Once upon a time I knew a professional who, despite being a prodigious ball-striker, never became well known beyond our little neck of the woods. He hit the ball long and straight, nearly every time. These were towering shots, the kind that made you stop on the range and just watch, and they came with almost Moe Norman-like repetitive ease. Despite his near generational talent, his name never became household, but a breakdown in his machine-like ball-striking wasn’t to blame. It was the smallest, simplest of golf shots that kept that professional from the annals of golfing legends. Short putts, and the affliction known as the yips.
Aaaah, those maddening short putts, and that scourge upon humanity known as the yips. The yips affect golfers of every ability, professional or amateur, in situations ranging from PGA Tour Events to $2 Nassaus at the local muni. And they’re not just a golfer’s affliction, as the term has become ubiquitous with struggles in baseball, basketball, football, tennis, cricket, and even darts. Don’t know what the yips are? Well, then I advise you, no I implore you, to click back to that “What’s in the Bag” article you skipped over or something similarly innocuous until the word, thought, and curiosity passes like a lingering black cloud. If you insist on reading on, however, let me just say up front that, remember, I warned you.
The term Yips was first coined by Tommy Armour, to describe a mental block that resulted in his inexplicable ability to make extremely short putts. We’re talking kick-ins here, the type even your most cutthroat opponent would say, “pick it up”, but the term’s notoriety has moved beyond just struggles with short putts to describe mental blocks in nearly any aspect of the game as well as mental blocks athletes experience in many other sports as well. The unifying theme when it comes to the yips, across disciplines, has come to be recognized as the sudden inability to execute any athletic act that an athlete has already seemingly mastered; an act that would be considered mostly a formality under normal circumstances, yet which suddenly isn’t when confronted with even the slightest bit of pressure.
Now when it comes to professional golf, Tommy Armour was by no means the first, or an anomaly. The yips have either stunted or de-railed the competitive careers of men like Vardon, Hogan, Snead, Watson, Langer, Baker-Finch, O’Meara, Duval, Els, Garcia and innumerable others, like that professional I once knew, whose names never rose to the public awareness specifically because of them. Even the once-perceived untouchable iron-clad psyche of a certain Mr. Woods is now apparently affected, and whispers that they, not a balking back, are keeping him from competing have become too loud to ignore.
At the Amateur level, the picture may be even bleaker. A quick scan of Mr. Google will give you more than 22 millions results, highlighted with potential fixes advertised by everyone from the biggest names in the industry, to those who range from the obscure to the bizarre. The yips have become such a deep emotional scar among many average golfers that just using the term in an article’s title could, in web terminology, be fairly described as click-bait (gotcha’ didn’t I?). One recent study even claims that over 25% of the people who give up the game each year do so because of some form or another of the yips. If this is true, finding a cure might be the most effective thing The PGA and all our allied associations could do to stem the tide of players leaving the game. But is it possible? With all our combined resources, the advances of modern instruction methods, as well as breakthroughs in both science and psychology, can we not discover a means, a mantra, a method, or an indefatigable set of mechanics to defeat this scourge? There must be a yip-proof grip. Well, just maybe, this is where I come in.
I’ve studied this creature (what it’s often called in baseball), for a long, long, time. I’ve read everything from the Mayo Clinic studies to the studies of Dr. Debbie Crews of the University of Arizona. I’ve talked to PGA Tour Putting Gurus Dave Stockton and Marius Filmalter, Dr. Tom Hanson (a former New York Yankees mental game coach), and countless others who profess to know more than a bit about the condition than the average bear. I’ve investigated the obscure, the bizarre, and the holistic, as well as cutting-edge therapies that have come about as a result of work being done to help the men and women of our armed forces to combat the demons of PTSD. I’ve talked with hypnotists, scientists, therapists, psychologists, and at least a few other ists that I’m sure I can’t remember what their actual practice was. I’ve listened to Shambhala Warriors, EFT practitioners, NLP experts, and other individuals who might most politely be described as eccentric. I’ve read the stories of those who’ve bested the beast, lived to fight another day, and those unfortunate souls who remain lost in the morass. I’ve heard theories, both scientific and sensationalistic, watched transformations, and seen many come back from the precipice, while seeing others driven right to the brink. I’ve rescued badly abused equipment, that which had only recently been hailed a savior, swiftly and suddenly broken or abandoned like a scorned lover. And I’ve seen equipment talked to, cajoled, reasoned with, and whispered to in ways that would best be reserved for an actual lover. And to what do we see this behavior attributed? The simple act of negotiating a small white ball into an awaiting hole nearly three times its size a mere pace from where we are standing? We’re not talking about putting a square peg in a round hole here, it’s actual child’s play. An act a child would likely find boring after a short while due to its relative simplicity. So what is it about an act that is so simple that can cause grown men and women to behave in ways more common to nursery school playgrounds, Soccer Hooligans, or Oakland Raider fans?
Now if you’re reading this, I’m willing to bet a large portion of you are doing so because you’re in danger of becoming one of the 25%, and you’re just about to the point where you’re getting irritated because you suspect that I’m teasing you with platitudes and ultimately trying to sell you something. So trust me when I say this, I didn’t bring you here to take advantage of your pain. As someone who’s not only deeply invested in growing this great game, but someone whose also been down that dark and dusty third world road before and found a way back from the wilderness I wanted to leave the porch lights on for my fellow sufferers so that you can find your way home too. This is where it get’s a bit tricky, though, so stick with me just a moment longer and I promise, as a certain politician did a few years back, to at least give you some directions to that place called hope.
For starters, let me just say that the reality of everything we know appears to be this. There is no pill, no vaccine, no medication, and no magic bullet. We’re not talking about arthritis, diabetes, or high blood-pressure here, disorders with heavily studied and clearly defined and proven treatment strategies. Even the famed Mayo Clinic, who did their level best to categorize them as something clinical (Focal Dystonia), ultimately threw their hands up by only going so far as to claim that they may be a form. There is no be all, end all, cure-all solution that will end this affliction once and for all for all of us because there is no singular reason for why you, me, or anyone else ends up in this place. And while that may sound a bit disappointing on the surface, it’s one of the most wonderful aspects of our humanity. We are all very different people. Every golfer’s mind is as different as their fingerprints, and their histories, backgrounds, genetic make-ups, predispositions, personalities, anxieties, and abilities are as varied and individual as the stripes on a Zebra. And just as the paths each of us wanders down to end up having one type of yips or another are innumerable, so are the roads home because in the end what home looks like, feels like, smells like, and tastes like will be very different at every address.
About a decade ago, Hank Haney (a long-time yips sufferer) wrote a book he titled Fix the Yips Forever. In a follow-up article he claimed that he had reservations about that title, and while he gave his reasons for those reservations, what he didn’t exactly articulate, but what I sensed in his explanation was that he wasn’t really so sure there was a forever. Forever is a very long time. And despite the fact that your friend, your neighbor, Bernhard Langer, Sergio Garcia, and even Mr. Woods appear at times to have finally beat them, their Yip-Proof grip on that place is often tenuous at best. Those of you who’ve either dealt with this condition, or know someone who has, likely have heard the saying, “once a yipper, always a yipper”, to describe those who’ve found a short term fix through a grip change, equipment change, or something else, but who have at some point gone back to yipping again once the novelty of the new and improved method has worn off because they, quote, “haven’t addressed the underlying causes of why they yip in the first place.” And while I believe there is much more truth (and much more to be learned) in that second quote that the first, I also believe that our fixation on finding a fix for the yips is somewhat akin to mankind’s never-ending quest for the Holy Grail. And before you let that discourage you, let me say why that’s actually okay.
No player, of golf or any other sport, has ever found a method, a mind-set, or some form of mechanics that were so fail-safe, so fool-proof, and so indelibly imprinted that it allowed them to go on and dominate their respective sport indefinitely. Even those in golf who’ve appeared to come close, The Hogan’s, Nicklaus’, and Woods’ have suffered more downs than ups and always ultimately came back down to earth at some point after tasting their moments of success. If Ben Hogan really had a “Secret”, don’t you think he would have surely used it before his own yips drove him from competition? And if Tiger’s psyche was truly as iron-clad as they always claimed don’t you think he could have used it to win at least one major in the last 9 years despite all his many injuries? If we found it, you see, that quest would end, and along with it so would the hopes for finding ways to improve the person or golfer that we are in ways and in places that we may have initially never considered looking and the benefits and growth we would reap from that quest would never be realized. They say there is often far more to be learned from failure than success, and success is transient in anything, and in no way ever guaranteed. And that’s what makes it taste as sweet as it does when we finally do get to sample a little bit of it, that and the fact that while we at times can delude ourselves into believing that we’ve got it all figured out and it will never again leave us, deep down, we know we really don’t.
So just in case you’ve missed my point here, and think I’m dashing the last of your hopes on the hard rocks of reality, I guess the question of whether or not I, or anyone else can really help you work through or get over any kind of performance mental block, whether you want to call it the yips or something else, begs to be answered. The answer is yes, absolutely. But the road to working through those problems, getting past that mental block, or finally ditching those yips once and for freaking all almost certainly won’t look the same for you as it will someone else. And what you perceive getting over them to look like, how you envision it, what your expectations are, and what you’re willing to accept will definitely play the largest role not only in how you get there, but once you’ve decided that you actually are. I can’t make you not feel nervous. At 80 years old, Frank Sinatra, one of the greatest performers of all time, said he still got nervous when he walked out on stage, still wondered if he’d forget his lines, and was still afraid he might not be able to hit his notes once he got there. And whether you’re a singer, a golfer, or in any other kind of situation where you want to perform in a specific way under the spotlight, I can promise you that, like Frank said, even the most seasoned of us can feel those butterflies, those nerves, that anxiety, or whatever else you’d like to call it once it becomes important to us. And that really is okay.
In the end, I contend, if you’re still out there, still searching, still experimenting, still fighting, still looking for help, and still counting yourself amongst the rest of us who are still swinging, then to a certain extent you’re already there. And as long as you continue to do so you’ll find your game again, your guru, your grail, or your yip-proof grip. And while it likely won’t last forever, nothing ever does. So stay in the game, enjoy those ups and downs, the maddening inconsistency of it all, and love the fact that when it comes to golf it very likely isn’t the kill, but the thrill of the chase. And while I’m here to help, whether it’s the chunks or the chili-dips, the skulls and shanks, the hooks and slices, or even that wicked case of the yips, and I can help you cure them all. Whether it be for a day, a week, a month, or even a lifetime, I will consider it my biggest accomplishment if I’ve helped you resolve to stay in the game, and never stop chasing. So here’s to the quest, and to hoping that maybe, just maybe, it’s a new-found determination to keep on keeping on, that might ultimately turn out to be your yip-proof grip.