Executive Function and Golfing Success

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At the 2018 Open Championship, four time major winner Rory McIlroy- one of the most candid and self aware players on TOUR- said “[2007] was my first Open Championship. I mean I was just trying to soak everything in and I was just so grateful to be here. I think sometimes I need to get back to that attitude where I play carefree and am just happy to be here.” It had been over four yeas since McIlroy won a major after taking the TOUR by storm in 2011, winning four majors in four years and strutting down each fairway with the confidence of a man who knew no fear.

As the most electrifying player on TOUR not named Tiger Woods, countless articles and tweets have sought to account for his dearth of major championships. Padraig Harrington, in a one-on-one conversation, told McIlroy, “You're at a stage, Rory, where you're still trying to get more . . . actually, I'm going to say this, and it's probably not what you want to hear, but four Majors for you is a failure.”

Some have postulated that Rory got his majors early in his career, and his success was not sustainable, though our collective perception was that it wouldn’t end. It’s plausible, and fits the narrative of someone whose career peaked early. Yet, in an age of youth phenoms, maybe the story is different.

What if Rory’s success and subsequent drought has less to do with his ability and the competition he faces and more to do with the natural development of the human brain? What if, at age 30, when on average most PGATOUR players peak in regular TOUR victories and Majors, Rory is about to go on a tear for the ages, and it’s all because his brain has fully developed to manage stress and realize potential?


In the Education world [my profession], there are tomes of research about children and how they learn. It’s everything from environment to learning styles to teaching methods. By and large, education is the same it has been since older adults have shown children the skills they need to live. But, there is burgeoning research on how the brain develops and the optimal times and environments that that development can take place.

Dr. Hope Link, a researcher in the field of Educational Psychology suggests that brain development and the skillset known as Executive Function (EF) portends to success in athletics, specifically self driven, high stress competition like golf. “EF is a set of cognitive abilities that control and regulate behavior and is necessary for goal-directed behavior. 

EF capacity is universal. All people are born with the capacity for it, but that capacity is not fully developed until age 25 when the prefrontal cortex, where EF is stored, finishes development.

More simply, EF allows a person to set goals, prioritize time and values, perceive danger and threats, and make wise decisions. 

Colloquially it is referred to as the Car Insurance Rule. Before the science was around, Car insurance and rental companies figured out that people are less likely to get into an accident after age 25 because they are more in control of themselves and less likely to take risks.

Another way to look at it is, when we say people in their early 20’s are “young and stupid,” it’s because they are.

However, risk taking and lacking the perception of danger can be rewarded in competition, when courage- action in the presence of fear- and the lack of fear are conflated. Consider golf, a game where a single doubt can ruin a routine shot. The perception of a hazard can linger in the mind and cause a golfer to subconsciously push the ball away from the target. Before age 25, golfers can play without fear, striking balls with impunity, never developing the scar tissue that older golfers come to possess.

Additionally, younger golfers have less wear and tear on their bodies. They regenerate faster and possess more energy to practice and perfect their games. In this age of the #youthmovement on TOUR, it is no coincidence that players with fewer doubts and fears and better physical health are succeeding at faster rates than those without. Couple that with the explosion of elite youth golf and success on the TOUR is occurring at younger ages. That is, until they hit 25.

Traditionally, the average age of a winner on TOUR is 32. It is the peak of a golfer’s athletic skill and the place when they learn how to compete in the presence of doubt and fear. However, in the age of golf phenoms (Rory, Jordan, Justin), golfers have won and won big before their 25th birthdays. They play in the absence of doubt and fear until their brains fully develop and they have to relearn the game. 

This is because EF does not develop in a vacuum. It is environmentally related. It occurs best in the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). When a person is not challenged (stressed) enough they do not develop the skills to plan, overcome, and reflect on their situation. As a person develops, they take on more responsibility- we call it maturation. Ed Psychologists call it “scaffolding.” Dr. Link says, “Support is called scaffolding, and this scaffolding fades as the individual becomes more independent in the task.”

Elite amateur golf is filled with handlers. Players have parents, swing and school coaches, physios, and brand reps. The idea is to allow the player to focus solely on golf, but the negative side effect is a person does not always develop the necessary EF skills to cope with increasing stress.

“EF skills are necessary for goal-directed behaviors or intentional behaviors in contrast to automatic behaviors like fight-flight-freeze. Unhealthy levels of anxiety can trigger fight-flight-freeze responses, thus environments with constant levels of unhealthy anxiety can enhance automatic behaviors and undermine EF skill use and development,” Dr. Link says.

As golfers ascend during their youth, they can be unaware or even unable to cope with the mounting stress. Then, if a player find himself at the top of the golfing world, he has ascended to a place where they are no longer competing against the field, he is competing against history, trying to live up to the potential they have promised. Each major, tournament, round, hole, and right down to each shot becomes a referendum on his place in history. The burden of competition becomes too much to bare.

That does not account for actual life. Life away from golf creeps into the scene. Players’ non-golf schedules become full with endorsement and media obligations, let alone changes in their personal lives. They get married and have children. Their new life affects their game, and their game magnifies the effects on their personal lives. The game is no longer a game, it’s Toxic Stress.

After Rory’s four year ascendance, consider his four year run of personal and professional transitions. At age 22, Rory won his first major. At age 25 he won his last. One year after winning the Open in 2014, Rory tore ligaments in his ankle. The following year, 2016, he switched equipment companies as Nike stopped producing golf equipment. The next year, 2017, he got married. He fit the perfect description of someone who was under Toxic Stress.

This was on top of a schedule where he split time between two golf tours and two continents. For his professional career, McIlroy has been a European Tour member with 13 victories. He competed on the PGATOUR, as well, posting 15 victories. He split time between continents, stressing his schedule and himself. The Ringer covered the many endorsement obligations (for which in 2017 he earned $34m) and the toll it has seemed to take on his game. 

Then before the 2019 calendar year, McIlroy announced his decision to play in the US on the PGATOUR primarily. It caused a hubbub in golf circles, especially across the Atlantic, but it was the by product of Rory setting his goals and prioritizing his time to achieve them.

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Much has been made about Rory’s self-awareness. He’s the best quote on the PGATOUR, except occasional inflammatory remarks from Patrick Reed. CBSSports’ Kyle Porter discussed how it may be a detriment to Rory, “His self-awareness and social and athletic contextualization are things that I admire as a person, but they seem to work against him on the course.” He’s not wrong.

Rory has addressed the stress the half decade of transition has caused by reading and referring back to Essentialism: The Pursuit of Less. Rory has used the book to learn how reprioritize his life, from self worth to goal setting to time management and practice. He had already cut back (if not out) social media after a kerfuffle with Golf Channel Provocateur Brandel Chamblee, and he plays less on the EuroTour prioritizing his PGATOUR schedule and the practice he needs Stateside to succeed.

Essentially (pun intended!), Rory has found the ZPD and organized his life with the EF potential he possessed but was unable to exercise from ages 25-29. By becoming process oriented, the results are beginning to snowball.

Dr. Link says, “Goal setting is a primary cognitive ability used to accomplish a task successfully… the individual utilizes EF abilities to direct behaviors toward a successful goal completion... there is circular momentum of goal-setting, to strategy use, and then to self-evaluation leading to the selection of the next goal… According to this perspective, the individual is self-aware and self-reflective about the goal setting process, the use and non-use of strategy, the evaluation of the goal outcome, and the selection of the next task. Like a snowball gets bigger when rolling downhill in the right conditions, so does the individual who engages in this circular process.”

Rory has taken the big picture approach by focusing on the small. He has targeted his glaring weakness in his game- the proximity to the hole from 125 yards, which is not good. From 50-75 he’s 59th; 75-100, 180th, 100-125, 67th; and 58th overall from 50-125 yards. He’s having the best putting season of his career with with 11th in putting average, is the best driver of the golf ball in an era where driving length and accuracy matters more than ever, and he’s first in strokes gained per round at 2.741.

In his press conference after his second round of The Players Championship, McIlroy was asked what a win would mean to him. He responded with, “I don’t need a win. I’m not putting myself under pressure [to win]… again, winning is a byproduct of doing all the things I’m doing well.” He continued, “If i just focus on winning, what goes into that? Yes, that’s the end goal, but there are so many different many goals to accomplish to get to that point.”

After the Players, when asked about the win, “Of course I desperately wanted the win today, but it’s just another day. It’s just another step in the journey. My career is hopefully going to last another 15 or 20 years, so one tournament or one day or one month in those 20 years is nothing. It’s just a glimpse. So it doesn’t change anything. It doesn’t change who I am. It looks great on my resume. I’m very happy about that. It’s another step in the right direction. But that’s all it is to me.”

It appears McIlroy has figured it out… Oh god, he’s going to win everything.

Rory Comin!