“The first thing we do differently when putting and chipping is to countermand the way our brain instinctively and naturally makes us move.” – David Lee
The “yips” are a malady afflicting athletes in a number of different sports, with putting woes being the most notorious. To golfers, they are a condition where the hands and wrists flinch involuntarily just before the club comes into contact with the ball on a putt, chip, pitch shot, or even a tee shot. The yips have been studied for years by coaches, physicians, and scientists, at institutions all over the world, and are generally considered by many to be a mental or nervous condition.
While the so called yips may indeed work their way into your psyche, as far as my research is concerned, they are caused by mechanical issues in the swing involving the spine. They occur because the brain senses a lack of mechanical connection between the core of the body and the hands, right before the moment of impact. When the brain detects slack between what should be the primary power source (the core) and the club-head, it will attempt, at the last instant before impact, to cover the slack spot with a tension increase in the hands and wrists. When the hands and wrists tighten, the energy flow is partially reversed into the body, and the player will generally hit the ball fat, or feel that it explodes off the clubface. It feels like getting zapped with a “cattle prod,” and is a horrific feeling when you are trying to apply a soft touch to a putt or chip.
The yips afflicts many players, amateurs and professionals alike, and has driven many great golfers from the game. Notably afflicted individuals include Tommy Armour (who is said to have coined the term), Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, and Johnny Miller, to name only a few. The inability to set the downswing into smooth motion, as we see in Charles Barkley, or difficulty in starting the backswing, as we have seen in professionals such as Hubert Green, Sergio Garcia, and Kevin Na, are forms of the yips.
Before getting deeper into what causes the yips, allow me to briefly familiarize you with my background. My study of golf began sixty-six years ago – I was four. My grandfather was a clinical pathologist from Hot Springs, Arkansas, and was also an obsessed golfer. Infected with his passion, I became a competitor throughout high school, college, and for four years on the PGA Tour in the early seventies. A wrist injury ended my days as a playing professional just as I was beginning to understand what I was doing – and starting in 1975, I began a teaching and swing research career that has become an unending passion.
One day in 1980, I had the opportunity to play golf with Gary Player at the new TPC Stadium Course in Ponte Vedra, Florida, where the Players Championship is annually held. We were walking down the fourteenth fairway and began talking about various teachers and individuals who really understood the game. Gary emphatically informed me that, in his opinion, “Ben Hogan knew more about the golf swing than any living human being.” I quickly informed him that he was full of beans (I cleaned that up). He jumped right back at me and asked, “why did you say that, maan?” My reply was – how can a man who hits a 1 iron ten feet from the hole, time after time, but can’t knock it in from three feet, be an authority on handling a golf club? He looked at me in total seriousness and said – “putting’s a different game.” For years I thought he was crazy for making such a statement, but I have since come to realize that in some respects, we make putting a different game, even though it shouldn’t be.
The first thing we do differently when putting and chipping is to countermand the way our brain instinctively and naturally makes us move. Normally, if we are standing (or sitting) and wish to move from one place to another, we begin that movement by allowing some level of collapse or relaxation in the muscles and joints that support us, so that our core can move out-of-vertical. Once this occurs, gravity helps shift the body to its new position and our limbs move automatically to support it there. We don’t consciously think about the extent to which we utilize gravity to improve our efficiency of motion, but we do it nonetheless. Golfers that move farther off-vertical before they begin the turn in the downswing, and allow their arms to start down without flexing them (like Freddie Couples), swing with far less effort than those who stand solidly on their feet and physically drive the forward rotation.
When putting, chipping, and pitching, most players abandon this natural and instinctive way of moving and attempt to keep the core motionless. This forces the power for the shot to come from the shoulders, arms, and hands. In a technically proper short shot, just as in the full swing, the power for the delivery should come from the ground up, with a turn of the core bringing the arms and club along for the ride. Pushing the stroke forward with the upper body starts the delivery from the top down. This sends some energy back into the system, creating a plane change and the necessity to compensate in some manner for the ball to follow the intended line. Athletic movements that are not core-driven may trigger negative sensations in the brain that contribute to the development of the yips. In the following paragraphs I will explain why slack in the body, specifically in the spine, is the dominant factor. I will also explain how to eliminate this damaging slack in putts and short shots.
As any physician knows, the body has a certain degree of potential slack in many of its joints. The slack enables independent movement between our parts, similar to the way couplers do for train cars. Depending on your beliefs, the slack in our joints is a marvelous element of design or evolution in vertebrates. If we’re fortunate enough to have good coordination and a sense of rhythm, it allows us to easily do the jitterbug, the jive, and the tango. However, when swinging a golf club, especially the putter, slack becomes the proverbial two-edged sword. In a properly executed full swing, the arms are high enough to provide time during the downswing for the turn of the body to remove the slack from our system, and smoothly engage and sling the club-head. In a putt, however, this is not the case. With a putt, the backswing is significantly shorter.
This means there is insufficient time for any slack between the core and the arms to be removed before the putter head reaches the ball. If the brain senses that the core cannot provide adequate power in the downswing to reach the hole (due to slack), it triggers an involuntary tightening in the hands and wrists to cover that slack. Encephalograms detect brain activity when a player yips a putt that is generally considered to be problematic. My opinion, however, is that nothing is wrong with the brain whatsoever. What I believe we are seeing in the brain – is a reaction to the sensing of a mechanical disconnect (slack) between the core of the body and the limb(s) it is trying to move.
In the development of proper putting and chipping technique, one of the most difficult areas of slack to detect is in the spine, which has great flexibility, and possesses the potential for both linear and rotary slack. When our posture at address allows the spine to be compressed like an accordion on the in-stroke, which our spine does naturally just from the weight of our head and arms, we are set up for a potential yip. To remove the slack when addressing the ball, one must pre-stretch the spine to its maximum length and slightly turn the thorax within the shoulder joints in the direction of the putt. This will eliminate the slack between the core and the arms. If this two-way spine-stretch is maintained throughout the stroke, power can easily be applied from the core, and the impulse to yip the putt will immediately go away. There is great subtlety in doing this properly, but once a player begins to feel how to maintain slack-free connection on short shots and putts, he/she will quickly gain total control over one of golf’s most dreaded “diseases.”