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Ninety minutes after he missed the 10-foot putt that would have won the PGA Championship in August, Justin Leonard plopped down on the closest thing he could find to an analyst's couch--a plush leather seat on a chartered jet. Beside him, looking nothing like Sigmund Freud, sat Gio Valiante. As the plane climbed through the clouds, they cracked open consolatory Michelobs and tried to extract positives from Leonard's disappointment. � Valiante's silver lining was easier to find. In the pressroom back at Whistling Straits, his name was being writ large into tournament postmortems. With two new clients, Leonard and Chris DiMarco, involved in the three-man, three-hole playoff won by Vijay Singh, Valiante was one of the week's breakout stars. Not since Jos Vanstiphout jockeyed Retief Goosen to victory at the 2001 U.S. Open had a sports psychologist made such a splash at a major championship.
A few days later the blowback from the small circle of sports psychologists who regularly work with Tour players was less flattering: They said Valiante, a 33-year-old assistant professor of educational psychology at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., had worked in person with Leonard for only a week, was unqualified to coach the world's best golfers and is nothing more than a brilliant self-promoter. The criticism spoke volumes about the competition among mental coaches to become a name brand among Tour pros and about the fight between two schools of sports psychology.
Valiante first appeared on Tour in 2001. Funded by the Critchfield Foundation, his sole purpose was academic research on the psychology of pro golfers, but he quickly formed professional relationships with Tour newcomers Chad Campbell and Heath Slocum. Soon he added another young player, Matt Kuchar, and for a time, the Moby Dick of sports psychology projects, David Duval. Valiante says he has seven clients now, and also advises players such as Charles Howell and Davis Love III, who officially work with other psychologists. Says Love, "If you ask me who's on my team, I'm going to say Bob Rotella, but I talk to a lot of people, including Gio, and he's helped a lot."
No matter what one thinks about the merits of psychology in sports, this much is clear: What Valiante is selling is different and has gained acceptance on Tour. And not everyone is happy about it.
Valiante and his two older sisters grew up in Naugatuck, Conn., where his father, Fred, is an accountant and his mother, Joanne, is a nurse practitioner. Valiante played varsity football, golf and tennis at Naugatuck High and was president of his senior class. He graduated from Florida in 1995 with a degree in educational psychology. Part of Valiante's charm is his anomalous appearance: A fit 5'10" and 165 pounds, and with a permanent tan that suggests he conducts his Psych 101 classes poolside, Valiante looks more like a resort-wear model than a shrink. He's also one of the Tour's quirkiest characters. For instance, at last year's U.S. Open he bypassed the gridlock around Shinnecock Hills by riding three miles to work on a bicycle. Also, his fondness for quoting poets and philosophers makes him seem like a walking Bartlett's. By the end of their first week together, says Leonard, Valiante had cited T.S. Eliot and A.A. Milne, the author of the Winnie the Pooh books. The Eliot quote? "Teach us to care and not to care," Leonard says. And Milne? " Pooh, you silly bear!"
The root of Valiante's appeal to some golfers is the scientific basis of his instruction. Traditionally, golf psychology has been based on the synthesized wisdom of the game's great players. This still-dominant, aphoristic approach was pioneered about 25 years ago by Richard Coop and Bob Rotella, who were the first sports psychologists to work with Tour pros. As the author of golf psychology's favorite clich�s--one shot at a time ... stay in your routine ... focus on the target-- Rotella is the Shakespeare of his field.
Valiante is not without mantras--his signature line: Make fearless swings at precise targets--but he also draws on performance-enhancement research in biomechanics, neurology and ophthalmology. A staple of his sessions with Campbell is ocular reflex training. On the practice green Valiante shields Campbell's eyes with his hand to prevent them from wandering off the ball and down the target line. With Slocum, the emphasis has been muscle relaxation drills that, says Slocum, "help short-circuit stress, even during rounds."
A chatterbox, Valiante likes nothing better than an in-depth conversation with his clients about on-course tension or loss of confidence. Says DiMarco, "Instead of simply telling you, 'Stick to your routine, la-di-da,' he tries to make you understand the reasons why you're feeling a particular way."
On the advice of Campbell, Leonard started calling and e-mailing Valiante last May, but their first face-to-face working session didn't take place until a week before the PGA, at the International outside Denver. Valiante observed Leonard while walking with Leonard's group during the pro-am, then later on the range he demonstrated that Leonard's problems with distance control stemmed from the stranglehold he was putting on the club. "On a scale of one to 10, he thought his grip pressure was a three, but it was more like a seven," says Valiante, who immediately worked up a PowerPoint presentation for Leonard on the accuracy-thwarting consequences of restricting blood flow to the capillaries in the hands and fingers.
The diagnosis was "a real eye-opener," says Butch Harmon, who, as Leonard's swing coach, was party to those sessions at the International. "I'm not the biggest believer in sports psychology," adds Harmon, "but I really like how Gio makes you aware of the interaction between the physical and the psychological. I'm friendly with Bob Rotella and Dick Coop, and I admire their work, but what Gio does is a totally different approach. He's saying things about the swing that I've never heard before."