9 Survival Tips From a PGA Rookie

Last Updated Aug 1, 2011 1:09 PM EDT

Scott Stallings at Transitions
I am a professional golfer on the PGA Tour. Every week I travel to a different city to compete, and everyday I'm out on the course working. I'm also a business owner. My business: to win as many tournaments as I can, and earn enough revenue to make a decent living. If I could pick up a Masters green jacket along the way, all the better.

I'm six months into my rookie year and already it's been much more of an education than I ever imagined. And I'm not just talking about golf wisdom here; this is more like life education.

So I've narrowed it down and come up with my top 10 list of things I've learned that pretty much everyone should know (even if you don't play golf):

When I first qualified for the PGA Tour, all kinds of companies suddenly wanted to give me money in exchange for a few square inches of space on my jersey. At first I thought, 'Wow. I'm so fortunate and I better take as many of these opportunities as I can.' (When you're just starting your golf career, you can't be too picky about these sorts of things.)

But then I realized something: Do I really want to be a billboard for pickles, baked beans, or truck stops? Does that stuff communicate something about who I am? It does – and between my accent and my Southern origins, I probably don't need any more redneck associations.

On any given day at work, I face all kinds of factors I can't control: bad tee times, rain, 30 mile-per-hour winds, enormous crowds of spectators. I still have to figure out how to put the ball in the hole in as few shots as possible. So I focus on what I can control. For every hole, I figure out the outcome I want and the process that's going to get me there. If I nail my process, then I know that the outcome will take care of itself. That, by the way, is how not to let one bad shot ruin your whole day. 

In early June, I went to Dublin, Ohio, to play the Memorial Tournament, an event organized by one of golf's greatest legends, Jack Nicklaus. One day just after I finished lunch, Mr. Nicklaus walks up and asks if he can join me. I had a million questions going through my mind but I couldn't ask a single one. I just let the man talk. He proceeded to tell me in great detail all of the ins and outs of the course (he designed it). There's nothing more motivating than hearing that man's sheer enthusiasm for the game at 71 years old. I shot a record 4-under-par-68 the next day. 

Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus circa 1965

A lot of people ask me how I stay so optimistic as a rookie on the PGA Tour, especially during the first few rocky months when I missed the cut six tournaments in a row. Here's how: It's too easy to be pessimistic. If I resign myself to a less-than-ideal fate, I'm not doing any work; I'm just being lazy. Staying positive, on the other hand, requires mental discipline, and when I have that, I always play in a much more focused way.

After those six missed cuts, I suddenly found myself playing in an invitational, meaning I was there not because I qualified but because I was invited. It was a huge opportunity – I just needed to take advantage of it. And I did. I tied for third place, which meant that I virtually guaranteed myself a slot on Tour for the rest of the year.    

After that third-place finish, people I haven't spoken to in years started calling, emailing, texting, friending me on Facebook. And then there were all of the reporters who wanted to tell my "Cinderella" story. It's enough to make you think you're really important. But you're not. You could just as easily stumble in the road ahead. (And I did.)

When I struggle on the course, my scores are out there for everyone to see. After a couple of particularly rough weeks, I started getting emails from a few "fans" telling me I was playing poorly and asking what the heck happened to my game. One guy even said, "Your name is next to some of the most famous names in golf, but I think the jury is still out on you." You can't always pick your critics but you can choose whether or not to listen to them. Don't.

Twenty minutes after I missed the cut in Pebble Beach, a total stranger walked up to me in front of the players' locker room. Without introducing himself, he proceeded to trash talk my caddy and tell me that a little change would be good for me. Then he pitched himself for the job. I don't care what industry you're in; throwing a competitor under the bus never makes you look good.

Tiger Woods tees off
Most humbling moment on Tour so far? After missing the cut at Torrey Pines, I had to play in a Pro-Am tournament the next morning. I stepped up to tee off and not a soul was watching me. Then over to my left I noticed the biggest group of spectators I've ever seen – all with their backs to me. It just so happened that Tiger was teeing off at the exact same time about 20 feet away. There's nothing more motivating than seeing a competitor show you how it's done.  

This was a lesson that my buddy and fellow rookie Brendan Steele learned early on this year. After playing with Tiger Woods at the Torrey Pines tournament, a Sports Illustrated reporter asked him what he thought of Tiger's game that day. Brendan said that he didn't think Tiger "gave it everything." Big mistake. The press took that sound bite and ran with it and painted Brendan as the upstart rookie who had no business talking about Tiger's game.

Don't ever call out the big guns out of respect for what they have accomplished, especially if you're a rookie. Your words mean nothing. The only thing that matters is your game.

Want more PGA rookie wisdom? Check out Scott's BNET blog:

Photo credits: Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus image courtesy of cliff1066; Tiger Woods image courtesy of Flickr user familymwr; CC 2.0