On the Stoics and Rory McIlroy’s Putts at the U.S. Open

Early Greek Stoics had an astonishingly wide range of philosophical ideas, but they’re most famous for their views on mental control. The idea is that we should only worry about things we can control. The goal: a calm, tranquil mind. We can’t control certain events, as the Stoics tell us, we can only control how we feel about them. 

This idea is so simple you might dismiss it. But, for the Stoics, it was extremely important. What we feel about a situation is under our control. We don’t have to feel angry or disappointed when people hurt or betray us and we don’t have to feel disappointed when we miss an “easy” three-foot putt to maybe win the U.S. Open.

If you can achieve a calm, tranquil mind, you will exercise good judgment and increase your chances of consistently hitting solid shots. A calm, tranquil mind. That’s what we’re after!

But how, exactly, is this done? One way is to learn how to not worry about the end result of your swing. Consider Rory’s performance at the 2014 British Open. After clinching the title, he told reporters that he focused on two words—“process” and “spot.”

“With my long shots,” he said, “I just wanted to stick to my process and stick to making good decisions, making good swings. The process of making a good swing, if I had any sort of little swing thoughts, just keeping that so I wasn’t thinking about the end result.”

And the “spot” was all about putting. “I was just picking a spot on the green and trying to roll it over my spot. I wasn’t thinking about holing it. I wasn’t thinking about what it would mean or how many further clear it would get me. I just wanted to roll that ball over that spot. If that went in, great. If it didn’t, then I’d try it the next hole.”

Rory’s mental state that day represents Stoicism at its highest and finest level of play. He didn’t worry about the end result of his putt or swing. In other words, he “learned not to care” and that’s the whole point of Stoicism, both on and off the course.

And here’s the kicker with the 2024 U.S. Open: Rory seemed to lack that calm tranquil mind on 16 and 18 that final day because “maybe” he cared too much about clinching that elusive next major title. 

But here’s the thing: his putt on 18 wasn’t as easy as it seemed. Jon Rahm reportedly said an announcer severely underplayed the difficulty of that putt. “When [an announcer] said it’s a left-center putt, Rahm reportedly added, “if you hit that putt left-center and miss the hole, you’re off the green because of how much slope there is. You could see Rory aiming at least a cup left from three feet.” It was severely underplayed how difficult that putt was. 

But, and to get back to the Stoics, maybe Rory would have sunk that putt if he was only thinking about “process” and “spot”—that calm, tranquil mindset that helped him win the 2014 British Open two strokes ahead of Rickie Fowler and Sergio García. 

So how can this be applied to your game? Well, here’s a helpful tip from the Stoics: the next time you feel nervous or frustrated about how you’re playing, turn those negative emotions into their opposites. Relax your muscles, feel happy and relaxed, and slow your rate of breathing.

When you do this, your internal state will reflect your external state and your negative emotions will quickly dissipate. Then, when you have achieved a calm, tranquil mind, tee it high and let it fly—and sink those “easy” three foot putts!

Bottom line: by consistently practicing Stoic mental control, you will increase your chances of lowering your score and transforming how you perform on the course. Get it? Got it? Good! And good luck!!

Enjoy your walk,

Suzy Evans, J.D., Ph.D.

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