Scientists, Psychologists, and the Mayo Clinic Take on the Yips

SAM report

I had an article in the May 26 New Yorker about the yips. The term  was coined around the middle of the last century by the Scottish golfer Tommy Armour, a sufferer, who defined it as “a brain spasm that impairs the short game.” (Stephen Potter, in his book Golfmanship, published in 1968, quoted Armour and added, “‘Impairs’ is a euphemism.”) Yipping typically involves an involuntary twitch of a golfer’s hands, wrists, or forearms. The late British golf writer and television commentator Henry Longhurst once said that he didn’t have the yips but was a “carrier.”

Henry Longhurst, cocktail in hand.

Henry Longhurst. In the olden days, some forms of the yips were called “whiskey fingers.”

During the BBC’s broadcast of the final round of the 1970 British Open, at St. Andrews, he agonized vicariously when Doug Sanders left himself a three-foot putt on the final hole to win the tournament. “Oh, Lord,” Longhurst said on the air. “Well, that’s not one that I would like to have.” Sanders hesitated over his ball for what seemed like minutes; noticed something on the ground and bent to remove it (“Oh, Lord,” Longhurst said again); froze once more; and shoved the ball to the right of the hole. “Missed it!” Longhurst said as the ball went past. “Yes, a certainty. That’s the side you’re bound to miss it.” In the video below, skip to 21:23 to hear Longhurst’s full commentary and watch the gruesome outcome:

Among the people I interviewed but didn’t quote is Dick Hyland, who is the head professional at the Country Club at DC Ranch, in North Scottsdale, Arizona, and a longtime yips sufferer. Before I went to see him, he wrote down some of his thoughts about his own experience with the yips on a yellow legal pad, and gave me the sheet (clicking on the image below will enlarge it to a more legible size):


Another person I talked to is Debbie Crews, a sports psychologist and a consultant to the women’s golf team at Arizona State. She has participated in three studies of the yips sponsored by the Mayo Clinic, and she’s about to participate in a fourth. Even for golfers who don’t have the yips, Crews is a good person to know. Here’s one thing I learned from her: most of us would putt better if we had someone tend the flag even on medium-length putts, because our brains are better at judging the distance to targets that protrude above the ground.


Playing Golf Indoors at Maggie McFly’s

Carl Matz wagon 1891.BMP

The blizzard that was supposed to pummel New England this weekend was a bust, at least as far as my town is concerned. We had a soft drizzle on Sunday morning, but that was as close as we came to getting buried under two feet of snow. The storm was still in the forecast when my friends and I made our weekend plans, though, so I ended up spending the day paying bills, doing the crossword, and obsessively touching up some old photographs that I borrowed from my mother last week, in Kansas City. The guy in the photograph above is my grandfather, in 1891, at the age of three. He never played golf, but he did join a country club, eventually. That’s the only connection I can think of. I like the picture, though.

This doesn't look like a golf course, but it is one. I don't know who that car belongs to. Some guy with head covers on his irons, probably.

This doesn’t look like a golf course, but it is one. I don’t know who that fancy car belongs to. Some guy with head covers on his irons, probably.

Two weeks ago, Hacker (real name) reserved one of the three simulators at Maggie McFly’s, a restaurant and bar not far from where we live. We first played there three winters ago, when snow covered the ground for months and we couldn’t find anyplace to play on grass. Since then, the simulators have become so popular that the only tee time we could get was for Wednesday afternoon.


Simulator technology has improved tremendously since the first time I played indoors, in the early 1990s. As always, you hit shots toward a picture on a screen, and a computer takes over once the ball is in the air. What has changed is the sophistication of the imagery and the accuracy with which the sensors pick up your ball’s velocity, trajectory, and spin. The machine we played was manufactured by a company called aboutGolf and is endorsed by the PGA Tour. It’s what you see on the Golf Channel.

That's Rick.

That’s Rick, getting ready to hit a lob over a bunker. It’s a shot he’s good at because–unfairly, some would say–he practices.

In the past, we’ve played Pebble Beach, Spyglass Hill, and the Old Course at St. Andrews, among other courses you may have heard of. This time we played the TPC at Sawgrass. Here’s what the famous 17th hole looks like when you’re standing on the fringe at the back of the green, looking toward the tee. I had a birdie putt, which I just missed:


Simulator putting takes some getting used to: to read the breaks, you have to analyze the movements of dozens of virtual marbles rolling around on a projected grid that looks like a college-textbook illustration of the curvature of space-time. Once you get used to it, though, you begin to wish your home course had virtual marbles, too. Here’s Hacker—who was my partner—reading one of the many critical putts he drained:


The simulators at Maggie McFly’s are great, because they’re in wood-paneled rooms that look like something you’d find in a fancy clubhouse. A waiter brought us beers and cheeseburgers, and there were four guys in the room next to ours who looked almost exactly like us, and if we had been able to figure out how to turn on the TV we would have been able to watch the football game. And about an hour into our round a woman with a cane walked in and sat down on our couch: our first gallery ever!

IMG_0178Her name is Linda, and she’s seventy-two years old. She said there was going to be karaoke at Maggie McFly’s that night, a favorite of hers, but that she would probably go home for a nap at some point, rather than hanging around for eight hours. Her husband, who died fifteen years ago, was an engineer. He worked on the Manhattan Project (though not on the bomb part) and on the Suez Canal, and he was a champion skeet shooter.


She said she had played a little golf when she was younger but hadn’t swung a club since sometime in the nineteen-seventies. She was very interested in how the simulator worked, and when we tried to explain it we sounded the way I did when my son, at the age of three or four, asked me what makes the car go. At one point, the manager came in to tell her to beat it, but we had already bought her a drink so we told him to beat it. I happened to mention that the following day was going to be my birthday, and when we weren’t paying attention she ordered dessert for all four of us. I got to pick the one I wanted, and then a waitress put a candle in it and lit it.

IMG_0199Linda wanted to try the simulator, so as soon as Hacker and I had wiped out Rick and Gary we gave her Hacker’s three-wood and let her rip a few. She went right under the first one, but after that she nailed it, repeatedly:


The only problem with simulator golf is that it’s the opposite of exercise, because between shots you don’t walk anywhere, or even climb in and out of a cart; you just plop down on the couch and steal a few more of Gary’s french fries.


My brother, John, used to play in a winter simulator league at a health club in Brooklyn. He said that it was embarrassing to stand around drinking beer and eating Doritos while beautiful women in butt-floss leotards trotted back and forth between the racquetball courts and the Nautilus machines. He suggested that the club install a treadmill next to the golf simulators, so that you could pick up your bag and pretend to walk to your ball while you waited for your turn to hit. That way, at least, you’d break a sweat.

This may be a direct reference to an early customer--a cop!--who took a whiz in a potted plant and was banished for life.

This may be a direct reference to an early customer–a cop!–who took a whiz in a potted plant and was banished for life.

Masters Countdown: Seventh Hole


A not especially intelligible drawing of Augusta National's seventh green, from the program for the first Masters, in 1934, when the seventh had no bunkers.

The seventh wasn’t much of a hole in the early days. (The consensus, as described by Clifford Roberts, the club’s co-founder and chairman, was that it was “the only weak hole out of the eighteen.”) Alister MacKenzie, who designed the course, likened it to the eighteenth at St. Andrews, but the resemblance was superficial. Both holes were short, and both had large greens and no bunkers, but in comparison with the venerable and surprisingly difficult closing hole of the Old Course, the seventh at Augusta was a pushover. Many players today would have been able to drive it.

In a letter to MacKenzie in 1933, Roberts wrote, “I think the real criticism . . . is that it lacks character. Ed Dudley [the club’s first professional] made a suggestion which appealed very much to me. He proposed putting a bunker in the middle of the face of the green and letting it wedge into the green. In other words, his thought is to partly develop this green into two sections, the same as is true of one of the greens at Lakeside, California. Bob [Bobby Jones] did not have very much to say about this proposal, but I do not think he was much impressed by it. I think, in truth, that Bob is really hesitant about making any alterations or incidental refinements till you can come here and see the layout.”

Perry Maxwell

Nothing significant happened until 1938, when Horton Smith—who had won the first and third tournaments—suggested elevating the green and fronting it with several deep bunkers. He also suggested moving the green twenty yards back and to the right. Jones and Roberts both approved. The design work was done by Perry
Maxwell, an Oklahoma banker-turned-architect, whose best-known course is probably Tulsa’s Southern Hills. Maxwell had been a partner of MacKenzie’s during the final years of MacKenzie’s life. (Their last joint project, completed in 1933, was Crystal Downs, in Frankfort, Michigan.) The transformation of the seventh green, which cost $2,500, was paid for by Lewis B. Maytag, who was one of the club’s earliest members and was the head of the Maytag Company. In addition, the driving area was tightened through the addition of a grove of pine trees on the left side of the fairway. (There were already trees on the right.)

Maxwell made several less dramatic changes in other greens—among them the first and the fourteenth, to which he added pronounced undulations. Such undulations were his trademark and were known as “Maxwell rolls.” MacKenzie was no longer alive at that time, but he undoubtedly would have approved: he loved dramatic contours. In The Spirit of St. Andrews, he wrote wistfully about the early greens at Machrihanish, a legendary links course, designed by Old Tom Morris, on the Kintyre peninsula in western Scotland: “Some of the natural greens were so undulating that at times one had to putt twenty or thirty yards round to lay dead at a hole only five yards away. These greens have all gone and today one loses all the joy of outwitting an opponent by making spectacular putts of this description.” For the disappearance of such features, MacKenzie blamed a preoccupation with the elimination of “unfairness”—a word that he scornfully placed in quotation marks.

Today, the seventh is 450 yards long—110 yards longer than it was for the first Masters—and the landing area is narrow. Just fifteen years ago, the seventh was considered a birdie hole, even by members. Now it’s a tough par for any player whose tee shot ends up in the pine straw.

Coolest Place to Stay in St. Andrews

A terrific guide to golf in Scotland is Golf in Scotland, by Allan McAllister Ferguson, a personal travel planner. The fourth edition has just been published. If you’re going to Scotland, or if you dream of going to Scotland, you need a copy. You should also get sign up for Ferguson’s newsletter.

I took a golf trip to Scotland in 2008 with eight friends from home. Our best lodgings were in St. Andrews, where we spent two nights in a nineteenth-century house on North Street, a short walk from the Old Course. The house, which was designed by the same man who designed the main part of the R. & A. clubhouse, was recommended to me by Ferguson. It had five double bedrooms, and it came stocked with orange juice and candy bars, and there was a gas grill and a lighted artificial putting green in the backyard. And it set us back just $70 per man per night. If we’d known how cool it was going to be, we might have thrown out our itinerary and stayed there the whole time. Here’s a photo of the backyard:

This is how you're supposed to spend the evening after you've played 36 holes on the Old Course.

Unfortunately, the house doesn’t seem to be available at the moment. Ferguson told me he thinks it may be closed for good, but the house’s website is tantalizing. (It also has more pictures.) You might also try sending a begging email to the owner, Stuart Lloyd, who is an English urologist and an R & A member. (The address is on the website.)

Lloyd loves golf more than you do. He and his wife, who is also a doctor, live in Leeds, five hours away, but they spend a lot of time in St. Andrews. They also own a second house there, and in the backyard of that one Stuart built a three-quarter-scale replica of the Road Hole bunker:

If you can’t talk Lloyd into putting you up in St. Andrews, Ferguson has other suggestions—some of which he saves for his newsletter.