2004: Getting a grip on the yips

Got the yips? Join the crowd. The legendary Harry Vardon had them.

So did Tommy Armour. Mark O’Meara has been so articulate about the yips, he could be the international poster boy.

The yips have a place among golf’s great assassins. They have ruined more putting strokes than whiskey. They strike fear into the hearts of brave golfers around the globe.

Although the yips appear primarily in putting, they also can infect chipping, pitching, bunker play and even full swings. Golfers with the yips often become nervous and unsettled. The yips frequently are associated with choking or coming unraveled on the course.

A yipster can inexplicably lose control of the club during the stroke. It may jerk to the right or left. It may explode through impact. Or it may result in a weak-sister shot without much force or direction.

When the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., began studying the yips in 2000, the world of golf was watching with curiosity. Comprehensive conclusions have yet to be published, but the Mayo study appears to be focusing more on physical causes than psychological.

Although both the physical and psychological are components of the yips, O’Meara would agree with the physical emphasis. When he talked about the yips earlier this year at the Bay Hill Invitational, he was unexpectedly candid about his experiences and how he adopted what is called the Saw grip.

“I went to the belly putter last year a little bit, but I still had a little yip in there,” O’Meara said. “Unless you came and talked to me, I probably wouldn’t bring it up. I knew inside how I felt.

“I was watching my putter blade going back and through, trying to take the yip out. I was closing my eyes. If you’d told me to go around the corner and stand on my head for five minutes and then come over and putt, I would have tried it.

“I was very desperate. I was in most of the holes in the Skins Game last fall. But I knew in my heart when I was standing over a 5-footer that to make it would have been lucky. You say, ‘Well, I’ll try to use my shoulders or take my hands out or whatever.’ Nothing worked for me.

“It wasn’t until Hank (Haney) came in and we were on the putting green, and he said, ‘I want you to put your right wrist on the putter like this.’

“I tried it, and even though it looked goofy and I was a little conscious about it, all of a sudden there was no yip in my stroke. Everybody says when you have a little bit of the yip in your stroke, it’s mental. I don’t understand, if it’s so mental, why all of a sudden do I just put my grip like that, and it’s gone?

“I said to Hank, ‘It’s mental, right?’

“He said, ‘No, it’s not mental. It’s physical. You have to get your stroke right or do something (to change it), and then the mental aspect will get better.’ ”

In O’Meara’s Saw grip, the left hand is in a normal position. The middle three fingers of his right hand rest across the top of the shaft. The right thumb is underneath the grip, while the right pinky rests on the back of the shaft.

Bernhard Langer, like O’Meara a two-time major champion, went through several putting styles and grips before settling on the long putter to control the yips.

Still, the long putter doesn’t appear to be the universal antidote for the yips or any other putting gremlin. Among 156 players at the 2004 U.S. Open, seven used long putters and nine used belly putters. The corresponding numbers at the British Open were six long and eight belly.

In McKinney, Texas, a German golf professional named Marius Filmalter has emerged as something of an expert in treating the yips. Filmalter, associated with the Hank Haney Golf Ranch, claims to be the originator of the Saw Grip.

Filmalter was part of a group that studied the yips at the University of Munich in Germany, and he says pointblank, “I’m not suggesting for one moment that we can cure the yips so that they will never come back. The non-yip road, it’s not a highway yet. We have to prepare a new road and make it a highway.”

One of Filmalter’s developments is a machine that measures and analyzes the putting stroke. He calls the machine SAM (Science and Motion) and is about to introduce commercial versions for teaching professionals (about $6,500) and home use (about $1,200).

In measuring more than 250 touring professionals in the United States and Europe, Filmalter learned how the putter performs in the hands of the world’s best golfers. One beneficiary was Jeff Sluman, who was found to have an extraordinarily high degree of clubhead rotation during the stroke.

“He changed his stroke and began scoring better immediately,” Filmalter said.

Bob Jensen of Louisville, Ky., may be the world’s most famous amateur yipster. Because of the yips, he has appeared on CBS Evening News and the Discovery Channel.

Jensen, 50, remembers developing yips at age 17 as a member of his high school golf team. Eventually he became a golf professional and qualified for the Re/Max World Long Drive Championship, but he couldn’t shake the yips.

Along the way, he got the nickname “No Way,” which could easily apply to his putting technique. Accepting his fate, he created a golf-related Web site called bobnoway.com.

During a 12-hole putting tournament at the Mayo Clinic, with all putts inside 6 feet on a tricky green, Jensen totaled 37 putts. Only one person in the Mayo study had more putts.

“We brought in the 15 yippers who were kind of the worst,” said Dr. Jay Smith of the Mayo Clinic. “One of the goals was to illicit the yips under scientific conditions.”

To do this, Smith and his colleagues staged their putting tournament in front of spectators and television cameras. The putts were tricky – big breakers, plus uphill and downhill putts. Each of the 15 was paired with three skilled golfers who didn’t have the yips. The three normal players putted first, followed by the yipster.

Jensen, who now is working with Filmalter, said, “I am not the same putter. We are using all kinds of drills, and, for the first time in about 30 years, I’m actually making smooth strokes.”

Why is the Mayo Clinic spending so much time on the yips? The answer goes beyond golf.

Repetitive motion is one of the issues associated with the yips and related maladies. “Anyone who requires fine motor coordination with their hands is a candidate,” said Dr. Smith. “It’s much bigger than golf. Many musicians are afflicted with something similar to the yips. People can get these little twitches after doing the same thing for years and years.”

Concluded O’Meara: “That’s it exactly. I would be on the putting green for hours. Three, four, five, six hours putting, rolling them in, rolling them in. Then I would get on the course, and it would be like there were times I didn’t even want my putter. I wasn’t hyperventilating, but I definitely was not feeling real good coming to the green. It was like Fear Factor. It wasn’t a pretty situation.”

The yips never are.

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