Golf tip: Understanding what's behind the dreaded yips

Everyone who plays golf is familiar with the phrase "the yips." The term is said to have been coined by Tommy Armour, a former golf champion and instructor, to explain the difficulties that led him to abandon tournament play.

It's considered such a serious condition that golfers often cringe at the mere mention of it.

The history books are littered with its victims, including names such as Duval, Langer, Watson, Miller, Hogan, Snead, and Vardon. You won't find a golf club in the country that doesn't have its quota of members who have seen their handicaps soar because of the dreaded affliction.

What exactly are the yips?

The yips are a neurological condition, more formally known as focal dystonia, that leads to the loss of fine motor skills. The condition provokes involuntary movements around specific actions. In addition to athletes in all sports, the condition can also affect musicians, writers, artists, and surgeons.

In golf, the yips often manifest into a jerk, twitch, or tremor. While the yips can affect other golf strokes, it most often occurs in putting and chipping.

The yips cause two kinds of problems in golf: one involving direction, in which the clubhead twists or shakes, and another involving acceleration, in which the clubhead jerks forward with excessive force.

Why does this happen?

Dr. Charles Adler of the Mayo Clinic, an expert in neurology, says, "Researchers are trying to determine how to discern if those with the yips have a neurologic cause or a performance anxiety, stress induced cause."

Excessive use of the involved muscles, and the intense demands of coordination and concentration, may exacerbate the problem.

Who gets the yips?

A golfer's pattern of thinking may be responsible for his or her struggles with the yips. In such cases, personality types may be relevant, as perfectionists have been shown to be more susceptible to the condition. Yet, this is not an isolated problem. Researchers at the Mayo Clinic found that 33 percent to 48 percent of all serious golfers have experienced the yips.

More experienced golfers who have played for more than 25 years appear most prone to the condition.

How do you know if you have the yips?

If you have difficulty consistently making short putts, the odds suggest you may be under this treacherous spell. Another indicator is that the yips usually affect one hand more than another. Hit a few five-foot putts right handed, then left handed and try to notice if there is a twitch in either. Isolating each hand will help make a possible twitch obvious.

Is there a cure?

When related to performance anxiety, the yips can be addressed with a visit to a sports psychologist. If you have a neurological tremor, once you've deduced where the demon is lurking, you can't just will it away. Try altering the grip you use with that particular hand. If it's your trail hand, you can try a pencil, saw, or claw hold. If it's your lead hand, try left-hand low.

One of the triggers to yipping is the ball itself. It might only be 1.68 inches in diameter, but to the distressed it can fill the conscious brain with overwhelming feelings of dread and anxiety. Experiments have shown that one of the best ways to overcome this is to direct your focus away from the ball, like Jordan Speith, who looks at the hole while putting.

• Chris Oehlerking is a PGA Professional and co-owner and Senior Coach at The Golf Practice located in Lake Bluff, Highland Park and Evanston. You can reach him at

• With assistance from the Illinois PGA, the Daily Herald provides golf tips each Wednesday from a PGA Professional.

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