tournament started, he got in a great place and he really got in a great place even Sunday morning. I told the story many times, I remember he and Dustin Johnson were the last two on the putting green, and Darren was just in a fabulous state of mind that morning, as he had been all week. I was thrilled to see him be that happy and relaxed.
“He walked to me on the ropes, gives me a hug and says something to the effect of ‘Doc, as long as I have fun, and stay unconscious and just react to my targets, I’m going to be a happy guy whether I win or lose today.’ And when he walked away, I remember going ‘Fantastic! That is just what I wanted to hear.’
“And I told him at the party that night, I said: ‘Darren, that was music to my ears. If you would have given me an embrace and then said, you know, I’m 42 years old and this might be my last chance to win The Open. If I don’t, I’ll probably never win one’, I would have thought ‘oh gosh, we didn’t get him where we needed to get him’. So that was important, because I didn’t know that he was going to win, but I knew he was going to play really good.”
Since Clarke’s win in 2011, Rotella has coached three more Champion Golfers of the Year, with Els collecting his second Claret Jug in 2012, Rory McIlroy earning his triumph at Royal Liverpool in 2014 and Henrik Stenson’s incredible performance leading to victory at Royal Troon in 2016.
But what did all nine players who have been helped by Rotella’s tutorship have in common? For Rotella, the answer is simpler than one might think.
“I think there’s a variety of reasons” Rotella said of the similarities between his students. “I would say every time someone wins an Open they get in a state of mind where they’re going to be unbelievably patient and accepting. They’re going to take whatever the game gives them.
“I would say it has nothing to do with how they’re hitting it on Monday or Tuesday or Wednesday. You know sometimes they were feeling really good going in, other times they weren’t feeling particularly good going in, but whether it was through my help or on their own or some weird circumstance, they got in a state of mind where they were just going to go and get the ball in the hole.
“Most of the time when guys won it was really more about getting the ball in the hole. It really doesn’t get talked about enough, but they made a par putt when they needed to make a par putt at an important moment. They took a bogey and didn’t turn it into a double or triple, which I think goes back to accepting, but most of them were really good with their short game.
“Whether it was their lob wedge, or bump and runs, hybrids from around the greens, however they did it. They really did a great job of getting the ball in the hole, and it had way more to do with that than how they were striking the golf ball in most cases.”
As for the keys to success in golf in general, Rotella thinks most players are always looking in the wrong place.
“It’s always fascinating, given how many hundreds of wins I’ve taught players through, and 80 majors, everyone’s so into their ball-striking all the time," he explained. "Certainly you don’t want to be awful and hitting it out of bounds or something. But the bottom line is when they win, the two things you see is that their short game is really good, and their heads are in a really good place.
“Usually when your short game’s in a good place it takes a lot of pressure off your long game. It’s more likely to work that way than the other way. You see a lot of people hitting the ball great, and then they put pressure on their short game, it doesn’t work out that well.”
As Rotella approaches 50 years at the top of the game, it is safe to say few coaches have ever had such an impact on The Open Championship. It is hard to imagine too, that more players from the Rotella coaching stable won't add their name to the fabled Claret Jug sooner rather than later.