The yips has long been one of golf's most mystifying ailments. Larry Dorman, the New York Times' fine golf writer, addresses the vexing problem in a lengthy piece in the June 12 edition. Anybody who has suffered from the malady-and I use that word to indicate exactly what it means-will want to read the piece. I don't suggest you read it with a putter in your hands, because that might only exacerbate the problem. But take a look.
I've long been fascinated with the yips, and my file on the matter has been bulging for years. Most people interested in the subject assume it's a putting problem, exclusively, but a golfer can also get the full-swing yips. Why, after all, can't a player make the same real stroke or real swing that he or she can when it's a practice stroke or swing? Good question, and nobody has been able to answer it once and for all.
Something happens when the ball is there and it's time for the real swing. I remember watching the wonderful Canadian golfer Stan Leonard play a senior event in Calgary years ago. His practice stroke for a chip shot was smooth. But then his fingers and hands twitched on the real shot. The ball could go anywhere. I wanted to avert my eyes in sympathy. Leonard's hands, which had helped him win three PGA Tour events and tie for fourth in the Masters twice, flashed through the ball. The ball ran through the green like the proverbial scared rabbit. Or he might flip the club en route to the ball, catch a chunk of turf, and the turf would go further than the ball.
Then there are the putting yips. It's frightening to see a golfer make a peaceful, quiet practice stroke, and then watch as his hands twitch on the real stroke. Golfers sometimes quit the game because of this. Why won't the body obey the commands of the mind? What happens when a golfer makes the stroke? Who knows? Who knows how to stop it? This is no simple, or laughing, matter.
Mark Calcavecchia won the 1997 Greater Vancouver Open on the PGA Tour. I was doing some work for TSN at the time. It was my job to interview players when they came off the 18th green. Calcavecchia had a putt of about a foot to win the tournament, and he shook it in. He came off the green and I swear his face was chalk-white.
"If that putt was another foot longer I couldn't have made it," he said,.
Last winter I spent some time with Calcavecchia for a story. He told me that he'd tried to keep his head still over the ball and then through impact on putts for his entire golfing life. But he couldn't stop his head from snapping up on his real stroke. He had to accept it. What else could he do?
Then there's Ian Baker-Finch, the 1991 Open Championship winner who got the full-swing yips with his driver. The ridiculous problem-and I say "ridiculous" as compassionately as possible-drove him to leave the PGA Tour. He had no idea where the driver was going. For some reason he freaked out coming into the ball.
The yips are just that, a freak-out. Surgeons, teachers, musicians can get the yips. There's a journal called Medical Problems of Performing Artists. One article in an issue in fromt of me is on the yips as the condition afflicts drummers. Field-goal kickers can suffer from the affliction. Basketball players at the free throw line. Hockey players on penalty shots. Tennis players on the serve. Catchers trying to throw the ball back to the pitcher. Pitchers themselves.
Bill Parcells, now a consultant for the NFL's Miami Dolphins and most recently the head coach for the Dallas Cowboys, likes golf. He realized that Mike Vanderjagt, the Cowboys' field-goal specialist in 2006, and who had played for the Toronto Argonauts, was hit with a case of the kicking yips. Parcells was discussing the problem and mentioned Baker-Finch's difficulties with the yips.
"If you can find a solution to that problem," Parcells told a writer, "quit writing. You'd make a fortune. You got all these sports psychologists. None of them can help these guys."
It's possible that Mike Weir is battling with the full-swing yips. He's identified his swing problem as a tilt in his back, but said he can't stop it. None of the swing coaches he's consulted has been able to help him stop the tilt on the course, although he's fine on the range. He knows what he wants to do when the bell rings, but he can't do it. Hmmm.
"Once you've had 'em, you've got 'em," the great English golf writer Henry Longhurst once wrote. He could play, by the way. And then he couldn't.
Neurologists consider the yips as a "focal occupational dystonia." Here's a definition as this pertains to golf, from the February 1989 issue of the journal Neurology.
"The yips is a motor phenomenon that affects golfers and consists of involuntary movements occurring in the course of the execution of focused, finely controlled, skilled motor behaviour."
Call the spasm what you will: whisky fingers, the staggers, or, simply, the yips. The focal dystonia can end careers. It has. Yep, the yips is a brutal condition. The super-fast greens at next week's U.S. Open won't help golfers there who have been struggling on the greens. Incipient yippers beware. For occupational disorders in golf, there's nothing worse than the yips.
ALSO FROM LORNE RUBENSTEIN:
U.S. Open eschews hack-and-slash
Golf and hockey with Frank Mahovlich
Ty Tryon emerges from the 'other side'
Good deeds give Weir perspective
Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association's first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada's Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and, most recently, he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 11 books, including The Natural Golf Swing, with George Knudson (1988); Links: An Insider's Tour Through the World of Golf (1990); The Swing, with Nick Price (1997); The Fundamentals of Hogan, with David Leadbetter (2000); A Season in Dornoch: Golf and Life in the Scottish Highlands (2001); Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); and his latest, This Round's on Me (2009). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at email@example.com . You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein