Dr. Morris Pickens remembers the exact moment he knew he wanted to be a sports psychologist.
Tuning in for an evening of basketball, a teenage Pickens stared at his TV in awe as a man chatted with NBA icons Karl Malone and John Stockton in the Utah Jazz gym.
That same man, revealed to be a sports psychologist for the team, was then shown boarding the Jazz’s private plane as the team jetted off to face the Los Angeles Lakers, where he sat courtside at The Forum – directly behind the bench – eating popcorn and sipping soda.
“As a 17-year-old kid in rural South Carolina I’m thinking, ‘they’re paying this guy?’” Pickens told CNN.
“‘This is ridiculous. I want to do that because that doesn’t look like a job.’”
And so began a journey that has seen “Dr. Mo” help coach professional athletes across a range of sports – from the NFL to Nascar. But his true home has always been on the fairway.
A keen golfer in his youth, Pickens penned a dissertation on “The Acquisition of Putting Confidence” en route to receiving his Ph.D. in sport psychology from the University of Virginia. Since then he has forged a name as one of golf’s top psychologists, working with some of the game’s biggest stars across a 27-year career.
A star-studded clientele has racked up 28 PGA Tour victories while working with Pickens, headlined with four major triumphs by Zach Johnson, Lucas Glover, and Stewart Cink.
With the highly anticipated 150th Open Championship at St Andrews, Scotland, set to start on July 14, Pickens is well-placed to offer insight into what it takes to lift the Claret Jug.
Mere months after beginning work with Pickens in 2009, Cink clinched his first major at the 138th edition of the event. Six years later, Johnson – a 16-year client of Pickens – won at St Andrews for his second major triumph.
Fittingly, both players won via nail-biting four-hole playoffs. For Pickens, trying to replicate game-day pressure is the biggest challenge he faces as a sports psychologist. Try as he might – talk through it and run demanding drills – there is simply no way for Pickens to simulate the psychological strain of an event, let alone a major-deciding playoff.
“It’s almost impossible – because it’s a physiological thing – to get their adrenaline going like it’s going to be going Sunday,” Pickens said.
And yet, the psychologist’s efforts seem to get the best out of Johnson, a self-confessed hypercompetitive individual who relishes Pickens’ practice wagers that stake small sums on the outcome.
“I just love to compete, I love anything that drives me to try to better myself,” Johnson said in a video on Pickens’ website.
“I’m always trying something I’m doing in my practice so that when it comes to the bottom line of competing, week in week out on tour, I know I’ve been there before. I’ve seen it, I’ve felt it, and I can be successful.”
The ability to train efficiently touches on what Pickens believes to be the two critical mental traits required of elite golfers: discipline and the ability to control the mind.
It may seem paradoxical, but Pickens says the biggest psychological challenge facing golfers as they swing is simply that the ball is stationary.
Whereas in football or tennis, players’ thoughts and corresponding actions are instinctively occupied by the moving ball, golfers – forced to consciously fill this mental silence – must instead train themselves to “occupy their mind.” Cross-sport comparisons can be found in basketball’s free throw and baseball’s pitching.
In essence, this is what Pickens’ role boils down to – helping players to manage their mind, especially in the critical five to six seconds before the swing. Like a form of meditation, players need to know precisely what thoughts are coming through their heads.
“Some players count,” Pickens explains. “Walk in. One, club behind the ball. Two, feet down. Three, look at the target. Four, back to the ball. Five, back swing. Six, through swing.
“If you have consistency in the input from your thinking, you’ve got a better chance to get consistency from your output to hit the shot.”
For Johnson, who had suspected there was something “off” in his game prior to working with Pickens in 2006, the advice stuck immediately and has endured throughout his 24-year pro career.
“I thought I had a good routine, I thought it was consistent, I thought it was repeatable, but it was anything but that,” Johnson said in a video on Pickens’ website.
“It was extremely inconsistent, it was not thought out, it did not allow me to play at my best nor did it give me confidence and consistency shot-to-shot.”
Similar techniques helped Cink to clear his mind from an over-fixation on results, the American says in a video on Pickens’ website. At 49 years old, Cink continues to add to his eight PGA Tour wins, claiming a third RBC Heritage title in April 2021.
Meanwhile, managing the mind was a lesson that a hot-headed young Glover – US Open champion in 2009 – picked up quickly 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 was alright to get upset and mad but to let it go quickly and don’t let it affect the next shot.”
However, the ability to occupy the mind is nothing without disciplined practice, Pickens asserts.
Rather than going out and simply hitting some balls, top professionals must be laser-focused in their training. Crucially, as with the pre-swing routine, players should remove emotion from their practice – not merely reflecting on a good or bad day but dispassionately analyzing their performance.
For Pickens, this is one of Johnson’s most exemplary – though often misunderstood – assets.
“It’s not that Zach doesn’t have emotions. Sometimes people misinterpret and think he didn’t have them,” Pickens explains. “He’s just really good at managing them and focusing on what he wants to focus on.
“And he’s incredible at going ‘ok, this is what I want to get done and here’s how I’m going to go do it.’
“A lot of people call themselves pros but they still just go play golf. The guys that make it, they understand, ‘I have to treat this like a job.’”