Nick Westby: McIlroy’s thought control key to success

Rory McIlroy
Rory McIlroy
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Golf has always been at the vanguard of the sports psychology revolution.

Players, caddies and coaches have long accepted and welcomed the fact that a top mind coach is as integral as a good swing coach.

And one such golf psychologist who is at the forefront of the psychology revolution is a Leeds man – Jon Finn.

A graduate of Leeds Metropolitan University, and now director of his own company Tougher Minds, Finn is also the golf psychology consultant to the Professional Golfers Association of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

That capacity gave him the insight to see something a little different in the masterclass produced by Rory McIlroy at the Open Championship last week.

The Ulsterman became the first European golfer in history to win three of the four majors championships when he held off the charging Rickie Fowler and Sergio Garcia to triumph at Royal Liverpool Golf Club.

McIlroy’s performance over the first three days in particular, when he shot rounds of 66, 66, 68 had onlookers purring over his ability with a golf club in his hand.

But it was the construction of Sunday’s final round of 71 that betrayed the greatest improvement in McIlroy’s all-round approach to golf, according to psychologist Finn.

In his interview with BBC Sport, the victorious McIlroy spoke of being, “in the present”, and revealed how he had found new levels of mental “focus”.

To Finn those comments are evidence of a new, enhanced mental approach to the game, which is highly likely to have been brought about by the full biological development of McIlroy’s brain – and could see him go on to dominate the sport.

“We know that Rory McIlroy is now 25 and modern neuroscience tells us this is the age when the human brain is fully developed in adult males,” said Finn, whose successful work is based on insight gained from MRI brain scans and associated techniques.

“Key parts of the prefrontal cortex become developed, making it easier to suppress what I refer to as the Monkey Brain and its often unhelpful thoughts. As part of my work in golf, I have looked in detail at Rory McIlroy’s previous successes and failures and I believe he is now in a far more mentally robust state.

“He made reference to managing his thoughts and staying focused, during what could have been a nerve-wracking final round, in a championship he himself described as the greatest.

“I have not known him to say this kind of thing before and, in my opinion, he is now using meta-cognition. In other words, he is able to think about what his thoughts are, as they happen. This is the highest possible state of resilience and is far more likely to take place in a mature brain.

“For example, his comments at Hoylake contrast sharply with his reaction after his meltdown at the Masters in 2011, when he was just 22. After a disastrous final round at Augusta which effectively cost him the tournament, his comments revealed a lack of control over his thoughts and he spoke of an inner voice tormenting him.

“Successfully controlling your thoughts is the secret to successful golf and it seems to me Rory McIlroy has now taken a major step towards achieving this.”

Drax's Liam Ridgill, top left, and Leeds Golf Centre's Nigel Sweet, front second right, take their places among the Englanf Golf award winners.

Yorkshire twice among the winners at Engl;and Golf Awards night