September 8, 2009

The Yips: It Can Be Kryptonite For Great Players And A Curse For Any Golfer

It is said that from tee-to-green, Ben Hogan was probably the greatest player that golf has ever seen, even in the long shadows of his late career. Hogan was one of golf's first technicians, a man who rebuilt his swing after fighting a tendency to hit nasty hooks early in his career by (in his own words) "digging it from the dirt."

Despite a horrific car accident that left him nearly crippled, Hogan would go on to win a career Grand Slam with two Masters titles, four U.S. Opens, two PGA Championships and the 1953 Open Championship in his only appearance in that that tournament.

So why didn't Hogan win more majors, given his greatness ball-striking? He was extremely competitive in many other tournament, and in many of them, the reason he did not win was simple: he was cursed with the yips, and a three foot putt was as much an adventure for him as a typical 20-footer.

What Are "The Yips" And What Is Modern Science Doing About It?

The Yips, a curse for any golfer as bad as a Sunday golfer's swooping slice, can wreck any golfer's scorecard. The phrase is said to have come from Tommy Armour, an early 20th century great of the game whose competitive career was cut short by the condition.

Essentially, it is a condition where a twitchy, jerky putting motion replaces the smooth, pendulum-like action of an unaffected player. The Mayo Clinic estimates that between 33% and 48% of all players are affected at one point in their career, and for a professional, it can often mean the end of their effectiveness as a competitor.

While many say that the nervousness naturally accompanying competitive pressures are the cause of The Yips, a number of researchers say that a condition known as Focal Dystonia is the true cause of the condition. Described as a neurological condition affecting a muscle or group of muscles in a part of the body causing an undesirable muscular contraction or twisting, Focal Dystonia is often the result of chemical changes that happen inside the brain as a result of aging. Paradoxically, it affects people with a high degree of training in a given muscular movement - musicians, athletes, artists and others who has spent a lifetime learning how to repeat complex motions as part of their respective crafts. Treatments for Focal Dystonia range from Botox injections for temporary relief from the symptoms to muscular retraining through excercise training. No complete cure has been found, and reseach is ongoing in the field.

Hogan, Bernhard Langer, Harry Vardon, and Sam Snead, Arnold Palmer and Johnny Miller are all major champions, and all experienced the yips, and in many cases, it ended their career. Langer switched to a long putter, as have a number of golfers, Snead used a side-saddle putting motion until it was banned under the Rules of Golf and others tried any number of remedies available to them at the time. In Ben Hogan's case, he actually began to avoid practicing putting later in his career, so severe was his condition. In competition, most notably in the 1960 US Open, the Yips may well have cost him one last major victory.

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