BETHLEHEM, Pa. – Inspirational messages, one-liners and even a magic trick were all part of legendary college football coach Lou Holtz’s speech at Thursday night’s Players’ Dinner for the 2014 U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship at Saucon Valley Country Club.
Holtz, a 2008 College Football Hall of Fame inductee who amassed 249 victories and a 1988 national championship at Notre Dame during his illustrious career, continues to apply his passion for the game as an ESPN analyst. But the 77-year-old from Orlando, Fla., might be best known for his ability to motivate people, be it college athletes or business professionals.
He delivered those messages in front of a standing-room-only audience of U.S. Mid-Amateur competitors, championship volunteers, club members and USGA officials, sprinkling in stories full of humor, humility and candor.
A passionate golfer whose game has slowed down recently due to age and medical issues – he hasn’t played in 2½ months after undergoing three surgeries in 15 days for his back and prostate – Holtz offered plenty of advice and wisdom during his 15-minute monologue.
Golf is such a great game, but it’s not about score, said Holtz, who won the member-member at Augusta National Golf Club in 2005 and has played with U.S. Open champions Graeme McDowell and Justin Rose at his home course at Lake Nona in Orlando. It’s about camaraderie. It’s about sportsmanship. It’s about the beauty of these surroundings.
Congratulations on your accomplishment. Thirty-five hundred people (actually 3,891) started and we’re down to 264. It tells me about the tremendous commitment and the talent you have. You have to realize what a great accomplishment that is. But if what you did yesterday looks good to you, then you haven’t done much today. That’s why the good Lord put eyes in front of you, not in back of you.
But as I said, don’t complicate it. Do you realize there are only five colors in a rainbow? That’s all, five. Think what Michelangelo did with those five colors. There are only seven musical notes. Seven! Look at what Beethoven did with those seven musical notes. So I try to keep life simple.
I don’t understand how a black cow eats green grass and produces white milk. I don’t understand why they sell hot dogs in packages of eight and hot dog buns in packages of six. I don’t understand why a kamikaze pilot wore a helmet.
As someone who was accustomed to being under the microscope on a daily basis, especially during his 11-year tenure at Notre Dame, Holtz provided insight to dealing with pressure.
Pressure to me is when you have to do something that you are not prepared to do, said Holtz, who is the only coach to lead six different teams (William & Mary, North Carolina State, Arkansas, Minnesota, Notre Dame and South Carolina) to bowl games and four teams to final top-20 rankings in The Associated Press poll. If you have to make a 5-foot putt and you haven’t practiced enough, you’re going to feel pressure. If you practiced it, you want to be there to show people how good you are.
If you’ve got to take a test to get into medical school and you haven’t prepared, you’re nervous. If you’ve really prepared for that test and they cancel it, you’re disappointed. You want to show them how much you’ve done. And that’s what pressure is.
The best advice I can give you is win. Win stands for what’s important now. You’ve just had a birdie, what’s important now? The [next] tee shot. You’ve just made a bogey, what’s important now? Tee shot. Evaluate the past, focus on the future, but tell yourself what you have to do in the present.
Holtz didn’t grow up around golf. Born during The Great Depression in rural West Virginia, he spent much of his childhood an hour east of Canton, Ohio, in East Liverpool not far from the West Virginia border. He did caddie to earn some extra money, but didn’t take up the game until 1972 when he accepted the head coaching job at North Carolina State. Former television/radio golf broadcaster John Derr invited him to play at Pinehurst, and Holtz was still a newbie to the game.
Holtz yelled and hollered at himself in frustration most of the round.
I’ve watched you play for eight holes and I want to tell you something about your game that will help you, Derr told Holtz. You aren’t good enough to get mad. The minute you understand that, you’ll enjoy the game. I have not lost my temper [on the golf course] since. Many times, I have said I wish I was good enough to get mad. I’m not good enough to get mad, but I do love the game.
A lot of guys want to shoot their age. My goal now is to shoot my weight. If I gain five more pounds, I am capable of doing that.
Holtz then added a story about playing with legendary greats Arnold Palmer and Dow Finsterwald at Bay Hill, where he was a member. He was involved in a game and Palmer was the A player, Finsterwald the B player and Holtz was the designated D player.
I was so nervous, Holtz told the audience. I played so poorly and we lost money. We’re in the locker room afterward and I told Arnie, ‘Sorry, I never played that bad before.’ Arnie said, ‘You have played before, have you?’
Recently on the set of ESPN, Holtz casually mentioned to his colleague Mark May, a former All-America offensive lineman at the University of Pittsburgh and a Super Bowl champion with the Washington Redskins, that he was the best golfer at Lake Nona.
When Holtz got back to the Orlando-based club, which hosted the 2010 U.S. Senior Amateur, members were ribbing him for the comment, to which Holtz quipped: Let me tell you something, 300 members know I lied. Three-hundred million people think I’m a pretty good golfer. I like those odds.
Holtz offered up plenty of other one-liners. A quick sampling:
Ten percent of you won’t remember 10 percent of what I said 10 minutes after I said it.
I’m not a dancer, not an entertainer, not an intellect. I graduated in the lower third of my high school class. If there wasn’t people like me, there wouldn’t have been an upper half.
I have written three New York Times best sellers. I’m the guy in the world who has written more books than he has read.
On Mark May: He’s a beautiful guy. He’s smart, he’s intelligent and I love him like a brother, but we have a difference of opinion. He was a player, I was a coach. He made suggestions, I made decisions. He showered after work, I showered before work. He signed his paycheck on the back. I signed it on the front. On TV, I tell him, ‘Mark, I would love to agree with you, but if I did, we’d both be wrong.’
Toward the end of the program, Holtz pulled out a newspaper for a magic trick.
This is like any other newspaper, he said. You’ve got the front page for people who want to read the news. You have the comics for people who can’t read and you have the editorial page for people who can’t think.
He then ripped up the paper into several strips and put them into a fist. Moments later, Holtz turned the shredded paper back into a full newspaper.
Remember the good fundamentals that distinguishes the great players from the average players, he said. And above all, understand there’s going to be adversity and there’s going to be difficulty. Everybody in this room is going to get a bad break and a bad bounce. The question is how you are going to handle it.
Attitude is a choice. The greatest power we have is the power to choose. The choice you have about your attitude is absolutely critical. Be excited about what you’re doing. Don’t count all the negative things. Look at the blessings you have and the opportunities you have. And I’m not just talking about this tournament. I’m talking about life.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer with the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.