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Good-Bye, Mr. Yips

I don't know exactly when I got the yips. I just know this: They were going to make me quit playing golf.

And I had been playing since my dad gave me a cut-down, wood-shafted five-iron in our backyard in Oneida, New York, when I was about seven years old. I first started lugging my clubs up the hill to Oneida Country Club, a little nine-hole course a couple of miles from our house, when I was nine. It means I have been playing for forty years. Was captain of my high school golf team. Won a car once with a hole in one. Broke par once at the National Golf Links of America, my favorite course in the world, and the same summer shot seventy-four at Shinnecock Hills. Got my handicap as low as three. Had a putt—a forty-footer, but I at least had a chance—to shoot in the sixties once.

I'm not bragging. You have to be clinically insane to either a) brag about your golf game; or b) lie about it. This is just back story: I had been at it a long time, and reached the point where I could play.

I did the best putting of my life with an old Ping Anser 3 that I grabbed out of my dad's garage. Before that, I used the Cleveland "Designed by" version of the old Wilson 8802. Before that?A Bulls Eye I'd even painted white back in the '60s, because Nicklaus had done it one year winning the Open. Old-school stuff all the way.

But those were the days when I kept my head so rock-solid I never even saw a short putt go in the hole—I'd just listen to the suckers fall. I thought I was going to make everything from ten feet in. I could have putted with a hockey stick, because I was sure the ball was going in, as if Ben Crenshaw was the one putting.

Then it didn't go in.

At first I thought it was the golf gods getting me. I was chipping one day at my club and stubbed the ball, then in disgust tossed my wedge at my golf bag. But my Anser 3 was next to my bag, and I hit that instead.

And bent the shaft.

There was my favorite putter ever, not dead, but certainly wounded.

I got it reshafted the next day.

But when I got it back, it didn't feel the same, and neither did I standing over the ball. Which is nuts, but we're all nuts, and I somehow felt as if the wand had lost the magic. Maybe that's where it started. I always remember something Gary McCord said about golf, about how you start missing with your driver and then that puts pressure on your iron play—hello, Tiger—and then it finally hits your putting.

"Once that happens," McCord said, "it's in your DNA."

I wasn't getting up and down anymore, and I wasn't having all those one-putts anymore. I didn't trust my stroke or my putter.

So I ended one year not putting well, and the next year it got worse.

One day I was standing over a three-footer and made a spasm-y pass at the ball and didn't come close to the hole. I was like one of those field-goal kickers, shanking one wide right.

It happened again, same round. And after that it became every horrible story you've ever heard about Tom Watson's years of on-and-off yips and that Shell's Wonderful World of Golf match between Jack Nicklaus and Johnny Miller that they didn't even want to air, that's how bad Miller's yips were that day (he apparently took nearly forty putts).

It never got to the point where I couldn't bring the putter back, where I froze over the ball the way Ben Hogan sometimes did.

I could always get it through.

It just wasn't pretty.

It didn't happen every time I played; that was the part that made me even crazier. There were years when the yips seemed worse in the spring, as if I had to get my nerves in shape while I was getting my game in shape. By the middle of the summer, I'd be putting pretty well again, but I'd be going through putters the way the Yankees go through ballplayers every time they hit a slump.

Eventually, Mr. Yips would climb back into my golf bag. After that, I was willing to try anything. And everything. I met Chris DiMarco at a charity tournament and watched him sink putt after putt after putt with his claw grip.

Tried that for a while.

I went cross-handed.

I tried the thirty-one-inch putter that my son was using.

I went back to the Cleveland, always came back to the Anser 3, sometimes would use a Bulls Eye, the modern Cameron version of it, anyway, because I knew that if I got yippy in a round, I could start backhanding the short ones; somehow I never got the shakes or the jumps or the spazzes when I'd knock them in left-handed.

Never went to the long putter.

When a teaching pro suggested it, I said, "If I have to use a golf club taller than me, it's time to pack it in."

I briefly tried the belly, when it first came along, but found that even though everybody told you the club took the hands out of everything, I proved, beyond a reasonable doubt, that there wasn't a putter invented that could take the (shaky) hands out of it with me.

"You don't have the yips," buddies would say. "You're just going through what everybody goes through."

I'd say, "For four friggin' years?"


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