I will admit to two things right off the bat here. First, I have been aware of the term yips for quite some time. Secondly, I have not been affected by the problem. Well, at least not yet.
When I read about Phil Mickelson trying out the belly putter this week in an attempt to fight off the yips, the term caught my attention. I went to the Internet for information regarding this golfing malady. What I found out was very interesting.
Wikipedia gave me the following data when queried about the term, beginning with a definition. It said that yips, or the yips, is an expression used to describe the apparent loss of fine motor skills seemingly without explanation in one of a number of different sports. All right, that's something I was not expecting. I didn't know that sports other than golf had the problem, but that's apparently true and I will address that later on.
As for golf, the yips involve a movement disorder known to interfere with putting. In describing the yips, golfers have used terms such as twitches, staggers, jitters and jerks. The yips affect between one quarter and one half of all mature golfers. Now if by mature we mean aged, I still have the chance to develop the yips. If we are talking about growing up versus growing old, then I may never get them. There is an awful lot of kid in me when I play the game of golf.
The Mayo Clinic has researched the situation and found that 33 percent to 48 percent of all serious golfers have experienced the yips. Again maybe I'm immune, depending on your definition of serious! Golfers who have been playing the game for 25 years or longer are most prone to the condition. Uh oh, I'm back in the running.
Famed professionals who have been afflicted with the yips include Bernhard Langer, Ben Hogan, Harry Vardon and Sam Snead. Langer went to a belly putter to control his problem and is currently enjoying a lot of success on the Senior Tour. Snead had the yips so bad that fellow golfer Ben Crenshaw said it was "painful to watch."
The cause of the yips is yet to be determined, but one possibility involves biochemical changes in the brain that accompany aging. Focal dysteria (I have no idea) is another possible cause. Whatever the reasons for it occurring, one suggestion to cure the problem was to give up the game for a month. If I get the yips I do not plan on telling my wife about it because she might remind me of the "off" time. Heck, around here you take six months a year off. I know honey - minus the golf trips!
The article contained one final paragraph that had me perplexed. I'll let you read it and see what your reaction is.
"Therapeutically, persisting immature primitive reflexes, such as the asymmetrical tonic neck reflex, tonic labyrinth reflex and/or the symmetrical tonic reflex can be inhibited through occupational, physical or other developmental therapists. These immature reflexes trigger unpredictable physical reactions when body and/or head movements are made. About ten repetitions of the movement tends to settle the reflex prior to hitting the ball."
OK, I didn't understand any of that either. From what I've garnered so far, the fact is that as we age our mental capacities are not as sharp. However, the yips are prevalent in other sports and not necessarily in older athletes. Take baseball for instance.
Baseball's equivalent to the yips in golf is a player's difficulty in making the simplest of throws. Pitchers who suddenly cannot throw the ball anywhere near the strike zone, infielders who can't make an easy throw to first or even a catcher who can't get the ball back to the pitcher are examples. Some interesting stories have taken place involving baseball players who got the yips.
Steve Sax had trouble throwing the ball from the second base position to first base. In an All-Star game he made a 40-foot toss that went about thirty feet, letting everyone know he had a problem. Chuck Knoblach had the same trouble while playing for the Yankees. Mets catcher Mackey Sasser could not throw the ball back to the pitcher without tapping his mitt three times.
This caught the attention of the Montreal Expos dugout during one game. The players counted the taps out loud and then laughed. When the Mets pitcher threatened to bean the next hitter, the banter stopped. Sasser though, still had the problem and was soon out of baseball.
As for the game of golf, I know first hand what Crenshaw meant. I had a friend who was the best putter I had ever seen. From 20 feet on in he made most of his attempts. The ones that missed were tap-ins. Then he developed the yips. He would stand over a putt, start to go and then stop, because he couldn't pull the trigger. He would back off, realign and then stab at the ball. The results were not good, he was frustrated and it was indeed painful to watch.
I'm not sure Mickelson has the yips. If he does it is not a very severe case. He may be trying out the long putter simply because he feels that he will make more putts with it. He's never been afraid to try new things. Perhaps he has lost confidence in his putting ability.
When you lose that feeling of expecting to make every putt, golfers will try anything to get it back. Perhaps that is the definition of the yips - the loss of confidence that you expect every putt to go in.
A return to the feeling that one expects to make every putt he stands over? Looks like I'm back to being immune!
Al Stephenson is The A-T's golf columnist
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