A Deeper Dive into Seve Ballesteros and Playing From the Rough


Many people have asked about the status of our From the Rough film project. It is alive and well, and we have taken most of 2012 to take a fresh look at every component of the project. We are getting close to finalizing it, and expect the film to be released in 2013.

We looked more closely at the origin of our title, which came from a quote by Seve Ballesteros, the late, great Spanish golfer, who, when asked about what he would have wanted to be different about golf, said: “I’d like to see the fairways more narrow. Then everyone would have to play from the rough. Not just me.”

Initially, we understood his comment to be half-kidding and half-serious. The serious part of his comment arose from the fact that he was the best player of his time, maybe the best of all time, in designing and executing on shots from the rough, or from any difficult lie or location. What we did not understand was how these unique skills were foundational to who he was and why he succeeded.

Ballesteros embraced adverse situations when others avoided them, because he understood they opened up more opportunities.

I recently read a golf instructional book Ballesteros co-authored in 1996 with his biographer Robert Green, Trouble Shooting, and found several very interesting insights:

Ballesteros did not learn how to hit shots from playing traditional golf or from getting traditional instruction. He controlled the learning process, rather than having it controlled for him.

As he discusses how he learned to play the difficult shots for which he became famous, he tells a very different story:

“When I learned to play golf as a child, I knew nothing about swing technique, or gradients for that matter. All I know now I learned by trial and error, by hitting ball after ball out of ravines, steep hillsides, slopes full of rocks and uneven lies buried in high grass, covered with leaves and twigs. Sometimes, I played in the dark. In fact, I had only one club, an old 3-iron that belonged to my brother Manuel, and the first objects I hit were more often stones and pine cones rather than balls.”

Because of how he taught himself to play golf, and sought instruction only when he needed it, Ballesteros became better at confronting adverse situations on a golf course than any golfer in history. In fact, he embraced and sometimes sought out the most difficult positions on a hole because they made his path to the hole shorter and faster.

Maximizing and mastering difficult golf shots is a more certain path to success than avoiding them.

The entirety of Trouble Shooting is about how to hit shots from the difficult lies in which the average golfer routinely finds himself or herself. Most important of all, it reflected a completely different philosophy of golf and life, best reflected in a quote attributed to Ballesteros by his biographer Robert Green:

“When I am in the trees, as long as I can swing the club, I always find a way somehow. Most players look for the fairway. I always look for the target. That’s where I want to go.”

That quote indicated a philosophy of becoming comfortable with, and even embracing, adversity, because it usually accompanied greater opportunity. A more challenging situation was something to be welcomed, not to be avoided.

Because Ballesteros often found himself hitting the best possible shot out of the difficult places and lies in which the average golfer would most often find himself or herself, golf fans identified far more with him than with golfers like Tiger Woods or Jack Nicklaus, whose form was perfect and who rarely seemed to be in trouble. Golf course architects and consultants had to engineer more difficulty into tournament courses for professional golfers like Woods and others with more perfect form, who were taking advantage of increasingly better equipment and golf balls to hit the ball longer and with greater accuracy.

In so doing, they made the courses infinitely more difficult for both professionals and the average golfer, but did not give the average golfer the tools to navigate through these more difficult conditions. However, Ballesteros tended to thrive if these courses were made more difficult by placing more hazards in the path between the tee and the green.

The best way to learn to master difficulty is to work with one’s own capabilities, not to try to fit into an ideal form or process.

Ballesteros understood, that although there are fundamental principles that underlie every successful golfer’s technique, the actual implementation of those principles will vary by golfer. Relative to the grip, he says: “The correct grip pressure for your swing is something you can only work out for yourself.” Relative to the stance, he says: “The precise angles for you depend on your height and build. You will find your right set-up through practice.”

Throughout Trouble Shooting, the implicit message is that people who succeed work or play with what innate physical qualities and capabilities they have. Too much sports instruction, coaching or teaching is about fitting everyone into a cookie-cutter mold. Moreover, the traditional command-and-control style of teaching or coaching makes many students or athletes with significant potential feel like losers because they have an unorthodox way of doing things.

This is a much bigger issue and theme than the subject of golf. What Ballesteros’ philosophy represents is a profound challenge to prevailing wisdom and practice about leadership, teaching, and coaching. How?

Teaching, coaching, and leading others to manage adversity and develop resilience requires a more collaborative, enabling, and “hands-off” approach.

One big difference in teaching, coaching, or leading others between what is in place today and what we need for the future is that we have to define the problem of education and the achievement of excellence in sports, business, or other fields of endeavor as improved “learning” and “capability building,” not “teaching” or “coaching.” We have to focus on what works for the student, athlete, or aspiring business leader to make them better, not what produces the lowest cost, most highly credentialed program or course delivery system. We have to change the focus from the teacher, coach, or leader to the student, athlete, or person being led, taught, or coached.

I spent a great deal of time either coaching youth sports, or observing sports coaches, in our town. I saw many parents who tried to turn their children into clones of themselves, or, worse yet, tried to force their children to achieve dreams that they had failed to achieve as children, a process that started long before the children had enough of a sense of who they were. I also saw this in the competitive chess world in which my son James participated for almost a decade.

Golf, like other sports, needs to refocus on lower cost ways of helping new players develop the skills to excel.

As he pointed out, not only was Ballesteros self taught, he used a single club, naturally available substitutes for golf balls (stones and pine cones), and practiced many places on and off the golf course. Athletes in other sports and activities like Mariano Rivera in baseball (who used balled-up fishing nets), Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones (handmade guitars), Wayne Gretzky (practicing on a home-made ice hockey rink), or Jackie Robinson (learning to be a great baserunner by playing dodgeball in a public park) have used readily available tools to succeed. John Daly practiced golf on an abandoned Little League field in Arkansas. Golf has to welcome self learning in off course venues, especially with some of the new technology tools available, such as the Almost Golf golf ball, www.almostgolf.com, and broaden its base of potential stars.

The Ballesteros golf and life philosophy is based on an implicit assumption that there are many more paths to success. It is a philosophy based on optimism and abundance, not pessimism and scarcity.

Because there are many more paths to success, success is about self-mastery, and it is about being teachers and coaches being collaborative and facilitative, Ballesteros’ philosophy of life, was built on self-learning, low-cost entry to a profession and sport at its highest levels, resilience, creativity, and recognition of human frailty. It is a more open, inviting, and egalitarian philosophy of life, which makes all of us winners, or, at least, makes us believe we can be winners. It is a more optimistic philosophy, one which communicates that everyone has success within his or her reach, as opposed to the philosophy of scarcity, which leads to cut-throat competition for scarce rewards.

Many professions, including the legal profession, require ridiculously expensive and time-consuming courses of study, plus very narrow forms of credentialing, instead of letting someone qualify or get licensed to engage in a profession by learning in a variety of ways and qualifying through a more flexible qualification process. We have narrowed the path to success in the professions, as surely as we have done so for sports, by creating huge entry barriers to protect those already in the profession. Many professions, including the legal profession, require ridiculously expensive and time-consuming courses of study, plus very narrow forms of credentialing, instead of letting someone qualify or get licensed to engage in a profession by learning in a variety of ways and qualifying through a more flexible qualification process. We have narrowed the path to success in the professions, as surely as we have done so for sports, by creating huge entry barriers to protect those already in the profession. Many professions, including the legal profession, require ridiculously expensive and time-consuming courses of study, plus very narrow forms of credentialing, instead of letting someone qualify or get licensed to engage in a profession by learning in a variety of ways and qualifying through a more flexible qualification process. We have narrowed the path to success in the professions, as surely as we have done so for sports, by creating huge entry barriers to protect those already in the profession. One of Ballesteros’ competitors, Nick Price, was quoted in Ballesteros’ obituary that,

“I’ve always said most of us could shoot 65 in about 30 or 40 ways. He could do it about 10,000 different ways. He could miss every fairway, chip in five times, hole two bunker shots … what a sad day today. He was so creative around the greens. It didn’t matter if there was a tree or bunker, he’d figure out a way to get up and down.”

For most people aspiring to success or teachers, coaches, or leaders trying to nurture them toward success, the path should be filled with passion and joy, even if it requires concentrated hard work.

Ballesteros reached the highest levels of achievement in his chosen sport by having passion and joy in the pursuit. His personal life was a mess, just as Tiger Woods’ life turned out to be. However, Ballesteros, ultimately, was a much less emotionally brittle person because of the way he charted his own course to the top. He had emotional reserves built up throughout his life, because he had to work himself out of every problem he created in his youth. From a very early age, Tiger Woods’ success was stage-managed by his parents, particularly his father, and he never built up a strong sense of self-identity because of the way he was controlled by his parents throughout his youth and adolescence.

When a learning process is joyless and failure is accepted harshly, then someone who fails at some point, which we all do, is much more devastated by an event of failure.

If those who teach, coach, or lead others remember nothing else in helping them along life’s path, they should remember that “success” should be defined broadly, that the path should promise joy and fulfillment, not anxiety, and that, at least in America, there are unlimited opportunities to get there, even in these most difficult times.

I was fortunate to have had these points of view deeply imbedded in my psychological make-up and my socialization process by my parents, but I wish that everyone could have them.