Readers from my generation may remember the late George Carlin’s infamous comedy routine that unveiled the “7 words you can never say on television”. To fill in the blanks above, feel free to search his routine on YouTube. In a comedy act, profanity can be hilarious…but in real life it’s far less appropriate (please cover your ears when I miss the nail and hammer my thumb). Carlin’s words may be offensive, but in golf there is one four-letter word that is far more profane: YIPS. Yes, when the yips are mentioned near a golf course, other dirty words run for cover.
Loosely defined, the 'yips' is an affliction that causes an involuntary muscle tremor during what would seem to be a very simple and common motion. Often thought of as a form of focal dystonia, the yips seem most likely to affect those who have played golf fairly well for 25 years or more, according to Mayo Clinic research. Their research also shows that 33% to 48% of all serious golfers have experienced some form of the yips. According to Hank Haney, most Tour players that you see experimenting with a variety of grips and putter styles have felt at least a subtle hitch in their stroke. The yips can reach beyond the putting green and affect the chipping, pitching, bunker or even the driver swing. Although there is no known cure for this annoying condition, there are a number of treatments or techniques that may help.
With mild cases, a simple change of mindset or taking an extended break from golf can get a player back on track. With a stronger case, golfers can find better results with breathing exercises, a change in grip style, stance or equipment or anchoring the putting stroke (but anchoring will be illegal as of 1/1/16). A severe case of the yips doesn’t happen only in pressure situations. They can haunt a player who is rolling meaningless putts on a practice green. Severe yips can lead a player to making the stroke with their eyes closed, or switching to a left-handed or even one-handed technique. A serious victim may be driven to hypnosis appointments, acupuncture, or even botulinum toxin. Yes, there is evidence that Botox treatments may provide temporary but significant improvement.
To be painfully honest, a harsh case of the yips can rapidly end a golfer’s competitive career. The term ‘yips’ is believed to have been coined by Tommy Armour, who first felt the evil twitches in 1927. The yips cut Armour’s great career short and also plagued Hogan, Snead and Watson. In recent years, David Duval, Ian Baker-Finch, Sergio Garcia and Kevin Na are among those who have dealt with various forms of the disease.
Some have certainly managed fairly well with the yips. Bernhard Langer was seriously stricken, but was able to overcome the affliction with a variety of putting grips, styles and equipment changes. He remains an incredibly gifted and successful competitor to this day. But who knows how many titles Bernhard would have, if not for the yips? The 1994 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am was one of the most astounding victories for Johnny Miller. Why? …because he was battling with some serious yips at that point in his career. It found the bottom of the cup, but his final putt of the tournament reminded me more of an electrocution than a putting stroke. And that brings me to Tiger Woods.
When ‘yips’ showed up in the same sentence as 'Tiger Woods', the golfing world gasped. Watching the owner of perhaps the best short game in history folding sod over the ball was, at the very least, unsettling. The condition was first publicly diagnosed during the Hero World Challenge, a limited-field event that took place last December at Isleworth, Tiger’s home course in Florida. The result? Tied for last place, 26 strokes behind winner, Jordan Spieth. The ‘chunks’ and ‘skulls’ continued for Woods at the Waste Management Phoenix Open in late January. His rounds of 73 & 82 were filled with short game torture and led to a missed cut. At Torrey Pines, Tiger’s yips were joined by a second evil curse, the ‘shanks’…followed by a third curse, the ‘WD’, marking his third tournament ‘withdraw’ in his last 8 starts. An apparent back injury resulting from stubborn glute muscles forced his early exit from the Farmer’s Insurance Open after just 11 holes. Woods, who said “My glutes just weren’t activating”, now needs to recover from both a back ailment and an injured short game. The Jack Nicklaus record of 18 Major Championship titles has never looked safer (…am I the only golf coach with an urge to send Chris Como a sympathy card?).
I credit Tiger for his willingness to openly discuss the short game challenges of late. Prior to this recent injury, Tiger blamed his woeful chipping & pitching on a swing change and differing ‘release points’. He explained that he has been caught between two very different moves, and that he can’t yet consistently “find the bottom of my swing”. He said the process was far from complete and that the answer was simply hard work, ‘reps’ and reps under pressure.
I hope he’s right. Nobody knows how to work hard, practice hard, and perform under pressure like Tiger Woods. The problem is, you can’t do all that work when you’re nursing a delicate back…and frankly, the problem may run much deeper. But several fellow Tour pros feel the old Tiger will make a triumphant return.
Paul Azinger: I still am one of the few guys who think he can challenge and beat Jack’s record. I’m not writing him off. I’m not an idiot. His problems are easy fixes…and he doesn’t have the yips. Sticking the leading edge into the ground is not the yips.
Jordan Spieth: …he just needs reps. Give him a month, and he’ll be back to where he’s consistent and he’s playing holes and he’s shooting good scores.
Phil Mickelson: I don’t think he’s going to have any problems…Because it’s such a short swing that it’s not hard to fix…I just don’t see that lasting more than a week or two…I think that Tiger’s going to have the last laugh.
Granted, the quotes from those three players came prior to #GluteGate …but in my humble opinion, all three are miles from reality. Sorry Paul, Woods is yippin'. That leading edge is all over the place. Jordan, reps aren’t the answer. And Phil, this is not an easy fix…and it’s not a laughing matter. The most valuable club in any player’s bag? Confidence. And trust me, Joe LaCava can’t find that one in Tiger’s bag now. Like the three quoted, I am hopeful that Tiger can manage his issues and find a way back into contention. Love him or loathe him, Tiger Woods has done some great things for golf. When he tees it up, ratings jump…and golf, along with it’s many businesses, partners, sponsors and charities, benefits.
A player of Tiger’s caliber can win without his “A” game, he can even win with a swing designed to accommodate an injury, but he just won’t be the threat he once was. But a player with serious yips?...that player is in a different ballpark. If the tremors Woods has shown continue or worsen, we might be writing the final chapters of his competitive career. With all due respect to Paul, Jordan & Phil…their comments prove that they’ve never dealt with a heavy case of the worst four-letter curse in golf. The inexplicable muscle convulsion, the shocking burst of twisted energy that separates body from brain.
Not even George Carlin could make the yips funny, and here's my best impression of both Carlin and Tiger (when he has his A game).