'He Was Very Rushed And You Could Tell He Was Anxious' - Sports Psychologist On Rory McIlroy’s US Open Finish

We asked sports psychologist, Gareth Shaw, about McIlroy's agonizing finish at the US Open and how much it will affect the multiple-time Major winner

Rory McIlroy reacts after missing a par putt at the 18th hole during the US Open
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Sunday evening of the 124th US Open proved to be one of the most dramatic and thrilling finishes in Major history, as Bryson DeChambeau claimed a one shot victory over Rory McIlroy after the latter missed two putts inside four-feet on the 16th and 18th holes during the final round.

To be fair to DeChambeau, he had to make a stunning up-and-down at the 72nd hole to pick up his second Major scalp, but it was very much the case of the one that got away for McIlroy, as he was denied a first Major title in over 10 years.

Exiting the venue after watching DeChambeau's final putt, a dejected McIlroy was reportedly on his jet before the American had even finished his winner's press conference, as the wait for another victory in golf's biggest tournaments goes on...

Experiencing close call after close call, the burden of having not won a Major since August 2014 will be a huge frustration for McIlroy, who seemed "rushed" and "anxious". That's according to experienced SportsPsychologist, Gareth Shaw.

Having been published in the Psychology of Sport and Exercise journal, and holding an MSc in Applied Sports Psychology & BSc in Sport & Exercise Science, we were interested to know what impact this finish from McIlroy could have on the multiple-time Major winner.

You can check out the full Q+A with Shaw below...

What was your initial reaction to the final few moments at the US Open?

“I was on the edge of my seat throughout. I just kept thinking to myself 'I'm glad I'm not standing on the tee box or on the putting green trying to make these putts!' I think somebody said to Bryson afterwards that this is probably one of the most pivotal Majors that we've had in the last 50 years, such was the drama. 

“But it really had everything. From Bryson’s bunker shot to Rory and the couple of putts that he missed. I don't think we've had one of these… what impact this type of finish will have on Rory… since the Masters in 2011, since the last time Rory did something like this. I know it was in a bigger magnitude in terms of he had a huge lead, but he had a pretty convincing lead going into the last three or four holes yesterday, and it just showed that kind of pressure of the situation and the toughness of the golf course.

“I've listened to a few podcasts this morning and I don't think people give enough credit to the toughness of the golf course and, I think in this situation, it is just so difficult in the way they set it up. It was fair and it was made for mistakes, it wasn’t a birdie-fest, it was one of those where everybody was protecting their score and when you try doing that, you try to defend, you might think a little bit differently and might approach shots differently, that’s where the mistakes come in.

Bryson DeChambeau celebrates winning the 2024 US Open

DeChambeau celebrates after holing his par putt at the final hole

(Image credit: Getty Images)

How much will that finish affect Rory?

“Rory is a generational talent and I think it would affect a mere-mortal golfer, or even be career-ending, for a club golfer, but Rory is that little bit special. I think he's got the heart, the hunger, the drive, to prove any doubters wrong and come back fighting. 

"It might take him a few weeks, but I feel that it will help him that the next Major is on a Links golf course where he can probably feel quite comfortable and relaxed. It's going to be polar opposite from what we've seen this week at Pinehurst and a different challenge for him.

“Before then, though, it will be interesting to see if he plays Travelers this week. Again, it’s a different style of golf, it could be a birdie-fest and he can get some confidence. So, I think it all depends on what Rory takes from Pinehurst. Is he going to take the putting misses down the stretch? Is he going to take that he’s got heart, he's got fight, he's put himself in a situation again?"

Did you notice anything different with Rory over the final few holes?

“Routine is huge. I noticed from watching the earlier coverage, when he holed a really good blend of putts, even the short ones, his routine was on point in terms of counting. I do this a lot with golfers where you count a routine, how long it takes and when it gets to be a habit and, when it gets ingrained, the golfers are usually within one or two seconds of the time they set out. 

“Rory yesterday, I counted on the two putts that he missed, it was half the time he was taking on previous putts. So, he was very rushed and you could tell he was anxious and, those two putts, in particular, one was too committed and he knocked it through the break and the other one was just very tentative. 

“That’s where the inconsistency and the rushing to get the putts over and done with came in, because pressure had set in and the magnitude of the situation had set in. So, he was a little bit more rushed and that’s where routine is key, especially under pressure and those situations.

“I've worked with people before who have had a fear of flying. The key with the people who have a fear of flying is that you put a routine and a structure in place so they're distracted, their brains always distracted from the actual activity - which is the flight. They're thinking more about the process and the structures in place to help them to get on that plane. That's what Rory forgot over those last couple of putts. He forgot his safe place in his routine and what he did is just pretty much rush those two key putts. 

“They were difficult and we do that when it's a difficult situation. Take yourself back to tests at school, we tend to rush because we want to get them done as quickly as we can to get the pain over as quickly as possible. I think that's what Rory was doing with those two putts he missed on the last three.”

How much of the defeat was mental?

“Choking gets bandied round a lot and it sounds really harsh but, ultimately, it's when an athlete is not performing to their normal standards. Something's happening that’s not usually in their make-up to cause them to perform in a certain way. I think with Rory, it was more of a pressure situation and the pressure got to him in that aspect down those last three to four holes.

“It's more a strain on his performance than what he's done. It’s a strain on his mental state, he's perceiving the task difficulty and, because he left himself those couple of putts which were just outside the friendship circle, it was the pressure that got to Rory, rather than the choking. 

Rory McIlroy takes his cap off on the 18th hole at the 2024 US Open

(Image credit: Getty Images)

“Choking is a combination. Yes, it's abnormal; it was different from what Rory usually behaves like and does. The key here was the pressure. The pressure is the trigger for him to determine the outcome. To determine the choke, pressure got to Rory so, in turn, he didn't make the normal (in his eyes) putting strokes and executions of the scale that he needed to make. So, pressure was the kind of overarching element or psychological trade here. The choke was just the occurrence that happened, the pressure was the thing that really impacted on the performance and the skill that Rory was trying to execute.

“For me, just giving yourself time. He had time on the 18th tee box. You saw Harry Diamond raking the bunker and then having a lot of time. I imagine he saw Bryson’s tee shot into the 17th green before he picked his club up on the 18th. So, if he takes a little bit more time and has that process and routine, he will have clearer thought."

What were your thoughts on him skipping media?

“I've got to give credit to him that, the way he handled it to the end, he could have just gone into a press conference and started berating himself and talking negatively about himself, but he didn't. He took himself away with his team quietly, let Bryson have the stage, and I think people are getting on his back a little bit and are saying too much about that. They're saying, ‘he should have stayed, he should have congratulated Bryson’, but you’ve got to think these guys have been fighting for five plus hours. It's like a boxing match. Rory just got a sucker punch. He doesn't want to get back up off the canvas. He just wants to go away and reflect and hopefully come back fighting ready for the next Major.

“It’s not the case that Bryson went and birdied the last three, he made a couple of mistakes like Rory did coming in. It was almost who is going to get over the finish line first in terms of posting a number. So, it was hard for him (Rory) to take, because I imagine Rory, standing on that 18th tee, hit his driver and got a poor result in the native grass and couldn't get up and down.

"Bryson, on the other hand, was in a sticky situation whilst Rory was in the scorers' hut and Rory's thinking he's not going to get out of that bunker for par and Bryson’s hit probably the shot of his life. He goes from potentially thinking he’s in a playoff to seeing Bryson par, which has taken all the air out of him. He is just deflated and, at that point, wants to go and take himself out of the situation and I commend him for that. 

"I know we want that sportsmanship element, shaking hands and patting people on the back, and Rory might have done that privately and chatted to him, we don't know, we see what we see on TV. But, from Rory’s perspective, it's totally understandable after what he’s gone through this week to want to just get away from it all. He’s had a bad experience and had a bad few last holes. We all do when we play golf recreationally, we've had a bad few holes and your pals say do you want to come in for a pint after the game of golf. You just want to get in the car and go home and it's alright to do that.”

Is there anything you would change about Rory's game?

“From a change perspective, I think he prepared well for this week. We saw a lot of different varieties of driver trajectories and I love that he had something different in his armoury off the tee box. I think I'd love him to have a bit more variety off the tee in terms of strategy. When he was standing on that 18th tee box and probably thinking, in his mind, I just need a par here and I'm either going to be in a playoff or I’ve won, I’ve sat there as a psychologist and thought ‘why is he hitting driver off the tee?’

“It was a tight tee shot, his natural shot shape is a draw, he doesn't like to fade the golf ball and if he draws it, as he did, it'll be into that native grass and it’s a lottery then. So, if he had that shot with a 3-wood, or like Tiger had in the past with a stinger, just something that could have got him in the fairway.

Rory McIlroy hits a tee shot at the 18th hole at Pinehurst No.2

(Image credit: Getty Images)

“What I do with the athletes I work with is we go and look back over the tape. We sit down and we go, what would we change here? For example, I'd love to be able to hit that fade with a little bit more confidence. Matthieu Pavon hit that lovely fade all week to the centre of the green, so I would like Rory to build that into his armoury, being able to shape the driver and irons both ways."

If you worked with Rory, what would you want him to concentrate on at Majors?

“I think what we have seen with Rory over the last few years is he is trying different things. He is very much a trial-and-error player in terms of preparation for a Major and I'd love him to have more of a set routine in the set structure of when he's going to arrive at the golf course. Even the week before, is he going to play the week before or is he not going to play the week before?

“Tiger, in his heyday, had a meticulously planned schedule and process for his Major wins and his Major performances. I think we've seen with Rory a little bit of inconsistency over the last few years of playing the week before, not playing the week before, I'm going to not turn up till the last minute on the Wednesday and then play. So, I'd love him to kind of nail down, with his team, structure and routine for approaching Major championships.

“That's the first thing I’d do with him, especially in this winless droughts with Majors, and also reflect back. What's worked well in the past? Look back on the Major victories and ascertain what has worked well before. Is that staying in a hotel, is that staying in an Airbnb, is that eating at certain times? With a lot of athletes, and golfers in particular, we're creatures of habits, so if we are creating some habits then hopefully it'll create some winning experiences for him that he can then rely on as Tiger did back in his heyday. 

How will Rory fair at Troon?

“I think for Rory it would help to give himself a few days, just to kind of reflect on the experience and what's going on. However, I think sometimes, working with a lot of athletes, they're chomping at the bit to get back out there, put the week behind them and it wouldn’t surprise me if Rory had a good week this week.

“There's nothing wrong with his golf, it's just a little bit of misfortune and he's missed a couple of putts like we all do. For me, he’s doing all the right things, he’s just had a bit of misfortune and hasn't been able to get over the line. He’s put himself in such a great position, especially moving into the next Major championship at Troon.

“(For Troon) I think it's all dependent on how Rory approaches and comes out this week. It can go two ways. It could go like, I'm going to withdraw from the Travellers, take a rest, I'm not going to play, I need to get my head in a good space. That's fine. If he does that, great because then he's really thinking and using this time to prepare  for Troon and the remainder of the season.

“The difficulties if he doesn't, and he goes straight into Travellers and he has a bad experience then it's a tough question. I think it's all about how he recovers. From previous history, he's recovered well from disappointment and frustration and, if anything, it’s fired him up more. I think back to Whistling Straits and the Ryder Cup and how he got emotional and then came out fighting the season after and at Marco Simone.

“I think for Rory, in terms of the advice I’d give him now is - reflect, give yourself a couple of days to reflect and put the clubs down for a little bit. Do more chatting with the team, talk through situations, get things off your chest and then go into the next event with a new mindset and a new approach. I think if he does that, he can challenge. He’s one of the best players in the world, he can challenge around Troon. It’s a low scoring golf course, you saw that with Stenson and Mickelson, so I think he's got a really good chance.”

Matt Cradock
Staff Writer

Matt joined Golf Monthly in February 2021 covering weekend news, before also transitioning to equipment and testing. After freelancing for Golf Monthly and The PGA for 18 months, he was offered a full-time position at the company in October 2022 and continues to cover weekend news and social media, as well as help look after Golf Monthly’s many buyers’ guides and equipment reviews.

Taking up the game when he was just seven years of age, Matt made it into his county squad just a year later and continues to play the game at a high standard, with a handicap of around 2-4. To date, his best round came in 2016, where he shot a six-under-par 66 having been seven-under through nine holes. He currently plays at Witney Lakes in Oxfordshire and his favourite player is Rory McIlroy, despite nearly being struck by his second shot at the 17th during the 2015 BMW PGA Championship.

Matt’s current What’s In The Bag?

Driver: Honma TW747, 8.75°

Fairway Wood: TaylorMade Rocketballz Stage 2, 15°, 19°

Hybrid: Adams Super Hybrid, 22°

Irons: Mizuno MP54, 5-PW

Wedges: Cleveland 588 RTX 2.0 Tour Satin, 50°, 56°, 60°

Putter: Cleveland TFI 2135 Satin Cero

Ball: Titleist Pro V1x