If one were to say in casual conversation, "Once you get 'em, you've got 'em," how would you interpret that? Got what? Or dare I ask.
To the golfer, there's only one answer, and that would be the "yips." Even if the golfer doesn't happen to have them, he or she will know someone who does. According to an analysis on the subject by David Owen that appeared in the May 26 edition of The New Yorker, the yips might be defined by as "an involuntary disruptive movement of the hands, wrists, or forearms" that undermines the golfer's sense of rhythm and leads to disastrous consequences.
I've had 'em, so therefore I still got 'em, if for no other reason than simple awareness of the problem looms like an unwanted shadow, which creates doubt, which makes the shadow grow, which creates worry, making the shadow grow larger still, and unless the golfer gets a grip on things (so to speak), the outcome is sure to be yippy. Which, trust me, is not good.
It's not uncommon for great athletes who also happen to be great golfers to become golf instructors or TV analysts. Why? Well, if anyone saw Johnny Miller in the latter part of his professional career, for example, then one had the misfortune of observing an example of a once quick but otherwise fluid smooth putting stroke gone all mental and herky-jerky. According to Owen's article, Miller's yips were so painful to watch that "a rebroadcast of a 1997 match between him and Jack Nicklaus included relatively few of his (many) putts, presumably because the producers had mercifully edited them out."
Miller sportingly offered a succinct neurological self-diagnosis, as described to Guy Yocum of Golf Digest: "I have a wire corroded in my head."
The great instructor Hank Haney, one of Tiger Woods' former swing coaches, is very athletic and was an all-conference player at the University of Tulsa. A few years after graduation, the article notes, Haney began having serious problems with his tee shots, which traveled unpredictable distances and were at times more than a hundred yards off-line. Proving that the yips are not necessarily task specific, the article notes that Haney never lost his excellent putting stroke.
According to Owen, Scottish golfer Tommy Armour, who suffered from "yips" and coined the term in the middle of the last century, described his ailment as "a brain spasm that impairs the short game." The article also notes that Bill Melhorn - a leading tour player in the 1920s - once had a short putt in a Florida tournament, "but jabbed at the ball so far past the hole" that it nearly struck a fellow competitor on the green's far side.
Some awfully great names have been afflicted, including Tom Watson, Sam Snead (remember that awful side stroke?), Harry Vardon, Ben Hogan and Bernhard Langer, to name a few. Many times the condition can be controlled but - like a bad case of garden pests and weeds - not necessarily eradicated.
There are many questions. Among them: Do only more anxious players get the yips? Why are only certain motions affected? How can a change of target, technique, or equipment make them go away?
The article points out that athletes and sports fans have generally assumed that yipping and choking go hand in hand. But interest in enlisting sports psychologists to study the problem was fueled by Greg Norman's agonizing meltdown during the final round of the 1996 Masters.
It's a lot more complicated, but, in the words of one psychologist cited, "choking and yips are not the same thing." It seems that anxious players don't necessarily yip, and less anxious players aren't necessarily immune. Accordingly, the phenomenon may be viewed as a buried neurological seed (something like a dystonia) that sprouts with certain sensory and emotional stimuli. Fortunately, these can be managed, and the solutions vary from golfer to golfer, starting with individual changes in technique and mental approach to help reprogram things.
Apparently a lot of it also has to do with focus. No matter how anxious people got (in one study, that is, based on heart rate and so forth), performance was maintained if competitors remained focused on task (as shown by electrical brain activity), as opposed to being disjointed and all over the place.
So the solution is obvious: Take Adderall before every round. (Joke.)
Reach Edward M. Gilbreth at email@example.com.