About the Yips

The Nature of a Nasty Stroke

July 16, 2006

Probably the most dreaded shot in golf is the shank. And the shank, which is when we hit the ball with the neck of the club rather than the clubface, unfortunately travels in herds. I will see a golfer at the driving range hit one or two of the ugly things, the ball squirting off at right angles to the target or rolling disgracefully twenty yards out, and next thing you know that is the only shot he can hit. But the strange thing is that the person in the next stall will start firing off those disgusting hosel-rockets too. Soon enough, half of the people at the range will inexplicably start peeling off shots in every direction and they will look around to see if anyone was watching, or they will glance accusingly at their clubhead as if their equipment suddenly malfunctioned.

The shank is like a nasty virus, and sometimes it takes weeks for the symptoms to go away. In fact, the only avid golfer I ever knew who completely quit the game of golf did so because he could not stop shanking the ball.

yips1But there is another insidious shot in golf. One that grips the heart with fear and then feeds off the fear; one that takes a full-grown manly man and makes him such a timid soul that he cannot execute one of the easiest shots in golf. This unfortunate stroke is called the yip.

Whereas the shank is the result of mainly physical and mechanical problems, the yip slithers out of some dark hole in our psychology or neurology. It goes something like this: Andy hits a towering drive down the right side of the fairway and slightly pulls his iron shot into the rough just beside the green. Then he hits a nice little chip, leaving the ball two and a half feet from the cup. He sets up over the short putt, makes a backswing, and then a bolt of lightning shoots down his right arm. Some kind of godless and unwanted spasm in his right hand jerks the ball offline and poor Andy cannot even get the ball to graze the hole despite the short length of the putt.

The yips are some sort of catastrophic collapse of confidence made worse because the flinching spasm at contact is completely involuntary and very hard to get rid of. It is like the golfer realizes just before contact that his little white ball is really a land mine. The yips emerge like suppressed memories.

Here are a few things I have discovered about yips: they tend to come out when the putt or the match means more, under pressure; strangely enough, caffeine seems to accentuate the problem; they tend to happen in the dominant arm and hand; and people experiencing stressful phases in their personal lives are more likely to get the yips.

Perhaps the worst case I ever saw was a middle-aged college professor, I will call him Rusty. During his divorce, Rusty, who carries a single-digit handicap, started getting the yips in his putting. He eventually had to go to a tall putter to make any kind of acceptable stroke. But the yips spread to his chipping, and spread to his legs: watching Rusty chip was almost painful. The club would come down, his knees would buckle, and the club came stabbing down, possibly catching a little piece of the ball, which would jump and scurry off in unpredictable directions like a cat whose tail had been stepped on.

But Rusty’s challenges only started with the short game. It did not take long for the buckling knees and flinching arms to work their way into the full swing. I do not know whether it was more tragic or comedic at that point. Rusty’s bones turned to gelatin just before he hit the ball, and even the driver would make a hard landing a foot or so behind the ball. It was like watching those slow-motion replays of athletes breaking a leg—you do not really want to watch, but it is so different and fascinating, you will anyways.

I cannot really explain what brings about full body yips, or even the normal kind for that matter. The only mechanical problem I have ever noticed that coincides with the yips is a tendency to take the club head outside and shut-faced during the backswing. For some people, the yips might be a tortured effort to correct the path and face-angle of the club. In the case of Rusty, it took a few seasons and his happy new marriage before the yips subsided, at least to a level that you could watch him without looking through your fingers.

I know another young man who never experienced the yips except one time—he played golf right after drinking one of those super-leaded-ought-to-be-regulated-by-congress-hyper-making-mocha drinks. On the first green he stroked a putt and almost dropped the putter. It was like he licked his right pointer finger and stuck it in a light socket.

I know a club professional who played golf for twenty years, including some small time professional events without any hint of the yips. When his marriage fell apart, he played with less confidence and developed the yips. He describes a yip like a sudden palsy, and in his case it makes him pull his putts.

I know another very good player who has a very intense personality and a strong temper. When he stands over a putt, you can see his hands and forearms quiver, and his right wrist jerks on almost every stroke. I am not sure he even knows he has the yips—he has probably played with them so long they are the norm, but they definitely make his putting less consistent.

The most common version of the yips seems to come from the fear of missing short putts: the ones we know we should make but never putt during casual rounds. Golfers who always give and take two-footers as “good” tend to run into the yips when they play in the club championship and are forced to make the very putts they never practice.

Fortunately, most golfers never experience the yips, but for the unlucky few, there are a few things that seem to help. For starters, rhythmic practice swings and deep breathing help golfers to relax just before a putt. In nerve-wracking situations it might even help to close the eyes and take a few deep breaths just before the stroke.

yips2The next phase requires practicing a different kind of stroke. If it is the right arm and hand producing the yip, it generally helps to reduce their influence in the stroke. Making more of a true, pendulum-style, big-muscle, shoulder swing allows the arms to swing more freely than they do for golfers who pop the ball with their dominant arm, hand, or wrist. The big muscle swing is probably the ideal, but next best would be to emphasize the left side; swing or slightly pull the putter through with the left side, and if necessary, use a tight left hand grip while making the right go limp.

If the yips are persistent there are several more drastic options. Putting left hand-low (reversing the two hands in their positions on the shaft) and using belly or tall putters sometimes helps. In really bad cases, I might have a golfer run the putter shaft up the inside of his left arm and then strap it there with the right hand. He can then putt with the left shoulder and without the influence of the right hand. Over time, with a combination of mechanical and mental adjustments, I have seen golfers work their way out of the yips.

While the shanks make it almost impossible to play a round of golf, the yips are frustrating because everything seems to be going along normally until we stand over a harmless, little, almost-tap-in putt. All I know is that I would not wish either one of these cursed shots on my least favorite competitor. At least not out loud.

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