Keeping Score

New year, new goals: It’s wishful thinking

It’s that time of year for making – and breaking – New Year's resolutions.

Interestingly, there is a great divide among golfers on whether they participate in what for many is an annual rite. Count Justin Thomas, the reigning player of the year on the PGA Tour, among the goal-setters. Just don’t expect him to share them publicly.

A year ago, at the QBE Shootout, I asked Thomas for his goals for the coming season and he nearly bit my head off. Turns out that he had spouted a few lofty goals he'd set for himself to a few members of the press, only to be constantly reminded of his shortcomings for the remainder of the year.

“Rookie mistake,” he said. “After that, I keep them to myself. They are in my phone, so if anyone ever steals my phone and guesses my password, they can find them.”

But count Thomas among the pros who like to set tangible goals. He bought himself a Range Rover after winning in Malaysia last year and funded construction of an unfinished part of his house when he won in Hawaii. The BMW to which he treated himself when he first turned pro? The keys went to mom after he won the PGA Championship. (After winning the $10 million FedEx Cup prize, let's hope he sprang for an extended warranty.)

Thomas won five times last season and climbed from 22nd in the Official World Golf Ranking to No. 3. He clearly batted well on his season goals, and he wasn't kidding about his goals being stored in his phone. On Sept. 24, he posted a "humble-brag," tweeting a screen shot of those well-guarded 2016-17 goals stored under “Notes” on his iPhone. The list revealed 15 goals – ranging from qualifying for the Tour Championship to winning a major to an under-70 scoring average. There were 12 check marks and three red X’s: he failed to be under par for the year on par 3s, finish in the top 30 in scrambling and the top 10 in half of his starts.

New Year's resolutions are all about hopefulness; they serve as a good personal road map for the next 12 months. Experts say the more often you remind yourself of a goal, the more attuned your brain becomes to it. So, it's probably best to write them down, as Thomas did in his phone, for easy reference. Another school of thought is to announce them, which provides extra motivation to make them become true.

In 1982, Nick Faldo declared to a roomful of writers before the start of the Haig Whisky TPC that he was going to win, and he did just that. "I thought I’d better do it now or I'm really going to get crucified," he said. 

Padraig Harrington explained to me that he isn’t lacking in the motivation department. He also jots down goals at the start of the year, but he keeps them secret. Some, he says, are practical, but others are a bit of a stretch.

“I make a couple that are outlandish, like I’m going to win the Grand Slam,” he said. “Why would you give your goals out for people to judge on?”

Faldo, who won six major championships, is a big believer in visualization. He recalled walking on the beach in Mauritius in December one year before he had won any title of note and chanting that he wanted to win a major.

“I’d see myself doing it,” Faldo said.

But not every accomplished golfer feels the need to set goals. Take Tom Kite, who to this day remains one of golf's all-time range rats.

“Goals work well with people who need motivation to get up in the morning to do great things,” he said. “All my life, I’ve gotten up and tried to be the best player I can, every day. I didn't feel the need to set goals.” 

But as we parted ways, he turned to me and said, “Maybe I should have.”

Stewart Cink would disagree. He avoids sweeping goals that probably won't come to fruition. He found that they create undue expectations. After going through a period in his career of doubt and fear, Cink evaluated his game and realized that he had developed a lot of "should" in his thinking. 

“If I'm a Tour winner, I should never hit a ball out of bounds or three-putt from 10 feet, as an example,” he said. “I realized setting goals wasn't good for me because it could become a ‘should,’ and I don't like shoulds,” he said. 

Instead, Cink divides his goals into more manageable pieces. He gave this example: Playing every round in a tournament without hitting three shots when he knows he wasn't ready to hit. Cink keeps a journal of these “little-picture goals,” and at the end of every tournament, he tracks his success. 

“If I do well on the little goals, it usually takes care of the big goals,” he said.

If goal-setting and New Year's resolutions aren’t your thing, you're in good company with none other than Jack Nicklaus, who tells me that he just tried to do his best and continually get better. When I asked him why he never wrote down his goals, he gave me perhaps the most Jack Nicklaus answer ever: “What if you write down some goals and exceed them? Then you have nothing to do.”

Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf World and The New York Times. He is the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email:; Twitter: @adamschupak

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