Lesson 17: Go for Broke by Brad Brewer

Bold and mighty, fearless and aggressive, these are excellent adjectives to express the style of play that it takes to win at golf.  A junior golfer trying to win for the very first time or seasoned tour players attempting to break records; winning is an attitude of positive, fearless and aggressive thinking, feeling and doing.   I share with you a chapter from my book Mentored by the King, as Arnold Palmer explains his playing bold and going for broke thought process.

Lesson 17:  Go for Broke

My personal copy of Arnold Palmer’s best-selling autobiography Go for Broke: My Philosophy of Winning Golf is well worn, with dozens of dog-eared pages as proof of my personal endorsement. I’ve considered the book to be a staple, a handy resource that sums up Arnold Palmer’s aggressive and unique approach to the game of golf. Sitting across from Arnie one day, I opened up its pages to one of my favorite quotes that he wrote almost forty years ago: “My test is always to go for broke?—??to try to win when common sense says it’s all over.”

“You wrote that line four decades ago,” I said, “at a time when you still had years of golf left in you. What does ‘go for broke’ mean to you now as you look back over your career and life?”

“I just went about playing golf the very best I could with all my focus on trying to win,” Arnie said. “When you go for it, you will win some and also lose some. But I never looked at my losses as others did. I was disappointed but always felt like I learned something that was going to allow me to win next time I got into that same situation. ‘Go for broke’ for me is just that, putting it all on the line for a chance at victory. That was fun for me, exhilarating, and very gratifying as well.”

An Early Influence on Letting It Fly

While he was still a teenager living in Latrobe, Arnie crossed paths with Babe Didrikson Zaharias, an early female sports superstar. Babe became known for her prowess in track and field, basketball, and, yes, golf?—??and Palmer, along with his father, Deacon, had the good fortune of playing a round with her. He remembers the day with great fondness.

“She was an extremely attractive lady and so nice. She talked to me like a buddy and a friend,” Palmer remembered. “But she was also a great performer, and I’ll never forget, she said, ‘Arnie, I’m going to loosen up my girdle and let it fly.’ And she did just that. She hit that ball farther than I could believe. At the time, I was very young in my golf and hadn’t gotten to the point where I really knew what was going on, and I was very impressed with her. So that, coinciding with the things my father had been talking about, helped me model my career a little bit.”

Most golf historians point to Arnold’s gutsy moves at the 1960 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills in Denver as the beginning of his tradition of aggressive play. For the first three rounds, he aggressively played the very tough first par-four hole?—??but with poor results. On Thursday he double-bogeyed the hole, he bogeyed it Friday, and during the first round on Saturday he finally parred it. Conventional wisdom would have dictated a conservative approach during the final round, but he went for it again?—??and birdied the hole. He would go on to birdie five of the next six holes and charged back to win the tournament. To this day, overcoming a seven-stroke deficit on the final day of play stands as the greatest comeback in U.S. Open history.

But Palmer’s penchant for aggressive play can actually be traced back to his high school play. In the state high school championship held at Penn State, Palmer recalls ignoring the advice of his high school friend caddie, who advised a cautious shot near the end of the final round. Instead of playing it safe, a young Arnie drilled his shot with a five iron over some trees. When asked why he didn’t play it safe, he responded, “I didn’t think that way. I saw the gap in the trees and thought, That’s a shot I think I can make, so that’s what I did. I guess I wasn’t smart enough to do it any other way.” Interestingly, he can also vividly recall the approving roar of the crowd in the gallery that afternoon. It would become a sound he never grew tired of hearing.

The Beauty of Boldness

I’m regularly inspired by the talks and writings of Dr. Norman Vincent Peale. For over fifty years, he served as the senior pastor of New York City’s famed Marble Collegiate Church and became known as the “father of positive thinking.” But he wasn’t always so chipper and optimistic about life. As a young boy and man, he suffered terribly from bouts of inferiority. When he assumed the pulpit of Marble Collegiate in 1932, the country was mired in the depths of the Great Depression. Only a few hundred people regularly showed up for services. The church was dying. Peale admitted to almost quitting several times?—??for several reasons?—??but he didn’t. Instead, he launched an aggressive recruiting campaign for new members. He decided that if people wouldn’t come to church, he’d go to the people.

Over the years, Peale accepted nearly every speaking invitation he was offered: the Lions Club, the Rotary Club, Boy Scouts, and others. It was a gutsy thing to do, being a pastor and wading into a clearly secular environment. He was also roundly criticized by fellow members of the clergy (for going soft), by intellectuals (for being too simplistic), and even by secularists (for being too religious). But he felt that he had something bold and effective to offer?—??the promise of the gospel?—??and he didn’t shy from the open doors he was offered.

You might say Norman Vincent Peale was “going for broke,” being bold and adventurous, taking a chance. I’ve always liked what he said on the subject of risk:

A certain degree of boldness is required of the individual who wishes to make more of himself. Boldness is an activator of power from the mind. As an author once said, “Go at it boldly, and you’ll find unexpected forces closing round you and coming to your aid.” The mind, ever the willing servant, will respond to boldness, for boldness, in effect, is a command to deliver mental resources. Boldly expect, and the power will come through.

Risks and Rewards

Arnold Palmer would cross paths with Peale through the years, and though they pursued very different lines of work, they clearly saw eye to eye on the benefits and risks of boldness. “The truth is my playing style caused me to lose as many majors as I won,” Palmer admitted. “Did I behave irresponsibly? Not totally, because I had something in mind I wanted to do. Am I sorry for what I did? Yes, I am. Would I do it differently? Probably not. It’s the way I was, and that’s something I have to live with today.”

When taken in context, Arnold Palmer’s admitted regrets are attributable to a mix of youthful exuberance and plain old inexperience. At the 1966 U.S. Open, he let slip a five-stroke lead with three holes to play and wound up losing a one-round playoff the next day too. When discussing his decades-long rivalry with Jack Nicklaus, Mr. Palmer said, “At times we became so hyper about beating each other that we let someone else go right by us and win. But our competition was fun and good for the game.”

In 2000, the National Golf Foundation conducted a study examining what types of barriers and problems kept people from playing and continuing to play golf. Interestingly, though game improvement was the focus of the study, researchers concluded that the fear of looking bad stops many high handicappers from taking lessons. Having been around golf courses my entire life, I know this is true, but I’ve never understood it. When I come across a duffer, I’m often tempted to say, “Look, you know you’re a hacker. I know you’re a hacker. I know you know you’re a hacker. So why does it bother you that you know that I know that you know you are a hacker? Might be best to get over yourself, and let’s get on with it!”

Show me a guy who is afraid to look bad and I will show you a man you can beat every time. ~Former major league baseball player, Lou Brock

I regularly tell my clients (and myself) that “good shot or bad shot, it’s all good as long as we grow from it.” Self-awareness is necessary to learn from our mistakes. If we’re fearful about looking bad in front of others, our mind will remain focused on what we don’t want to happen.

If we’re fearful about looking bad in front of others, our mind will remain focused on what we don’t want to happen.

The Lessons of Legends

Jack Nicklaus once said that embarrassment was one of his greatest motivators. Note that he said it was a motivator?—??not a deterrent. He told of a time, early in his career, when he double crossed a tee shot and pull hooked it left and out of bounds on the sixteenth hole of his final round. The error caused him to lose the event. He remembers telling himself, I will never do that again! After the tournament, he didn’t make any excuses, nor did he become fearful of embarrassing himself again. He began practicing, repeatedly playing that same situation over and over again in his mind. He convinced himself that the next time he found himself in that position, he was going to execute right down the middle of the fairway?—??and indeed he did just that.

Jack and Arnie are not afraid to put it on the line. In fact, doing so was a big part of the fun for them. They enjoyed the buzz of their hearts beating and experiencing the adrenaline rushing as they attempted to pull off a winning shot. One common difference that I have observed between the champion professionals and the rest is what happens after they finish their round of golf. The leaders will head to the practice tee to continue perfecting their game, while most golfers head directly to the nineteenth hole for a drink and a bite to eat. (In golf, the “nineteenth hole” is a term usually reserved for the bar at the club or course, but can be any drinking or dining establishment that golfers head to after eighteen holes.) This round of practice after a game might appear obsessive, but they’re actually releasing the mistakes of the day and replacing them with the correct feelings of proper execution. At a time when the average golfer is commiserating with pals about that sliced tee shot on number eight or the missed putt on the final green, the pro is moving ahead of the problem, still going for broke.

Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid.
~Clergyman and writer Basil King