What are the yips? Experts say it's not just in your head
On Thursday, after Ernie Els tried to explain how he had six-putted from three feet on one hole and then missed a series of mind-boggling short putts on others, he described his condition as if there was some kind of "short" in his brain.
"I can go to that putting green now and make 20 straight 3‑footers," Els said after the round. "And then you get on the course and you feel a little different and you can't do what you normally do. So it's pretty difficult."
It was apparent to anyone watching that Els is in the midst of an acute battle with the "yips" (and it's continuing on Friday, where Els missed a short putt on the first hole). It is a dreaded condition to golfers because even at Golf Digest, where we devote pages each month to fixing this flaw or that in your game, there is no known fix, and even worse, there is rarely a positive outcome.
What are the yips? That's something David Owen, a Golf Digest contributing editor and also a staff writer for the New Yorker, tried to tackle in a feature story for the latter magazine in 2014. In the story, Owen addressed many misconceptions about the yips, the biggest perhaps being that the yips is some variation of choking under pressure.
In fact it's not. Although anxiety can heighten the condition, it can afflict golfers under any circumstance. "Anxiety can exacerbate the yips—just as it exacerbates the tremors in Parkinson’s disease—but it’s not the cause, since the yips are usually present whether the yipper is nervous or not, and even when the yipper can’t feel them," Owen writes. It's worth noting, however, that Els says he does not have this problem on the practice green, yet endures it during competition.
Some other revelations in Owen's story:
-- The term the yips was coined by the Scottish golfer Tommy Armour, who said it was a "brain spasm that impairs the short game." "Versions of it have been known over the years by many names, among them 'freezing,' 'the waggles,' 'the staggers,' 'the jerks,” 'whiskey fingers,' and 'the yips.' That last term is the one that’s used almost universally today.'"
-- More often, the yips are a "focal dystonia," a neurological condition that provokes involuntary movements around specific actions. It's why Els had his most trouble on short putts -- at one point on Thursday he even snaked in a long putt for birdie on the par-4 third. The extended flowing stroke for Els isn't the problem. Strange as it is to say, the yips are not evidence that Els is a bad putter. He might still be a pretty good one, save for the fact that he can't put the ball in the hole from three feet away.
-- In his story, Owen describes studies of the yips from Debbie Crews, a sports-psychology consultant for the women's golf team at Arizona State, and Aynsley M. Smith, a sports psychologist at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. Hooking up participants in the study to a variety of measuring devices the studies confirmed that the yips are a neurological condition. It was, as Owen writes, "characterized by the 'co-contraction' of groups of arm muscles that don’t ordinarily operate at the same time: one group that extends the wrist and one that flexes it. In the yips, those muscles make what Aynsley Smith called a 'double pull,' resulting in a jerk.
-- The yips are not limited to golf. The condition has similar effects in activities like darts, archery, and shooting. In this country, there have been several prominent examples in baseball, most notably the Yankee second baseman Chuck Knoblauch, an All Star who eventually couldn't make an accurate throw from second base. Like Els making long putts, the problem was minimized when he was moved to left field and he had to throw longer distances.
There is perhaps no greater mystery in golf than how the yips are born and more importantly, how they're eliminated. Hank Haney wrote about the condition in Golf Digest last year when Tiger Woods appeared to have a version of the chipping yips (It's hard to say if Woods has been cured of the affliction given that he's played such little golf). Haney agreed with Owen that the yips are not soley a function of perfomance anxiety -- although he maintains the setting, like when you're playing in the Masters -- can certainly play a part..
"The top scientists I've consulted say the message between your brain and your muscles gets scrambled, and the muscles start running the wrong program, like when the needle on a turntable goes over a scratch on a record," Haney wrote. "Over time, that scratch gets deeper and deeper—and the volume goes up when pressure is introduced."