YES, EVEN SIMPLE LITTLE SHOTS AROUND THE GREEN CAN GET UGLY. HERE'S HELP.
BY BOB CULLEN
You've heard of the putting yips. They've afflicted many great players, from Harry Vardon to Bernhard Langer. They get noticed and talked about. But you may not have heard much about their more insidious cousin, the chip yips.
That's because professionals with putting yips can usually find a fix—a new grip, say, or a long putter—that enables them to stay in the spotlight. Their malady thus remains a topic of comment and conversation. But when a player develops the chip yips, he's probably never going to be seen on television again. Though they are to the putting yips what pneumonia is to the head cold, chip yips lurk in golf's shadows, feared but rarely discussed.
They manifest themselves in several ways. There might be a skulled chip that runs like a frightened squirrel through the green and into a hazard. There might be a lob from a tight lie hit so fat that it dies like a wounded quail in the nearest bunker. Or you might see afflicted players pulling out their putters when they're ten yards off the green, trying to roll the ball over the fairway and onto the putting surface. They don't get up and down that way very often, but at least they don't suffer searing humiliation.
If you have the chip yips, you know the symptoms. There's the involuntary, spastic twitch of the right hand just before contact, producing a skull. There's the sickening feeling of the clubhead making contact with the turf—an inch behind the ball. There's the general sense of fear and loathing that accompanies each missed green. And there's the foreboding that comes with the knowledge that the chip yips can lie dormant during practice, only to erupt at the most inopportune moment of a competition.
Bill Davis has seen all the symptoms. He is the head professional at Jupiter Hills Club in Tequesta, Florida. Among the Tour pros he's tutored are Jerry Kelly and Jay Sigel. Though Davis teaches the entire game, he's perhaps best known for his mastery of the short shots.
A short-game lesson with Davis rarely stays in the practice area. He likes to put his pupil in a cart and drive to an empty hole on the course, where he will drop balls in various spots around the green and demonstrate ways to deal with real situations.
The short-game yips, Davis believes, is a syndrome that, in his words, "begins with faulty mechanics and soon corrupts the mind." (He prefers the term short-game yips because it includes both chipping and pitching.) On the mechanical front, some golfers tend to be too wristy on their chips, making for inconsistent contact. Or they pitch and lob flat-footed, without a weight shift, which leads them to come up out of their address posture and blade the ball. Maybe their lower bodies are too busy during the swing; bobbing up and down makes it harder to strike the ball consistently at the bottom of the swing.
Once he's skulled a chip or chunked a lob, a player's confidence starts to erode and the "mind corruption" begins. The erosion can accelerate if the skull or chunk costs him a hole, a match or a tournament. Bad memories fester, and the yips become a psychological as well as a mechanical problem. As their confidence wanes, players often start to focus too much on the ball and the mechanics of the shot. They forget about the target and, consequently, lose their touch, their sense of how hard to hit the ball. It's an ugly downward spiral.
Davis's prescription for these woes addresses both the mental and the mechanical. The prospects for a full recovery depend on how much a player is willing to practice. But Davis recommends these tips and drills, some of which can be used as first aid when the chip yips strike mid-round.
Make sure your on-course routine is the same as your practice routine. Davis often sees players who never yip around the practice green. When they're practicing, they just rake a ball into place, look at the target and swing. But in a competitive situation, they may take three or four times as long—adding practice strokes, dithering over club selection, reading the green and so on. The extra time doesn't help them, in Davis's opinion. It may only let their nervousness grow—providing fertile mental ground for the yips.
"If I were caddying for you, I'd tell you that I'm going to count off ten seconds, and you have to pick the club and hit the shot before I get to ten," Davis says. "That way, you're a little more instinctive, as you are when you practice."
Don't use just one club for all short shots. When Davis sees a player with short-game yips, he frequently sees a player who uses only one club, typically a sand wedge, for every shot around the green. It's a mistake. If you have a long chip to a back pin, for instance, you're going to have to swing hard to get the ball there with a sand wedge. "People can't make themselves hit that sort of shot hard enough because they're afraid they'll go too far," Davis observes. "They decelerate and quit on it." The ball doesn't get there, and the player's tempo and trust are adversely affected. Better, Davis says, to use a variety of clubs, depending on the short-game situation, and make every shot with a similar rhythm.