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Fearless Golf: Conquering the Mental Game

Fearless Golf: Conquering the Mental Game

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by Gio Valiante

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A detailed plan for conquering the FEAR that sabotages swings and ruins psyches, from the pioneering psychologist whose techniques have benefited Davis Love III, Justin Leonard, and numerous other world-class golfers.

As Jack Nicklaus once observed, fear is the golfer’s greatest enemy, inspiring Tiger Woods to "refuse" to give in to this debilitating


A detailed plan for conquering the FEAR that sabotages swings and ruins psyches, from the pioneering psychologist whose techniques have benefited Davis Love III, Justin Leonard, and numerous other world-class golfers.

As Jack Nicklaus once observed, fear is the golfer’s greatest enemy, inspiring Tiger Woods to "refuse" to give in to this debilitating emotion. It can turn professionals into jelly and dominate the games of most amateurs. It alters swing paths, causes “tap-in” putts to go awry, and transforms a golfer from a brilliant shot-maker on the practice range into an incompetent hack on the course.

Most golfers understand this, but do not have the tools to overcome it. That’s where Dr. Gio Valiante comes in. A pioneering sports psychologist, Valiante has studied the sources of an athlete’s fear, investigated the physiological and neurological impact of fear on performance, and, most important of all, developed a groundbreaking program for conquering it. With Valiante's help and by applying Fearless Golf, Justin Leonard went from three consecutive missed cuts to three consecutive top tens, and Chad Campbell recently moved from 98th in the world to 7th. Davis Love III went from zero wins in 2002 to four wins in 2003, and Chris DiMarco made the 2004 Ryder Cup Team.

Emphasizing the need to replace a fixation-on-results with a commitment to mastery of one’s body and one's mind, Valiante’s approach will not only help golfers reach their true potential, it will make playing every round fun again. Through concrete confidence and mastery drills, he presents specific ways readers can break free of fear’s grasp and perform at their best—even under the most extreme pressure.

With detailed quotes and anecdotes given exclusively to Dr. Valiante from the best players in the game—including Jack Nicklaus, Ernie Els, and other tour professionals, Fearless Golf is the ultimate guide to the mental game, the hottest topic in golf today.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Sports psychologist Valiante follows in the footsteps of Bob Rotella (Golf Is Not a Game of Perfect) and W. Timothy Gallwey (The Inner Game of Golf) by coming at golf from a psychological perspective. A "mental game consultant" for Golf Digest, the Golf Channel, and the University of Florida, he has worked with some of the PGA's biggest players. In popular parlance, Valiante is golf's equivalent of Oprah's Dr. Phil. Here, he uses real-life examples to demonstrate his operative principles, of which the foremost is overcoming fear: "When I turn my critical eye on all these [gold championships] there is one thing the great champions manage to overcome." He offers quotes from and anecdotes about both historical greats (Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus) and current top performers on the PGA tour (Chad Campbell, Justin Leonard, Davis Love III). The upside to Fearless Golf is that it is highly readable and offers insight for most golfers. On the other hand, following Rotella's seminal book, this breaks little new ground. Libraries with large sports collections might consider.-Steve Silkunas, North Wales, PA Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher
I have had the privilege of getting to know Gio as a friend and a teacher on the PGA Tour. He is the next superstar in sports psychology!”
—Davis Love III, eighteen-time PGA Tour Champion

“After six months of playing below my expectations, I began working with Dr. Valiante. He recognized my problems immediately due to his vast research on the PGA Tour with players such as Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus. In my first two events under Gio’s guidance, I was a new player! I was playing with confidence and purpose! The results speak for themselves. If you are trying to become a better golfer, I highly recommend that you take this book to heart.”
—Justin Leonard, eight-time PGA Tour winner, 1997 British Open Champion

“What makes Gio great is his immense knowledge, but what sets him apart from others is the amount of passion he has for the great game of golf.”
—“Young Gun” Charles Howell III, PGA Tour winner

“This splendid book is an invaluable and illuminating guide for golfers at whatever level they play.”
—Albert Bandura, David Star Jordan Professor of Psychology, Stanford University

“Dr. Valiante’s insights about golf are right on track! He has found a way to embed my personal experience as a PGA Tour golfer with what all golfers go through, and to rediscover the timeless universals in golf, namely that great golf is a process of continual learning, and the importance of pursing that learning in a manner that is FEARLESS!"
—David Toms, ten-time PGA Tour winner, 2001 PGA Champion

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt


Fear Is the Enemy

Jack Nicklaus once wrote that "fear of any kind is the number one enemy of all golfers, regardless of ball-striking and shot-making capabilities. [Fear] happened to me before my early success enabled me to control my fear."

Nicklaus knew fear can take hold of even the most skilled golfers, leaving them not only unable to function to the best of their physical abilities but also dumbstruck by the basic mental mechanics of the game. Nicklaus knew the power of fear from personal experience. It was the 1960 U.S. Open that taught the young Nicklaus the power of fear and the power of focus. He finished second in the U.S. Open that year, a championship many observers believed he might have won. Even Nicklaus admitted he had a chance, until fear got in the way. Leading the tournament by a shot late in the final round, Nicklaus found himself distracted by the moment. On the sixteenth hole, he struck a short birdie putt too boldly after thinking how hard it would be for others to catch him with a two-shot lead. But it got worse for the young champion. Staring at a short par putt with his fellow competitor Ben Hogan standing by, Nicklaus noticed a poorly repaired pitch mark in the line of his putt. He wasn't sure he could repair it under the rules, though he in fact could. In his book My Most Memorable Shots in the Majors, Nicklaus wrote:

Excited, anxious and under as much pressure as I've ever known, I can't focus my mind clearly on whether the rules allow me to repair the ball mark. Also, I'm too shy or embarrassed to admit this in front of Hogan or to hold up play by asking an official. So I go ahead and stroke the putt. The mark deflects the ball just enough to spin it out. I bogey, then three-putt the next green.

Of course, Arnold Palmer won that championship by two shots over Nicklaus, whose fear of the moment shut down his ability to think clearly and act decisively. Fear is a powerful force. It can be destructive, but it can also teach us. As Nicklaus later remarked, "There are three lessons here, which have stuck with me ever since. First: Repair ball marks as you'd like the others to repair them for you. Second: Know the rules. Third: If in doubt, ask."

Now, not many of us have the "early success" of a Jack Nicklaus to help us do battle with the demon of fear on the golf course. But it should be at least slightly comforting that even the most accomplished major champion in the history of the game had at times his own struggles with fear. That is a sure illustration of just how destructive and pervasive fear can be.

In the context of golf, fear is a misplaced and wasted mind activity, but as worthless as it may be, left unchecked it will be crippling to your chances at success. Fear is a termite or a bark beetle or an ascaris worm. It lives inside the host, devouring it from the inside by living on what the host provides. Gruesome, insidious, perhaps, but it's a very effective means of shutting down a system and making it incapable of functioning. That's what happens to the golfer affected by fear. His whole process for shot-making can be turned on its head.

Try this thought experiment: Picture yourself standing on the tee box of a demanding golf hole. Let it be a hole you know well with a water hazard to carry and another down the right side of the fairway. In your mind, picture yourself addressing the ball and looking down the fairway. Visualize the sights, smells, and feel of the moment. Go through your whole preshot routine and setup. Then, just as you are at address and about to hit the ball, ask yourself the following question: "What if I slice?"

What happened? How did you feel the moment after asking yourself that question? Chances are, if you were deeply immersed in this little experiment, and if you are like most golfers, you felt a bolt of anxiety or fear shoot down your spine and maybe even into your stomach and hands. Chances are that you pictured the ball sailing off-line, and your mind filled with dreadful thoughts. In an instant, by asking yourself the simple question, "What if I slice?" you triggered your own anxiety and created your own fear. Excellence in golf requires that you make fearless swings at precise targets. Saying "What if I slice?" does not increase the likely success rate. By asking a bad question, you succumb to fear and put yourself at a disadvantage even before you've taken the club back.

As I've interviewed more and more golfers over the years, I've found that golfers go through a round of golf deep in a conversation with themselves. Sometimes this ongoing dialogue is about swing mechanics (we all remember watching the greats like Nick Faldo or Tiger Woods walking down the fairway making a practice swing trying to isolate a particular move in the downswing). Sometimes the internal conversation is about the golf course and its relative fairness. Sometimes the chatter is about the outcome of the next shot or the way the previous hole finished. The common thread that holds all these topics together is that golfers continually ask questions like these and that these bad questions can be a very destructive influence on the way you score. The fear-filled golfer asks the wrong questions. They are the wrong questions because they elicit a negative emotional reaction. They stall the process of moving toward success, and at their most detrimental actually move the golfer away from success.

Here's a quick lesson in who or what you're playing against: It was the most perfect spring day in a part of the world known for perfect spring days. It was Sunday at the 2002 Heritage of Golf Classic at Harbour Town Golf Links on the beautiful island of Hilton Head, South Carolina. The temperature was a comfortable eighty degrees, there was a soft breeze coming off Calibogue Sound, the fragrant cherry blossoms were in bloom, and golf fans came out by the thousands in their customary southern attire to watch and cheer for the best golfers in the world.

But the poetry and pageantry of the day were lost on the golfers themselves, particularly those in contention to win. For those golfers in the final groups, there was the prospect of a penalizing golf course to deal with. The same Calibogue breezes that were a blessing to the admiring spectators could gust at any moment and send a golf ball flying into the surrounding rough, bunkers, or salt marshes overgrown with sea oats. Standing between each man and victory was a supremely talented group of competitors, each of whom sought his own glory. On this gentle spring day, there were victories to be had, careers to be made, and for those who had left a bit of their soul at Augusta the week before, ghosts to be quieted.

The leaderboard consisted of golf's premier players, including Phil Mickelson, Davis Love III, Billy Andrade, and Heath Slocum. Young Justin Leonard led by three. On the practice range minutes before they were to tee off, Davis Love was committed to catching Justin Leonard: "I'm going to make a run at you!" he joked to his friend Justin. Having never played before a crowd that large, tour rookie Heath Slocum's mind was distracted by the large galleries, and the prospect of playing with the world's number two-ranked player, Phil Mickelson. Justin Leonard accepted the challenge of protecting the three-shot lead he'd built with the help of a blinding 64 on the second day of the tournament.

On the practice range minutes before he teed off, I put this question to Heath: "If the field is thinking about Justin, and Justin is thinking about his lead, and you are thinking about Phil, who do you suppose is thinking about the golf course?" Heath, whose success on tour was due as much to his quick mind as to his innate talent, immediately understood the point I was trying to make: You cannot play your best golf if your mind is preoccupied with thinking about other golfers. To play your best golf, your mind has to be focused exclusively on hitting shots at precise targets. So, on that glorious day in the spring of 2002, while a handful of golfers on the PGA Tour battled each other, Heath Slocum battled the golf course. And although his run at victory fell a stroke short, of all those in contention on Sunday, he shot the lowest final round score.

A rather unexpected but interesting pattern that emerged from my studies of golfers over the years had to do with the questions of mastery versus ego that golfers asked themselves; different questions that began a mental cycle leading either to fear or fearlessness. Understanding the import of this requires a short lesson on the workings of the mind, beginning with a thought experiment. For this experiment, take a moment and ask yourself four questions. Repeat these questions word for word to yourself and, after each one, pause a moment before moving on to the next:

1.What is the color of my car?
2.What animal produces milk?
3.Who is the best golfer in the world?
4.What are the colors of the American flag?

After reading each question, you no doubt pictured your car, you saw a cow, you pictured Tiger Woods or Jack Nicklaus, and you saw an image of an American flag. In other words, asking yourself questions immediately and powerfully triggered images in your mind. Though simple, this exercise illustrates three foundational mechanisms of human thinking. First, the mind automatically responds to the questions we ask ourselves. Second, the questions we ask ourselves determine where we focus our attention in the sense that, while you were asking those four questions, you were not thinking about politics, the Easter Bunny, or whether your garbage will be picked up on time. And third, the answers to the questions we ask ourselves often come back in visual form. I'd like you to hold on to those key points for the remainder of this chapter.

Certainly, we have all seen how fear makes cowards of us all, as the old expression goes. We all know that fear of public speaking is a tremendously common fear. Poor questions are often responsible for the cold feet that the betrothed feel on their wedding day. A client recently told me of her internal conversation on the morning of her wedding, when unlike anything she had ever done or thought before, she repeatedly asked poor questions of herself like, "What if he stops loving me?" She visualized future misery, and rather than concentrating on the beauty and joy of her wedding day, she was mired in a grip of panic and fear, barely making it through, let alone enjoying, her special day. Surely, we've all experienced a degree of fear of flying. Even though we know that statistically flying is safer than driving, we often can't help but ask ourselves, "What if the plane crashes?" Again, it is not a productive way of thinking. Much like if the mountain climber were suddenly to ask himself, "What if I fall?" Immediately, he is focused on not falling, instead of climbing and enjoying the challenge and the scenery. Self-induced anxiety and fear inhibits positive action.

Fear has its foundation in a focus on the future uncertainties of a particular moment, regardless of how absurd they might be. When you stand on the tee of a tight driving hole and immediately begin to think of a slice or a hook into trouble, why is that any different or more logical than wondering if your plane might crash or if your betrothed will stop loving you or if you will be unable to utter a sound when you have to give that presentation to all the department heads this afternoon? There isn't logic to it, especially if you let yourself fall victim to the cycle of unproductive self-questioning.

Fear begins and gets its fuel from the uncertainty of self-questioning. Most fear-inducing questions boil down to the same theme: What if I am faced with something terrible that I am not prepared for? But go deeper and it is just as easy to realize that this fear can fall away once we are willing to hear an answer to one of these moderately absurd questions. In nearly every case, the answer to a question of uncertainty is a simple, strong, positive question of its own: "What am I going to do about it?" When we ask ourselves "What if the plane crashes?" and we respond with "What am I going to do about it?" we are telling ourselves to look objectively at our particular uncertainty and deal with it thoroughly. In the case of fear of flying, for example, maybe it means reminding ourselves of the safety record of air travel, or even more simply, finding a way to deal with that uncomfortable moment of a flight (takeoff, let's say) by focusing on a process (reading a book, listening to music, closing your eyes and meditating) that takes our mind away from an absurd fear. You will see how that same sort of directed focus can make your next round of golf better, too.

words of a champion: tom kite, u.s. open 1992

Throughout his PGA Tour career, Tom Kite made himself into one of the most consistent performers the game has ever known. He once had twenty-one top tens in a season, and despite having only moderate physical gifts, he rose to number one on the all-time PGA Tour money list in the early 1990s. Kite did it with dedication and an indefatigable desire for improvement. For all that his career encompassed, his resume lacked that one crucial notation: a major championship. Kite shook loose that burden with a gritty performance on one of the toughest days in U.S. Open history. With winds whipping hard around Stillwater Cove and the tiny greens at Pebble Beach the consistency of a parking lot, Kite negotiated his way through 18 tough holes, the forty-mile-per-hour winds, and all the lingering doubters to win his first major title. After lifting the trophy, he said, "From tee to green, it was not even close to one of the best tournaments I've ever had. But as far as hanging in there and doing the things that were required on a very difficult golf course, this may have been the best."

Later, Kite told Golf Digest in an extended interview that there's a difference between recognizing fear and being afraid. The nerves will come out, he says, but that's what makes the moment supreme.

The thing that is difficult for people to appreciate is a lot of times when you see a guy that is coming down the stretch trying to win a golf tournament, he looks so calm and so collected and looks like he has everything under control.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

Dr. Gio Valiante has worked as a mental game consultant to the PGA Tour's hottest players, including Chad Campbell, Heath Slocum, Justin Leonard, Davis Love III, David Duval, Matt Kuchar, and Chris DiMarco. He is the mental game consultant to Golf Digest, The Golf Channel, and the University of Florida.

Mike Stachura has been an editor at Golf Digest since 1992. He has written numerous instruction stories and served as Travel Editor and most recently Equipment Editor. He lives in Connecticut with his wife, Kathy, daughter, Annie Kate, and son, Jack.

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3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 12 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
As a fan of Dr. Gio on TGC, I bought this book expecting the same thoughtful and concise info the good Dr. disperses on the show. There is very little new ground here if you've read any of Rotella's books ... just a different spin on the same stuff, and not nearly as concise. It appears that Dr. Valente is the victim of poor ghost writing: the book depends heavily on quotes and vignettes, many of which say the same thing. The chapter on Self Efficacy beats the subject to death to a point where I found myself skipping pages to find the point. What the author has to say of substance could be done in a much briefer manner. Readers who have never read any mental approach golf books would be better served reading Rotella's 'The Golfer's Mind.'
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Name~Riverwhisker<br> Age~20 moons<br> Looks~Slender light gray tabby she cat with icey blue eyes<br> Persanalty~Kind loyal friendly caring and fearless will defend her clan with her last breath<br> Rank~Warrior but hopfully deputy although unlikly<br> Mate/Crush/Kits~None but she hopes to have kits<br> Kin~Unknown<br> History~She dosent talk about it<br>
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Name: OwlFeather <p> Age:14 moons <p> Gender: &female <p> Apperance: [Pelt] Brown,Orange,Black,White tortishell pelt. [Eyes] Hazle [Other] Built for Hunting. <p> Personality:Protective,Sweet,Caring,Kind,but, she can be sarcastic. <p> Mate:Nope <p> Kits:Nope <p> Crush:Maybe <p> Theme:F<_>ucking Pefect by P!n|< <p> Rank:Warrior <p> &hearts <p> &spades <p>
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A lot of Repetition with a lack of anything new as it pertained to the mental part of golf. Would not recommend book to my friends.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Playing to your Potential The book Fearless Golf by Dr. Gio Valiante, is a great book that tells how to improve your mental game and in result better golf scores. It tells stories of the best golfers who ever played and how they were able to play fearless golf. That was one thing I liked that he did, how he was able to show you in detail what these great players did mentally to make them so great. The message was to play with confidence, one shot at a time, and to love to play. It seems simple and obvious but he explains the mental game &ldquo;shifts&rdquo; and addresses the problems that every golfer faces. One bad thing was it got boring at times and it felt repetitive at times. I would only recommend this book if you love golf and are striving to get better. If you don't love golf you will find it boring and it won't make sense. I would rate this book a 5 because I personally was able to take good things out of the book and apply it to my life.
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Fearless Golf is a great book to help with your mental stability on the golf course. It talks about your mental status on the golf course and how becoming more mentally stable can improve your score. It also tells stories of professionals using this mental stability to succeed in golf tournaments.

I liked this book because it told me what I need to do to improve my mental side of my golf game. In golf you don¿t just need talent of the game to succeed you also have to have a good mental game. This book has really helped in mine especially in my golf tournaments because I used to play well at my home course but not be able to play the same when I went to a tournament, but after reading this book I have become more mentally stable at my tournaments and I¿m playing much better in them.

I didn¿t like the book though because it was kind of boring. It didn¿t ever grab my attention and the only times it was interesting was when it was telling the stories about the professionals. The book doesn¿t tell a story or anything like that so it isn¿t going to grab your attention but I knew it was going to help me play better in my tournaments so I read it anyways.

I don¿t recommend the book for people who just want to read a book for fun because you would probably find it boring and if you didn¿t know anything about golf you probably wouldn¿t even understand it. However, I do recommend the book for people who love to play golf and really want to improve their score.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Dr. Valiante's book is incredible. For the first time I finally feel like a book on the mental side of the game is addressing problems that I face. Rather than go throughthe same mantras as all the others (concentrate, stay in a routine, believe in yourself) Dr. Valiante explains the mental *shifts* that take place when we go from playing well to playing poorly. Rather than instruct us to be confident, he actually explains WHAT confidence is composed of, and HOW to be confident when it matters most. Our coach - a former college all-american - is making Fearless Golf required reading for our whole team! He says it is the best thing he has ever read as well.