Hope in the Darkest of Times

One man’s winning battle against the yips
American golfer Lee Trevino shows his displeasure after missing his putt with a wood, circa 1980. (Photo by Leonard Kamsler/Popperfoto via Getty Images)
Lee Trevino, pictured deep in the “putting grief” stage.
Photo by Leonard Kamsler/Popperfoto via Getty Images

The most difficult thing is admitting when there’s a problem. So many of us have tried to fake our way around it; it’s attention we absolutely wish to avoid at all costs. So we rake the shorties, stab at them backhanded or laugh off the poor effort. It’s a coping mechanism, a mask to hide the absolute shame and frustration. If we can just fake our way through today, maybe tomorrow will be different.

They say dogs and babies can sense apprehension and nervousness in people—an innate perception of the essence of the soul. I’d like to submit a third member to this group: golf partners. They read your body language, see the anguish on your face, judge the tentativeness of your putting motion. It’s only you who thinks your shameful secret is hidden. They know you have the yips. 

And the sick reality is, your yips on short putts only guarantee you’ll face many more through the course of a round. That’s when the anxiety gives way to frustration and anger. You begin to resent the game and these supposed friends wringing pleasure from your pain. 

Sometimes, when I’m of a certain mood, I wonder if my curiosity helped bring about the condition. You can spend only a certain amount of time handling those radioactive thoughts before the risk becomes too great. Ask Marie Curie. It’s such a fascinatingly weird thing to not have the mental and physical symmetry to make a short putt! I can state with absolute certainty, however, that the putting yips are much more interesting in a theoretical sense than a practical one. But there is good news: Friends, I have walked through the valley of the shadow of golfing death, and there is hope. This is what I’ve learned:

Sunlight is the best disinfectant. The quicker you can move through the stages of putting grief, the better. Accept your reality and own it. It’s freeing to say out loud. Say it! You have the yips!

The mental miss is, alas, not worth the effort. A couple of years ago, I was in the depths of my yips, and as a coping mechanism I started visualizing myself missing every short putt I encountered. I thought that if I could get the pain and disappointment out of the way as quickly as possible, I could carry on that much sooner. But trust me: It’s a Band-Aid, not a solution.

Make a drastic change and stick with it. I was a sucker for Hank Haney’s old radio show because he dealt with cases of the yips regularly. His main prescription was reorienting your yippy hand. For me, that was making a claw grip with my right hand. It worked: I felt a rewiring inside the brain and body. 

Celebrate. The biggest mental change I made was to begin verbally and intrinsically celebrating the opportunity to hit short putts. I would even announce to my playing partners that a 4-foot putt was a celebration of life. It was a bit of a joke…until it wasn’t. I reoriented my mindset, too. 

So where am I today? I still miss plenty of short putts, but I can honestly say it’s due to my shabby skill level rather than my nervous system hijacking the putting motion. My golf life is renewed. I look forward to playing. I love to hit the hole now, to hear the sound of the ball settling into the bottom of the cup. When you’ve seen the things I’ve seen, there’s no sweeter sound in all the world. 

Phil Landes also goes by the nom de plume Big Randy with No Laying Up. He’s a seeker in life and golf, though admittedly of what he’s not always quite sure.