Dr. Gio Valiante, the author of Fearless Golf (which is in the gift bag of today’s Cox Classic participants, courtesy of Doubleday and Golf Digest), has worked as a mental-game consultant to some of the PGA Tour’s hottest players, including Chad Campbell, Heath Slocum, Justin Leonard, Davis Love III, Jonathan Byrd and Charles Howell III. He is a mentalside consultant to The Golf Channel, the University of Florida, and Golf Digest.
Q: What’s with the name Gio? You grew up in Connecticut!
A: Gio is the Italian translation for “John.” My birth certificate actually said John but my father wanted to honor his father, who was Italian, so changed it when I was 5 months old.
Q: Down to business. Is it realistic to talk about playing without fear? Won’t we always fear the shot over water or the curling 3-footer?
A: There is a difference between feeling fear and playing fearless golf. You cannot avoid feeling fear, but you can still make fearless swings at your targets! Jack Nicklaus felt fear throughout his career; his response was to make the proper adjustments by softening his hands, hitting at conservative targets, and staying committed to those targets.
Q: Your mantra seems to be “What’s my target?” Why isn’t it something like, “Keep my right elbow in so I don’t look like a chicken?”
A: Actually, the mantra is “Fearless swings at precise targets” but “What’s my target?” is the most effective question to emerge from it. There is no problem with one swing thought like “Keep my elbow in.” The problem is that one swing thought almost always morphs into 3 or 4 and invariably people get stuck with “paralysis through over-analysis.”
Q: You talk often about needing to have a “Mastery” oriented – getting better for getting better’s sake – and not “Ego” oriented approach. But don’t great players have big egos?
A: Are you an English teacher? Mastery Golf is different from mastering the game of golf in its entirety! The more skills you can master – whether psychological or mechanical – the better you’ll become over time. And your reward will be that there will be times – however brief – when you will have the game mastered. Hogan said that great golf is the product of great misses. A mastery orientation makes your good shots better, but also narrows the parameters of your misses. I tell my golfers, “While the other guys think about their results, you think about your targets. While other guys think about their opponents, you think about your targets. While other golfers play each other, you play the golf course!” Don’t be emotional weather vanes, remain steady, committed to your shots.
Q: That’s harder to brag about than breaking 80…
A: Hey, an ego approach is fine when you’re playing well; but the real difference shows when players experience setbacks. Ego golfers often feel embarrassed and anxious, and that undermines their ability to bounce back. Mastery golfers redouble their efforts and figure how to self-correct (a habit that insures they get better the next time).
Q: Does Tiger feel fear on the course?
A: Absolutely! No doubt about it. He has spoken frequently about being so scared he could “hardly breath” and times when he was so scared it felt like a “lion” was tearing at his heart. Of course, Tiger’s response is what I talk about in Fearless Golf. Acknowledge the fear, but don’t give in to the fear. The difference between being psyched up or psyched out is a matter of your interpretation. We will all feel butterflies; it’s how we interpret those feelings that will determine whether we fold like wet napkins or refocus and make committed swings at our targets.
Q: What is the one single thing you can tell someone to do to win the Cox Classic?
A: Have a mental “default.” Use every distractive thought as a reminder to ask the simple question, “What’s my target?” If you find yourself worrying about what your partner thinks about your swing, default to “What’s my target?” If you are 3-under par through 10 holes, ask “What’s my target?” If you are 5 over through 5, ask “What’s my target?” You’ll be surprised how effective that is.
Q: Speaking of effective, when the heck is Chris DiMarco going to win a BIG one?
A: If you look at his trajectory, he is getting closer each and every year. Remember, Vijay didn’t wakeup and win 11 tournaments. It took him until the age of 40 to learn to be a consistent winner. Chris is following a similar path to Jim Furyk and Mike Wier and Vijay Singh. Remember this game rewards maturity! Regularly winning on the PGA Tour is almost always predicated with consistent strong finishes, which Chris is now doing.
Q: Should Michelle Wie play on the men’s tour?
A: Without a doubt if she can shoot the scores and hit the shots, she should play wherever her heart takes her (whether LPGA or PGA Tour). The golf course does not care who hits the shots. If you have the game, you should be admitted to the club.
Q: Ok, for my fantasy golf league: Who are the players to watch?
A: Zach Johnson, Luke Donald, Adam Scott, of course, and Charles Howell III.
Q: What’s your dream foursome?
A: I’ve gotten to play with Jack Nicklaus, and hit balls with Tiger. However, the true dream would be me with Jack, Tiger, and Ben Hogan playing at an old, classic course like Merion or Pebble or Firestone or Baltusrol. I am getting butterflies just imagining it!!
Giovanni J. Valiante can be reached at email@example.com