The psychology of putting

News flashed across my computer screen the other day that researchers at the famous Mayo Clinic were studying the yips, that horrid affliction that can destroy your putting game. They’re looking for volunteers who hold handicaps of 12 or less — yipper and non-yippers — to participate in a weeklong study in Jacksonville, Florida. (See related site below.)

The notice of the study didn’t worry me. I’ve studied yips myself and, as far as I know, I haven’t suffered from the problem. Oh, I’ve had my anxieties on the green, and switched from putting right-handed to left-handed because I feel more comfortable as a southpaw. I don’t know if I make any more putts left-handed than right-handed, but I feel better missing them. And that’s something. Still, I admit that I’ve had the odd nervous, involuntary flash at the ball putting right-handed. Incipient yips, maybe. And I hated the feeling. Who doesn’t?

Yips never go away
“Once you’ve had ’em, you’ve got ’em,” said the stylish writer and fine golfer Henry Longhurst of the yips. I didn’t want to get ’em so I switched to left-handed putting. Maybe it’s my interest in psychology that has led to my fascination wi the yips. If it’s a scientific problem then maybe there’s a solution. At least that’s what the Mayo folks seem to be suggesting.

Now, I don’t want to create a condition in readers that they’ve never experienced. So if you’re one of those golfers who believes that to mention the yips is to generate them, perhaps you should stop reading here. On the other hand, show some courage — keep reading, there’s no need to be afraid. I’m sure you’ve already heard of the yips.

It’s a condition that renders captains of industry or surgeons who perform intricate operations weak-kneed and unable to breathe properly. Yippers freeze over the ball on the green. They can’t take the club back for ages, and when the finally do it’s in a jerky motion. Then, their hands might snap at the ball, sending it way past the hole. Or they might barely touch the ball because they’re afraid of doing just that.

Scary, no? The yips have also been called the “whisky jerks,” in which the yipper has whisky fingers. The Maxfli equipment company came up with a putter it claimed would cure the yips, called the Yipstick. And the condition has even inspired poetry. A member of the Pine Valley Golf Club in New Jersey, long the top-ranked course in the United States, wrote a poem on the subject. It was published in Golf Digest a decade ago. Here’s the opening stanza.

I’ve tried hundreds of putters, exotic and plain,
And bizarre strokes, yet all were in vain.
I’ve talked to pros, preachers and panelists,
Cardiologists and psychoanalysts.
Counselors on sex and dieticians,
Nerve-control types and other technicians,
Looking for help to face this reality,
And all the afflictions that come with the malady.

This doggerel goes on for four more long stanzas. Suffice it to say that the author eventually concocts some strange grip and manages to solve his yipping problems. Yippee, I guess one could say. (Groan). Then again, I wonder if his yips returned.

Even the pros get ’em
That’s the thing. They often do. The two-time Masters winner Bernhard Langer has had ’em and solved ’em a few times. “It’s a weird situation,” Langer says. “The yips can come back any time, and I haven’t found anybody out there who understands them. And believe me, I have tried all sorts of remedies and talked to many people.”

As I said, this is scary stuff. It’s so scary, in fact, that the condition has already been studied before. One group reported on their findings in the February 1989 issue of the journal Neurology. The yips, they wrote, fall into a class of conditions called focal or occupational dystonias. The musician whose fingers wiggle involuntarily when he tries to pluck his guitar strings, or whose hands flop around at the piano; the teacher who develops a stutter or, perhaps, a palsy — these people are suffering from occupational dystonias.

The researchers write: “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.” Muscles spasm or cramp. The golfer’s hands tremble. Horrible.

So now the Mayo Clinic is ready to conduct another study. Dr. Aynsley M. Smith, the lead researcher, wants to learn whether the yips are a psychological or physical condition. The team of researchers she’s leading includes people from such disciplines as sport psychology, neurology, engineering, orthopedic surgery, endocrinology and other areas. Serious stuff.

Check out the website below. Take your favourite putter and make a few strokes. Feel the flow. The yips? They’re far away for the moment — but only for the moment, I caution. “Once you’ve had ’em, you’ve got ’em.” And maybe the Mayo Clinic study will help golfers never get ’em. Here’s hoping.