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I personally came to this frightening realization about seven years ago that I had the dreaded golfing affliction, the yips; yipes! It affected my putting as it does most golfers who develop this repulsive malady. It was first noticed not too long after I quit smoking cigarettes and I will always believe there was a causative relationship. What I experienced was a nervousness in my lower arms and hands that prevented me from making a smooth stroke through the ball when putting. More often than not my stroke was more like a stab at the ball resulting in a shove or pull of the ball off line. This situation was only noticeable to me when I was playing in a match, not while practicing. It was really bad on shorter putts of five feet or less especially when the putt was necessary to halve or win the hole.

Yips in golf is a phenomenon of sudden jerking, tremors or freezing up when attempting to putt. Various studies by the Mayo Clinic and others show that at least 25% of all golfers have experienced the yips while one study of 1031 tournament playing, amateur golfers in Minnesota showed that 43% had the yips. This was a more senior group surveyed having averaged 30 years of playing experience, had an average handicap of 4.5 and those affected claimed to have had the problem for six years on average. They claimed that yipping putts added five strokes to their rounds than when yips free. This problem has driven golfers to seek help from almost any quarter resulting in the influx of long putters, belly putters plus differing group styles such as “left hand low” and the “claw grip”.

Bantam Ben Hogan and Slammin’ Sammy Snead were perhaps the most well known golfers to develop the yips. It was quite obvious when you watched Hogan, late in his career, stand over a putt seemingly for minutes on end unable to draw the putter back and begin his stroke. He gave up the game because of it and probably prematurely. Snead didn’t fuss much over his yips he just learned to putt side saddle and continued to win tournaments. Most golfers on Tour who have made a change to a long putter or a belly putter or perhaps have switched over to the claw grip have probably experienced some degree of the yips. In my opinion, Tom Watson and Tom Kite have both struggled with the yips. I’ve never heard them call their putting woes by that name but it has been obvious. Neither have tried the longer putters choosing to stay with the shorter version. Watson seems to set up as he always did. Kite has tried different grips. To their credit they both seem to have overcome this evil thing. Vijay Singh has tried the long putter and then the belly putter. We can assume that Vijay was having some sort of nerve problem with the short putter. With the belly putter he began to drop more putts and he started a steady climb up the list of world rankings. Interesting enough, it wasn’t until Vijay switched back to his short putter that he achieved number one status in the world. I have a theory on this particular break through but more on that later in the article.

Researchers at the Mayo Clinic have concluded that there are two basic causes of the yips. First is performance anxiety or “choking” while the second is more physical and something called focal dystonia. Focal dsytonia is caused by overuse of certain muscles and the nervous system causing a deterioration and is not unlike a similar dilemma experienced by musicians, stenographers, writers and dentists who must assume uncomfortable postures and positioning for long periods of time. I have difficulty accepting this claim because in all of the latter cases a cramp or pain is usually involved plus the putter only assumes his putting stance on 35 to 40 times in an 18 hole round and cramping is not experienced. I can accept the fact that perhaps a nerve deterioration might be part of it as it seems to affect golfers age 40 or over. To me the most telling feedback from the researchers is that those with the yips who were examined had elevated heart beats when putting versus those in the test case without yips. More importantly, the researchers noticed an increased muscle activity in the “yippers“, and most particularly in the wrists. Aha, we have the clue we need! Remember the point about excessive movement in the wrists!

My own theory of the yips based on personal experience, observation and study is that it is performance anxiety based. It is psychological versus physiological. For me smoking had been a way to relax during a match or tournament round and when I threw the weeds away I began to feel a heightened level of tension. My golfing background has been such that I was fairly good at getting the ball in up and down from around the green which required one putt greens. When those one putts ceased to go in the hole my scores gradually escalated. Making short putts is critical to success in competition. I soon began to dread short putts. My opponents began to gasp, then snicker when I missed a three foot putt which made the situation even worse. I became obsessed with putting and walked around like a zombie trying to figure it all out and I was a weekend golfer. For the professional trying to make a living it must be devastating to suffer from the yips.

At the worst point, my forearms seemed almost frozen. Instead of thinking about making a smooth stroke my mind was occupied with thoughts about what my playing partners were going to say when I missed the next putt. I knew that I was going to miss so I concentrated on not looking too bad. I thought, “at least get it close knucklehead.” I became obsessed, focusing on the negative and the worst thing that could possibly happen. It was at this depth of depression that I went shopping for a long putter.

The journey back from this hideous affliction included the long putter which was better on short putts but terrible to judge on long putts. The belly putter was next and it was a good compromise and my putting improved. What I was beginning to realize is that the long putter and the belly putter had forced me to use my shoulder muscles more in the putting stroke and to use my hands and wrists passively in the stroke. Occasionally while practicing I would pull my old Bullseye short putter out of the trunk of the car and give it a try for old times sake. I used the same stroke as with the belly putter and it felt very comfortable and I was knocking in every putt that I tried and from any distance. This shorter putter was much better on long putts and medium length putts and not too bad on the short ones. So, now, I am back putting with the Bullseye and doing pretty well. Some days I putt as well as in the good old days, other days not so good. Having putted so poorly with the yips, any improvement was helping me to regain some modicum of confidence. I began to not obsess over each and every putt and came to realize that missing a five foot putt was not the end of the world. I began to semi-relax.

The results of all of this are some very definite opinions about the yips. First, the yips is initially caused by the extreme importance a golfer places on this part of the game. It becomes a focusing in and obsessing over the muscle movement involved in putting and especially on the hands, wrists and forearms. It is performance driven and definitely psychological. I believe those that tend to get the yips are using the wrists and hands too much in their stroke. Now remember back to the research material cited above. The researchers at The Mayo Clinic found that golfers with the yips were experiencing more muscle movement and most notably in the wrists. They were focused on the small muscles of the wrists and hands and overlooking the importance of using the bigger muscles of the shoulders in the stroke. I also believe that putting with a longer putter, especially the belly putter, will make you a better putter because it requires you to use the shoulders to initiate and complete a putting stroke. Now, I ask you to remember Vijay Singh and his experience moving from the short putter to the long putter, then the belly putter and back to the short putter. In so doing he became the number one player in the world. In my opinion, the belly putter, gave Vijay the muscle coordination and muscle memory he needed to become a good putter.

Let me conclude by stating that I don’t believe that someone who has had the yips can completely be cured. It seems to linger in your mind and short putts continue to be scary. But, you can improve! Start with an attitude change. Putting is not a finesse or precise skill as in a surgical procedure using the small muscles of the hands and forearms but more of a mechanical action of larger muscles, of simply taking the putter back with your shoulders and stroking through the ball toward the target, back and through. Lastly, don’t be afraid to miss.

By Tom Finley
May 16, 2005

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