Johnny Miller had them. So did Tom Watson, Lee Trevino and Nick Faldo.
They almost brought an end to Bernhard Langer. They prompted Ben Hogan to give up the game.
For those who've never dealt with them, they're hard to describe.
But as Justice William Brennan said about pornography, you'll know them when you see them.
Or when you feel them: Twitches. Spasms. Involuntary twinges in the forearms or wrists that make even simple putts stray wildly off line.
We're talking, of course, about the yips, the grim specter shadowing the sunniest of layouts, a curse that many golfers dare not speak aloud.
Most research on the yips (and there's been lots of it, right up through the rarified ranks of the Mayo Clinic) has painted them as a psychological problem, a glitch in the matrix of our state of mind.
How else to explain an ailment that only afflicts experienced golfers, that shows up without warning but often appears when something important is on the line? (Those beginners you see with putting problems? They don't have the yips; they're just bad.)
Surely, all signs point to the psyche. But not so, says Bob Prichard, who looks at the yips the other way around.
It's All in the Swing
A self-taught and self-described "sports engineer" from Tiburon, Calif., Prichard, 63, is not a golfer but has spent his adult life studying the swing. He runs
Somax Sports, a company devoted to improving performance by measuring the mechanics of athletic movements.
Since 1970, when Somax was established, Prichard has helped baseball pitchers boost the zip on their fastball; basketball players increase their free-throw percentage; swimmers trim precious seconds off their times. He's also worked with golfers like U.S. Women's Open champion Se Ri Pak, and PGA Tour standout David Frost, long a top player on the world stage.
In his study of great golfers throughout the years, Prichard noticed that many of the game's finest had something in common: they kept their spine angles constant through the swing. Swinging that way, Prichard says, requires a kind of athletic compensation.
"The centrifugal force of a golf swing extends the golfer's arms on the downswing," Prichard says. "That's why most golfers reduce their spine angle through impact. They stand up as they come through the ball because if they didn't, the centrifugal force would cause the club to hit the ground before the ball. It's difficult to get consistent swinging this way."
According to Prichard, great ball-strikers like Hogan and Miller were remarkably consistent because they kept their spine angles steady throughout the swing. But in solving one problem, they created another.
"By keeping their spine angles steady, these guys had to resist the centrifugal pull of the club by tightening their grip through impact," Prichard says. "You do that over and over, and you put your forearms under tremendous strain."
Over time, Prichard says, that strain tears tiny fibers in the forearm muscles, which develop scar tissue as they heal. Stiffened by the scarring, those muscles no longer can perform the delicate movements they once carried out. Under the pressure of a crucial putt, for instance, they have a greater tendency to twitch or spasm.
Grippers, in other words, are yippers.
Prichard has laid out his theory in a self-published book,
The Efficient Golfer,
which also offers a solution: Microfiber reduction, a form of massage therapy developed by Prichard to reduce the scar tissue formed by years of wear and tear.
"There has been tremendous progress in the last decade in golf equipment because scientists have re-engineered clubs and balls," Prichard writes. "Now we can re-engineer the golfers' body -- the most important piece of equipment on the golf course. We do this by releasing microfibers that are binding the body together with an invisible cast."
At Somax, Prichard offers his unique brand of re-engineering for $295 an hour.
Not everyone, of course, takes the same approach.
Sandy Tatum, a former Stanford golfer and NCAA individual golf champion, came down with the yips while serving as president of the United States Golf Association. He was playing in a pro-am at Pebble Beach with his pal, Tom Watson, when he missed a two-foot putt on the 18th hole.
"All I recall," Tatum says, "is that I blacked out, and when I looked up, the ball was 10 feet past the hole."
Tatum, who's now in his mid-80s, never tried massage. He still encounters the yips from time to time, but he's battled through them, he says, by simply refusing to be a victim.
"When it happens, I tell myself not to let it bother me," Tatum says. "And it doesn't."
Other top players have dealt with the yips by changing putting grips or putters. Consider Chris DiMarco, who popularized the "claw" grip. Or Bernhard Langer, a longtime yipper who went to the belly-putter, then went on to win the Masters.
My own bout with the yips took an upward turn when I switched to the
Heavy Putter, a weighted club that forces you to swing the club with the big muscles of your shoulders, not the twitchy, traitorous small muscles of your forearms. It works. At least for now.
Still others prefer a mind-body approach.
Some golfers try yoga or meditation.
Jared Tendler, a former All-American college golfer and now a mental game coach in Scottsdale, Ariz., employs a form of therapy called EMDR, or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, which has been used effectively on soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
"There's often no single answer for something as complex as the yips," Tendler says. "I've cured the yips simply by getting a student to focus more on their target."
Golfers with the yips, Tendler says, tend to be intensely process-oriented: "Their focus on mechanics impedes their natural feel for the game."
"A lot of times my goal is to just get you out of your own head," Tendler says. "In reality, the putting stroke is fairly simple. But we overcomplicate it. Sometimes it can be a matter of just becoming more reactive and instinctive, as we are in other sports."
From Prichard's perspective, though, it's all about the body. And he totes testimonials to prove his tactics work. When, in the 1990s, Prichard began working with Tour pro David Frost, Frost enjoyed middling results with his putter. After teaming up with Prichard, he became the No. 1 ranked putter in the world.
And that, for yipping golfers, is all that counts. We don't really care how the cure happens; all that matters is if it works.
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Josh Sens is a freelance writer living in Oakland, Calif., and a contributing writer to Golf Magazine. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Men's Journal, Golf Digest and other national publications.
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