Yips: A Tale of Woe
Thank you for your quick response to my order. Your letter was a personal touch which I appreciate. Actually Dr. Putt, finding you was a serendipitous happening that I owe to the vigilance of a friend whom I asked to help me find a sports psychologist and who found you instead. I think you are the only person I have come in contact with so far who actually knows what the yips are. Yes, very, very different from choking or what we called in my day "getting the apple".
I may as well give you a bit of history. First of all I'm now 77 years old. There, you've heard the worst. My yips came very suddenly in April (the start of the golf season in New York) in the year 1976. And I have been fighting it tooth and nail ever since. I just couldn't get my putter to stroke through the ball. I could get to the ball and then be stopped by an insurmountable wall. No amount of strength could get that club through the wall. Even a 2 inch putt was impossible. I finally got so as to be able to sort of jerk the putter quickly at the ball and the ball could go an inch, a yard or twenty feet. You don't know what heartbreak is until you find that the game you love most in the world has gone back on you. Yes it's anxiety. Yes it's panic. Yes, the best drills and swing thoughts disappear right at the moment of truth. I had been taking Inderal but I assure you it did nothing.
I was once asked to play in our local Westchester Caddymaster tournament and I was so nervous I went to a hypnotist. I went twice and then listened to his tape all day long the day before the tournament. I don't think I had more than twenty putts the whole day and needless to say, we won. And that, sir, is the last time I putted well. Like the man says, bring back the memory of a good day when you need it. Don't you believe it. It doesn't work.
I tried to find a psychologist, but that was a waste because though purporting to be a sports psychologist, she had never heard of the yips. She did have me draw figures of my family and most interestingly, while my husband and my daughter looked very nice, the picture of me had no hands. Doesn't that tell me something!
As far as practice is concerned, when I'm on the practice putting green I can sink ten out of ten. Eyes closed, backwards, with mirrors, you name it. I'm the best putter I know. When I'm playing with my friends and one of them kindly talks me through the putt I can be pretty good, but when the chips are down and I'm putting for the point for my team, you might as well shrug your shoulders and walk away. Needless to say, after the miss if I drop a ball to try again I sink it every time. But I don't have to tell you that. No matter what putter I use, and I have plenty of them, I can't seem to get comfortable. I know to keep my arms still and just rock my shoulders...forget it, they won't move. So I'm still jerking and jabbing away. What a shame.
My husband says I should quit. I couldn't possibly. Golf is what I do. I've been playing since I was eleven years old. Took my first lesson from Doug Ford's father. My family were and are all golfers. My parents played at least three times a week until they died. Golf was our dinner table topic. Dad, an engineer, explained it all to us in terms of the physics of the swing. My older sister is gone, but my younger sister (now 72) carries a 15 handicap and lives and plays at La Quinta in California. Her daughter is probably a 10 or 11 by now and plays on their first team. So you see, golf is something I can't quit doing and I'm going to fight this - what Tommy Bolt called - thing. I'm going to lick it. Somehow, I don't know how, but somehow I'm going to lick it. So there you have it: the story of one person's yips. Thanks for having a shoulder to cry on.
My Dear Joyce:
Such a tale of epic woe Dr. Putt has not heard in decades. Surely the golf gods should have pity on one who has long paid such homage to the game. Would that Dr. Putt could email an instant cure so that you could play in peace!
As you know, usually the hands and wrists are the key -- they are the first to tense up, so the cure is to eliminate them from the swing. So one tries the Langer style grip or the "claw" seen this past weekend at the Masters. Dr. Putt's variation on the Langer style grip, the EOB grip, might offer a normal case of the yips some relief. Take a careful look at the EOB grip in Five Steps to Better Putting, which is of course in the package you ordered. Give it a try. With this grip you can hold the putter tight and still execute the stroke because it immobilizes the hands and wrists. So it may help even your quite serious case of the yips a little.
The situation of a putt that really counts triggers a learned and much practiced response in your entire body that adversely affects even the shoulders. The March 2001 issue of Golf Digest (pp. 169-170) has Butch Harmon's cure, swinging with the knees while locking the arms to ones side. But if your case of the yips affects your whole body, even that might not work.
Dr. Putt would make a couple of other suggestions, which perhaps you have tried. The idea is to change the visual cues that play a role in triggering the learned response. Looking at the ball in a pressure situation is something that you do on every putt. Have you tried looking at the hole rather than the ball? Johnny Miller won a tournament late in his career doing this -- and he is said to have had yips problems.
More radically, you said that you could putt with your eyes closed on the green -- have you putted that way? Dr. Putt is quite serious. Visually handicapped players often putt quite well and without sight, one has a radically different sensory experience in putting.
One last suggestion. Count your way--out loud--through your putting routine, making sure that you do everything on the precise count. Focus on nothing but the counting, not missing a beat, keeping everything in rhythm -- Dr. Putt will be counting with you!
That leaves working with a psychologist who specializes in behavior modification, who works with phobias and with performance anxiety. There are a variety of medications that can work quite well, though one must often try several before one finds the right one. Dr. Putt knows of students who nearly flunked out of school because of test anxiety and who, with the proper medication and some behavior modification, became straight A students. You would need to work with a psychiatrist who can carefully prescribe meds in conjunction with the psychologist. So it can be beat, but it will take time -- after all, you are trying to unlearn a behavior that has been reinforced for about 25 years. Dr. Putt would suggest that you contact the psychology department at a local college or university. Many professors do this on a consulting basis. They could certainly make a referral.
Dr. Putt hopes you find help soon from some appropriate professional who takes your problem seriously, for it is a very serious quality of life problem. Golf may only be a game to some, but for others it is as important as the self-expression of any artist. It is trying to achieve momentary perfection in a very imperfect world. But you know all this. Dr. Putt wishes you well in your heroic struggle. Please keep Dr. Putt posted.