Scientists, psychologists, and the Mayo Clinic take on the yips
By David Owen
I have an article in this week's New Yorker about the yips. The term was coined around the middle of the last century by the Scottish golfer Tommy Armour, a sufferer, who defined it as "a brain spasm that impairs the short game." (Stephen Potter, in his book Golfmanship, published in 1968, quoted Armour and added, "Impairs' is a euphemism.") Yipping typically involves an involuntary twitch of a golfer's hands, wrists, or forearms. The late British golf writer and television commentator Henry Longhurst once said that he didn't have the yips but was a "carrier." During the BBC's broadcast of the final round of the 1970 British Open, at St. Andrews, he agonized vicariously when Doug Sanders left himself a three-foot putt on the final hole to win the tournament. "Oh, Lord," Longhurst said on the air. "Well, that's not one that I would like to have." Sanders hesitated over his ball for what seemed like minutes; noticed something on the ground and bent to remove it ("Oh, Lord," Longhurst said again); froze once more; and shoved the ball to the right of the hole. "Missed it!" Longhurst said as the ball went past. "Yes, a certainty. That's the side you're bound to miss it." In the video below, skip to 21:23 to hear Longhurst's full commentary and watch the gruesome outcome:
Another person I talked to is Debbie Crews, a sports psychologist and a consultant to the women's golf team at Arizona State. She has participated in three studies of the yips sponsored by the Mayo Clinic, and she's about to participate in a fourth. Even for golfers who don't have the yips, Crews is a good person to know. Here's one thing I learned from her: most of us would putt better if we had someone tend the flag even on medium-length putts, because our brains are better at judging the distance to targets that protrude above the ground.