What does it take to win the Open? Golf psychologist ‘Dr. Mo’ has coached two champions


This same man, who turned out to be a sports psychologist for the team, was later shown on board the Jazz’s private plane as the team flew to face the Los Angeles Lakers, where he sat courtside at the Forum – directly behind the bench – eating popcorn and sipping a soda.

“As a 17-year-old kid in rural South Carolina, I think, ‘They’re paying this guy? ‘” Pickens told CNN.


“‘This is ridiculous. I want to do this because it doesn’t feel like a job.'”

Thus began a journey that has seen “Dr. Mo” help coach professional athletes in a range of sports – from the NFL to Nascar. But his real home has always been on the fairway.

An avid golfer as a youth, Pickens wrote a thesis on “Gaining Self-Confidence” en route to earning his doctorate. in sports psychology from the University of Virginia. Since then, he has made a name for himself as one of golf’s top psychologists, working with some of the game’s biggest stars over a 27-year career.


A star-studded clientele has scored 28 PGA Tour victories while working with Pickens, headlining with four major triumphs from Zach Johnson, Lucas Glover and Stewart Cink.
With the highly anticipated 150th Open Championship in St Andrews, Scotland due to begin on July 14, Pickens is well placed to provide insight into what it takes to lift the Claret Jug.
Just months after starting to work with Pickens in 2009, Cink landed his first major at the 138th edition of the event. Six years later Johnson – a Pickens client for 16 years – won at St Andrews for his second major triumph.

Fittingly, both players won via a four-hole playoff. For Pickens, trying to replicate the pressure of game day is the biggest challenge he faces as a sports psychologist. Try as he might – talk about it and perform demanding drills – there’s simply no way for Pickens to fake the psychological strain of an event, let alone a game-changing playoff.

“It’s almost impossible – because it’s a physiological thing – to get their adrenaline pumping like it’s going to do on Sunday,” Pickens said.

And yet, the psychologist’s efforts seem to get the most out of Johnson, an avowedly hypercompetitive individual who loves Pickens training bets that bet small amounts on the outcome.

“I love competition, I love anything that pushes me to try and get better,” Johnson said in a video on Pickens’ website.

“I always try something that I do in my training so that when it comes to the end result of the competition, week after week on tour, I know I’ve been there before. I’ve seen it, I ‘ I felt it, and I can pull it off.”

mind management

The ability to train effectively touches on what Pickens considers the two critical mental traits required of elite golfers: discipline and the ability to control the mind.

It may sound counterintuitive, but Pickens says the biggest psychological challenge golfers face when swinging is simply that the ball is stationary.

Whereas in football or tennis, players’ thoughts and corresponding actions are instinctively occupied with the moving ball, golfers – compelled to consciously fill this mental silence – must instead train themselves to “occupy their minds”. Comparisons between sports can be found in the free throw in basketball and the throw in baseball.

In essence, that’s what Pickens’ role boils down to – helping players manage their minds, especially in the critical five to six seconds before the swing. Like a form of meditation, players need to know precisely what thoughts are going through their heads.

“Some players matter,” says Pickens. “Come in. One, club behind ball. Two, feet down. Three, look at target. Four, back to ball. Five, back swing. Six, deep swing.

“If you have consistency in your thinking input, you have a better chance of getting consistency in your output to hit the shot.”

Pickens with Jonathan Byrd, another of his clients and a five-time PGA Tour winner.

For Johnson, who had suspected there was something “wrong” in his game before working with Pickens in 2006, the advice stuck immediately and lasted throughout his 24-year professional career.

“I thought I had a good routine, I thought it was consistent, I thought it was repeatable, but it was anything but,” Johnson said in a video on Pickens’ website.

“It was hugely inconsistent, it wasn’t thought through, it didn’t allow me to play at my best and it also didn’t give me confidence and consistency from shot to shot.”

Similar techniques helped clear Cink’s mind of excessive fixation on results, the American says in a video on Pickens’ website. At 49, Cink continues to add to his eight PGA Tour wins, capturing a third RBC Heritage title in April 2021.

Meanwhile, mind management was a lesson a hot-headed young Glover – 2009 US Open champion – quickly learned when he started working with Pickens after graduating from Clemson University in 2001.

“I learned immediately that my temper was affecting my rounds a little too much,” Glover said in a video on the psychologist’s website. “Dr. Mo basically taught me that it’s okay to get upset and upset, but let it go quickly and not let it affect the next move.”

Glover poses with the US Open trophy after his two-time victory at Bethpage State Park in 2009.


However, the ability to occupy the mind is nothing without disciplined practice, says Pickens.

Rather than going out and just hitting balls, the best pros need to focus on the laser in their training. Basically, as with the pre-swing routine, players must remove emotion from their practice – not just by reflecting on a good or bad day, but by dispassionately analyzing their performance.

For Pickens, this is one of Johnson’s most exemplary, though often misunderstood, assets.

Matt Fitzpatrick revels in

“It’s not that Zach doesn’t have emotions. Sometimes people misinterpret and think he didn’t have any,” Pickens explains. “He’s just very good at managing them and focusing on what he wants to focus on.

“And it’s amazing to say ‘ok, this is what I want to do and this is how I’m going to do it.

“A lot of people call themselves pros, but they’re still going to play golf. Successful guys, they understand, ‘I have to treat this like a job.'”