Editor’s Note: During the 2018 Sony Open in Honolulu, Hawaii-based inner-game coach, author and musician Cary Valentine interviewed four current PGA Tour players — one-time Tour winner Tony Finau, second-year cardholder J.J. Spaun, two-time winner James Hahn and six-time winner and 2009 Open Champion Stewart Cink — to find out what makes them tick in terms of mental preparation, dealing with adversity and turning doubts into dollars. Together they put forth plenty of great tips for golfers of all ages, levels and abilities. It’s time to think like a Tour pro.
‘It Can Always Be Worse’
Any challenges that you’ve overcome that can be helpful for amateurs?
Yeah, I think everybody is different in being mentally prepared. The experience of playing golf professionally at a higher level has been everything for me. I have learned from my mistakes and just try to move forward. You learn so much about yourself as you compete and play. I’m big on taking notes — what I’m feeling, what I’ve learned about some experiences. Those kinda help me. I think my mental game has gotten better and my game has gone better because of the mental aspect.
What has been your approach when you have had some difficult weeks on tour?
I always know things are gonna get better. You just have to stay patient and sometimes wait for the rainbow to happen, after the rain. Unfortunately, we may not have control on some of the bad things that happen in life. If you have a good attitude it helps, as I know it’s not going to be rough forever. It can always be worse.
I’ve been through some tough times in my life. My mom passed when I was 20 years old in a tragic car accident. Sometimes you look at situations like that and you’re like, okay, but it can still be worse. It’s tough to experience that but with what I believe, you have to have faith that things are gonna get better. You have to enjoy sometimes the process and part of the process is going through the valley and not always going for the peak.
Has faith or prayer helped you be stronger or clearer?
No question. Faith is everything for me and everything to me. I think having faith and having hope and believing in something takes a lot of pressure off you in your life. If you believe in something and believe it to be true, then everything else goes after that.
And helps build you up inside?
Yes, confidence is everything. I think if you walk around with confidence, you feel like you know who you are and you act accordingly to the way you were raised. That’s what I feel like has helped me for sure. I feel like I’ve done some good things on the golf course. Off the golf course, I feel like I’m a pretty good person and try to say hi to people and acknowledge them. Being a Polynesian, I think it helps. We are a very respectful to people; I learned that at a very young age. Little things like that. Golf is a great vehicle; hopefully kids can look up to me. I think if you just try to be a good person, then you walk around with that kind of confidence and no matter what happens on a golf course, you’re still a great person.
‘Don’t Force Anything’
Towards the end of your rookie year you were in contention to winning a few tournaments, what was that like for you?
Things were falling into place, I wasn’t trying too hard, I just was playing well. My confidence grew to the next level and I felt the euphoria of being in the zone in situations I was never in before — leading a tournament and the cameras following every move I made. It was part of the learning process and yet I felt comfortable.
At some point, to win out here you’ve got to get over the hump by making better course management decisions, roll with the emotions — and sometimes you’ve got to fail before succeeding. At Sea Island, I was fighting for second trying to hold my own. I played well and didn’t fumble going down the stretch.
What did you learn from last year to raise the bar for 2018?
I learned I don’t need to force anything or put extra pressure on myself. I’m going to continue to work on the process and I know I’ll be put in that position again. I have handled it successfully before even though I didn’t win; I’m not afraid of it.
There have been times where I’ve been afraid to win. I want to win but I was so afraid of failing. It can be scary so I started to think if I finish second or third that’s okay because it’s hard to win and there is fear sometimes.
Would you consider turning that around? Having negative thoughts of doubt in your head to remind you of the complete opposite because you are about to rise to a new level. Address the thoughts and don’t let them be the pink elephant in the room. Recognizing the limiting doubtful thoughts are testing your resolve to step into to a new level of success.
For example, instead of running from these voices saying you are going to fail, stop. Contemplate the thought. Pay attention and translate these apparent negative voices. They are letting you know you’re in a new area that you haven’t been before. Literally breathe into that and accept it. The nervous feelings will subside. Get excited, realizing you are rising up to this new level right now.
By addressing it, the doorway of success opens for you to experience the success you are yearning for. Bring it on. This is good. Then say an anchor or affirmation, such as, “I choose to rise up to the next level now” a number of times — then sink the putt and actualize your win.
Yeah that’s helpful. Like when I was in Vegas leading the tournament for two rounds, in the back of my head I had limiting thoughts, it was there yet I couldn’t ignore it. I wasn’t telling myself that but it was in there. Like, “if someone shoots ten under and I lose, well whatever.” Instead of focusing on winning the tournament. It’s what I dealt with at Sea Island where I tried my best to push and put pressure on the other players, not allowing them catch up to me.
Getting more comfortable winning, the bar will raise again out of the negative voices, like an inner sparring coach. Voices will say, for instance, “you won last week yet you can’t win a Major.” If that doubt is showing up, turn it around because you need to translate what it really is saying, “you are going to win” and “I’m showing up to test your resolve.” Exciting. This is a great sign!
Right. Exactly. It’s something that a lot of golfers have to get over in order to be successful and that’s why they never win.
On the pro tour, what’s the difference, the gap, to win? Is it the physical abilities or the mental state?
I think it’s mostly mental; to have a positive attitude, self-belief, and confidence. I don’t hit the ball the longest like Dustin Johnson or Tiger in his day, yet I hit the ball solid, I hit a lot of greens. My putting can get a little better, then I wouldn’t have any doubts about my physical abilities. The only thing that holds me back when I’m not playing well is my putting. Mentally, I am getting a lot better as I noticed I was complacent at times.
From when you were playing college at San Diego State do you see an arc of enhancement of your mental game?
Yes. I used to get so mad in college, cussing, screaming, throwing clubs. I definitely have gotten better in this area during my professional career.
In my university days, I’d have a bad hole and I then would make another bogey and another bogey. Then the whole round would collapse and you can’t afford to do that at this level.
Now, I’ll get mad but then let it go and birdie the next hole.
For an example, like today on hole 2, I missed a five foot birdie putt and I was like “that was an easy birdie I should have made it.” I was a little upset and then let it go and then the next hole I made a 30-foot birdie for the bounce back.
Any suggestions for those who get frustrated quickly to help them bring them back to center, so they don’t blow a round?
Sometimes, you get ahead of yourself and start thinking of the result too much instead of controlling what you can control. The longer we lurk and complain about what just happened it will keep lingering and maybe never go away. When it comes to a golf shot, if you hit a bad shot, a shot where you feel like I didn’t execute, learn from it. Of course, ink some situations it’s hard. You have to react yet try your best to stay in the present. Not look too far back and not look too far ahead. So you limit the time of being in the downs.
‘I’m Going To Prove Them Wrong’
What has been the biggest mindset piece that has helped you go from playing golf in college at UC Berkeley to the pro tour?
The number one thing that I’ve always held on to since I was a kid is the unwavering belief that I would make it out here and win. That’s the number one drive that kept me going and every hurdle, every challenge, every obstacle that I’ve had in my career was just going make me stronger and be part of my story.
I have to really be tuned to the person that I am and my tendencies. My tendency is I don’t push myself hard. I don’t wake up at four a.m. because people are encouraging me. I wake up at four, in the gym at five, last one to bed in spite of what people are telling me — that I can’t become a world champion golfer.
That gets me up in the morning because all the haters out there in the world who tell me that I can’t make it, that I’m not good enough. That my parents don’t have the resources to put me in the best country clubs and get golf lessons and swing tips from Butch Harmon, Sean Foley and these guys. I’m going prove them wrong. That motivates me more than someone saying, “you can do it.” And as long as you have an unwavering belief that you will be successful in whatever you do, the sky’s the limit.
For NCAA players who are looking to become a pro or for a weekend golfer to better their game, what suggestions might you have for them to improve their have approach to their mental game that has helped you?
I’ve always been a big believer in following the greats of the game, not necessarily golf, but other sports. Jerry Rice said, “I will do what others won’t, so tomorrow I can accomplish what others can’t.”
For college players, I’d let them know that they’re special, that they’re unique. Yet you’re competing against a million other people wanting to do the exact same thing that you do and there’s a limited number of spots. I feel like what brought me to the next level was being able to sacrifice whatever needed to be done to get to the next level, that was the most inconvenient. It’s easy to sacrifice watching cartoons at 10 o’clock at night and go to sleep, but try sacrificing the biggest party of the year at 5 p.m. on a Friday night to do your homework to get some work done. Those are harder decisions. It’s easy to make the easy sacrifice, it’s hard to make the harder sacrifices, and there are very few people I know who do this. I see a lot of them out here on the tour. It’s all about making the right choices day in and day out.
‘It’s A Never-Ending Tug of War’
Can you explain your strong interest in exploring the psyche?
I would call it as an exploration of perceived weakness because that’s what it is. When you feel a little bit scared, a little bit intimidated or maybe it’s like you’re not quite up to the task, that’s a perceived weakness, that you sort of put on yourself unfairly. A great way to uncover those things about yourself is through golf. What it feels like to shake over a putt or over a drive or be afraid of a lake or out of bounds or anything. That’s what’s great about the game. Every shot really unfolds a little bit differently in front of you.
It gives me a really good canvas to filter through my little fears, joys, peace, anxieties and all that stuff. It flushes it all out and I’ve gotten a chance to really learn all about the way I work and think about the way many people work. I’ve used it for mostly good, but more continues to uncover itself. It’s just a never-ending tug of war. I choose to battle it and learn a bit about it. That is sort of my way of battling, as I educate myself and figure out why it is that I’m feeling that way, why my heart rate accelerates on a certain shot or putt.
I find that it really comes down to self-consciousness and self-centeredness and transforming it into self-awareness.
There are a lot of things you need to know about yourself in the way you react in situations that you need to channel that to be your best self. It’s a fine line and every day I’m working towards getting closer towards self-awareness.
Can you share about how playing golf has helped you deepen your relationship with God?
I’m privileged to be one of the people who have been able to have a great long career on the PGA Tour. I get to come out here and enjoy my relationship with God every day, playing golf. I’ve been able to exercise that relationship and explore it and I get to use golf to trust God. This teaches me obedience and trains me in lowering and lessening myself while raising and intensifying him — because golf is humbling me, I know. I have humbling moments and I have triumphant moments. I try to exist somewhere in between all those.
Your play has excelled over the past year and you have been higher up on the leaderboard. Do you have a sense of why that has been?
I think I can explain that. It has a lot to do with [my wife], Lisa. In 2016, Lisa got diagnosed with breast cancer; it was pretty advanced, stage four. Only five percent of cases are stage four at diagnosis. When I saw the way she dug in and fought, the courage she showed, it really inspired me.
I couldn’t fight for her. I could help her and I could fight for myself. So I tried to tap into a bit of courage and confidence and the fight that I saw with her and the obedience and the trust in God to dig in, fight, search myself and figure out if I could dig a little bit more. I thought I was doing everything I could do before, but then I really looked and really examined what I was doing. It took a bit of honesty and I decided that while she’s fighting, I’ll fight and I realized that there are a few parts of my game that needed more attention than I was giving.
I don’t know what it feels like to wake up in the morning and wonder if you’re going to survive. She’s told me it doesn’t feel very good. And I got something out of it. I had a better year putting as I learned a new way to practice putting and I started working with a new coach, Jim Murphy, honing some new things.
One thing I’ve really not done before is use my faith for my performance. I felt those two things were separate. Now, I rely heavily on my faith when I am out performing. I more than welcome my faith into what I’m trying to do on a golf course because it helps me be more confident and it gives me something to be more confident in.
Any suggestions for amateur golfers to help their mental game that you see when you’re out playing?
The thing I hear in the pro-ams is the first tee jitters. When they get in front of the crowd and there’s a little buzz with the people, I hear the fear. The players are afraid they’re going to hit a poor shot, be embarrassed and feel inadequate. I wish the golfers would take just a second to really think; stretch their mind and realize the people applauding are actually cheering them on.