Sports psychologist Dr. Gio Valiante believes the breach in confidence is best cured by a return to fundamentals and becoming "a student of oneself"
Slump: that dreaded five-letter word that inevitably tags every golfer like a terrible flu. And it does not discriminate.
Those brief moments of clarity, buoyed by confidence, become hostage to exasperation as quickly as flicking a light switch. Suddenly, without warning, the once accurate drives find more rough than fairway. Or the automatic 2-foot putts won’t fall, the hole repelling the ball like an irritating insect. Doubt creeps in. The water faucet of the mind shifts from a controllable drip to an unmanageable monsoon, cascading the brain with negativity. It’s insular.
"The funny thing about golf is when you’re playing bad," said Brandt Snedeker after winning the 2015 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, ending a 19-month winless drought, “you never think you’re going to play good and when you’re playing good, you never think you’re going to play bad.
“The game of golf is not easy. I don’t care who you are; out here everyone’s had their down times, even the best players in the world do it. So, it will beat you down, but you just keep fighting.”
David Love III, when mired in a slump, had a simple mantra his father shared. "Try less hard."
Once in a rut, what’s a golfer to do? Tom Watson used to preach that it’s how you rebound from adversity that measures a player. He was subtly referring to cognition, or mental awareness.
Circa 2004, sports psychologist Dr. Gio Valiante completed a study where he interviewed 50 of the top golfers in the world.
“One of the questions I asked was, when you look back on your career, when you finally found ‘it,’ is there a pattern?” Valiante says. “And when you felt lost, from the darkness to the light, is there a pattern to the solve, a pattern to the problem solving? All of them — Nick Price, David Toms, [Jack] Nicklaus, [Arnold] Palmer, Vijay Singh — they said, yes, fundamentals. There was ball position, posture and grip. It distills to the simple things.”
In early 1980, a struggling Nicklaus stripped down his game to the basics after touching his clubs just three times in a four-month span late the previous year. He approached his longtime instructor and said, “OK, Jack Grout, my name is Jack Nicklaus and I’d like to learn how to play golf,” as told in Jimmy Roberts’ book “Breaking the Slump.”
Invariably, a slump portends a confidence breach. That’s when the psyche really seizes the driver’s seat.
Todd Benedict, an amateur from Metuchen, New Jersey, with an eye on one day competing in a U.S. Golf Association championship, knew the funk settled in when he started consistently skulling wedges and having no confidence over putts. His old antidote followed Nicklaus’ in that he stowed away the clubs for a couple weeks to “erase the bad habits from muscle memory,” he says. With a 10.4 handicap index, his scores rose into the 90s. He sought out his first-ever lesson, not so much about changing his game but to rebuild his psyche.
“I had noticed the bad habits were accelerating and started snowballing,” says Benedict. “I noticed I was three- and four-putting on greens that I would normally one- or two-putt. It was to the point I’d be standing over a putt and I’d say, ‘I don’t have a chance in hell making this putt.’”
Once he had the lesson, he applied what he learned and kept reinforcing positive thoughts hovering over the ball. And once he executed on that first putt or a wedge he had worked on, the mental negativity disappeared like water funneling down a drain.
“You see these guys on tour and they get hot, and then they get hot because success begets success and confidence begets confidence,” says Benedict.
Speaking of confidence, consider Jordan Spieth. In 2015, he won the FedEx Cup and was anointed the best golfer for the foreseeable future. Since 2017, the well has run mostly dry due to an errant driver and balky putter. His albatross accommodated a cacophony of “what’s wrong” questioning, followed by cliché answers, but always with fundamentals and practice as the solution.
In a nine-start stretch before the 2021 PGA Championship, Spieth appeared to have found his game. He totaled seven top-10 finishes, including a win at the Valero Texas Open.
“It’s just one of those things where you've just got to block out the noise and stay the course and believe in yourself,” said Speith at the PGA Championship, where he tied for 30th.
A week later, at the Charles Schwab Challenge, where he finished second, Spieth said: “I've been really working on the right things and have the right moves for it, whether it's the full swing or the putting. It’s just once you're doing the right thing, repetition gets it closer and closer and gets you more precise.”
In the 17 starts since his runner-up finish, Spieth has just two top-10 finishes, including a runner-up at the British Open.
When Valiante, who has three golf books about mastering the psychological side, works with his clients, he preaches harnessing the mind and focusing thoughts. That, in turn, engenders slowing time, increasing awareness, intensifying focus and, ultimately, rewarding golf.
Count Henrik Stenson as a believer. In 2009, he ranked No. 4 in the Official World Golf Ranking, then went into a spectacular free fall to 230th in less than three years. He reworked his swing and attitude.
“I’ve got a temper, but it’s almost like I got past that stage,” he said in 2012. Applying what he learned, his confidence soared and ranking rose to No. 3 by 2014. A 2016 British Open win followed.
Things got so bad for Rory McIlroy, ranked No. 1 in 2012, that by 2013 he called his “golf brain-dead.” Remaining positive carried him.
“It's body language, it's how you carry yourself, it's all that sort of stuff, your little mannerisms,” he said before the 2013 PGA Championship. “I guess it's just trying to just remember those feelings and remember how I felt that week [of winning a tournament].”
Finally, even the mentally toughest golfer of the modern era wasn’t spared. Tiger Woods battled doubts through myriad swing changes, injuries and personal issues. He went from being untouchable at his apex, the near example of precision on the course, to tumbling into an abyss. He felt like he was wading through mud in the dark. From 2013 until August 2015 he amassed more missed cuts (10) than made (7); he also didn’t have a top-10 finish. He took inventory of posture and alignment.
“You have to take up and focus on the weaknesses and make them their strengths,” he said at the 2015 Arnold Palmer’s Invitational.
And mental toughness, he surmised, makes up more than half the challenge.
“I certainly learned it,” he said.
Which all comes back to the two constants: managing the mind and mechanics.
“Think of the word discipline. What is the etymology, what is the genesis?” Valiante says. “The word at its core is disciple. What is a disciple? It’s a student. Self-discipline is being a student of oneself.”