The Yips Are a Worsening Epidemic With No Cure in Sight

May 4, 2016

You never forget your first yip.

Mine occurred 20 years ago this summer, with a straightforward three-footer on the 18th hole of a four-ball match with friends.

By the ragtag standards of my regular group, I was known as a cocky, dead-eye putter, my swagger backed by a stroke I’d honed on the miniature golf courses of Cape Cod. On that fateful afternoon, the simple putt I faced seemed a foregone conclusion. But you know how foregone conclusions go. Back went my blade in a smooth, pendulum motion, and forward it jerked in a sickening spasm.

My mind went dark. When it cleared an instant later, I was looking at a comebacker of twice the length, which I also spasmed wide.

“What the f— was that?!” my buddy Mike inquired.

I knew the answer, but didn’t want to say it. Schooled in the game’s skittish superstitions, I’d learned not to utter certain words aloud.

Not that Mike would have understood Suffering from the yips is like eating a bad oyster. You’ve heard it’s nasty, but you can’t possibly fathom just how awful it is until you’ve experienced it yourself. An innocent then, Mike has since received an unhappy education. He has come down with the yips too. And so has everyone else.

Look around the game, from your local muni to the manicured grounds of the PGA Tour. Long putters proliferate. So do funny grips and experimental stances. If I didn’t know better—and I don’t—I’d swear that the yips have gone the way of gluten intolerance: a once-rare ailment that now affects a vast swatch of the population.

Or at least consumes a ton of locker-room talk.

As a headline case in point, consider this year’s Masters, which gave us the grim spectacle of Ernie Els’s six-putt as well as the strange footage of Phil Mickelson alternating, mid-round, between the claw and a conventional grip. Come Sunday’s final round, perhaps the biggest story, aside from Jordan Spieth, was the long–yip-embattled Bernhard Langer, a case study in survival, the Stephen Hawking of his sport.

At 58, he’d had scrapped his way into contention, competing, Kuchar-style, with a long, unanchored putter. Impressive, but watching him in real time, I kept flashing back to something equally astounding: the putting grip Langer had used on his way to claiming his second green jacket in 1993—his right hand clutching his left forearm, like a climber trying to save himself from plunging off a cliff. I suppose I should take comfort in that watershed win, when Langer showed the world that the yips could be contained, even if, like herpes, they never really went away.

Instead, what strikes me is this cruel irony: The harder we all work to combat the yips, the wider the pandemic seems to spread. I suspect some of the blame lies with our commercial culture, which takes great pains to diagnose and publicize our problems, and even greater ones to sell us cures. “Got the yips? Get this fat grip.…Sign up for this five–day clinic!”

In a climate so contagious, is it any wonder we fall ill?

Or maybe there is something to those goofy superstitions, and in blathering openly about our problems, we aroused the wrath of a vengeful god.

I’m no nostalgist, but part of me misses the pent–up days of yore, when stoics such as Tom Watson fought their fights in silence. Afflicted with the yips, Watson didn’t rage against the game’s injustice or make any obvious adjustments, other than to tap into his reservoir of will.

Not that I should talk. Over the past two decades, no golfer has whined more about his putting woes than I. Or struggled more desperately to overcome them. Claw and gator grips? Been there, tried them. Ditto the long putter and the left-hand low. I’ve consulted with head shrinks and short-game gurus. I’ve undergone a treatment used on traumatized war veterans, an eye-movement therapy called EMDR.

All to no avail.

Not long before Katrina hit New Orleans, I flew down to the bayou to see a voodoo doctor, who promised she could chase away all kinds of demons. She supplied me with a potion that smelled like lemons. It was useless on the course but worked great as a cologne. Around that same time, I visited a golf hypnotist in Vegas. Sitting in his office, I got sleepy, sleepy. When he snapped his fingers, I awoke refreshed, but I still couldn’t make a tap-in to save my life.

The one time I saw progress was through a playing lesson in Los Angeles with Joseph Parent, Vijay Singh’s former mental game coach. Parent is an amiable fellow who prefers to be referred to as Dr. Joe. For four hours and 18 holes, he strolled beside me, repeating a mantra: “Do your job!” By which he meant just focus on getting the ball rolling, rather than worrying about results.

I putted nicely, a sweet reprieve, but back in Northern California, I went back to my ways, stricken with the shakes, haunted by the heebie-jeebies.

And then, last week, after a particularly galling three-putt in a match against a rival and with nothing more than middle-age pride on the line, I slunk back to my office and rang up Dr. Joe, mostly just to whine but also to float my theories about the putting yips and gluten and the punishments we face for saying certain words aloud.

Dr. Joe listened politely without quite telling me that I was crazy, and then he told me something else. In the course of his career, he’d written several books on putting, but he’d recently moved on to another subject. His new work had just been published: “The Best Diet Book Ever: The Zen of Losing Weight.”

“I’ve helped a lot of people save a lot of strokes,” he said. “But what I’d rather do is help save lives.”

I realize that he meant that as a lesson in perspective. Yet I know what really matters, and I’m not saddled with a lot of flabby baggage.

But about that other burden I’ve been carrying around.

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