In a fifth-season episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” Larry David’s elderly father is hospitalized with a mild stroke. The head of surgery turns out to be a huge “Seinfeld” fan who not only wants to do the surgery himself, but also go golfing with Larry. While on the links, Larry sees the unsteady hands of his father’s would-be surgeon butchering a putt. A terrified Larry whisper-yells, “He’s got the yips!” It’s the worst possible fate for a doctor or a golfer; nobody wants that affliction.
The yips—usually understood in golf as a nervous state manifested in a specific swing flaw resulting in mishitting putts or chunking chips—are likely as old as golf and perhaps any task that requires steady hands. But the term has been found in sports articles only since the early 1950s. Some credit Sam Snead for coining the phrase, while many sources point to Tommy Armour, who described the yips as a “brain spasm which impairs the short game,” according to The Historical Dictionary of Golfing Terms: From 1500 to the Present.
There’s also a likely relationship to “yip” as a word for a high-pitched sound. As far back as the 1400s, “yip” was a synonym for a bird’s “cheep,” and yipping became associated with dogs (especially little ones) in the 20th century. That sharp, sudden sound pairs well with the jerkiness of the yips—though a golfer’s accompanying exclamation is likely to be deeper and more obscene.
People discuss (and fear) the yips in every sport that requires a sure hand, which is to say most of them. Pitchers, first basemen, billiard players, marksmen and even kickers all have been afflicted. The term has expanded to include other professionals, such as musicians and surgeons, just like in “Curb.” However, yip-centric plots on shows like “Curb,” “The Flash,” “Human Target,” “Nip/Tuck” and “Psych” reflect the looseness of the term, which is often used with minimal understanding of the actual condition. Though the yips are associated with choking under pressure, they’re actually a focal dystonia, a neurological condition affecting a specific muscle or muscles.
Pressure and anxiety exacerbate the yips, but the cause is neurological rather than psychological. As yips sufferer and former Tiger Woods coach Hank Haney wrote in Golf Digest, “The top scientists I’ve consulted say the message between your brain and your muscles gets scrambled, and the muscles start running the wrong program, like when the needle on a turntable goes over a scratch on a record.” It seems Armour, whether he first turned the phrase or not, was on the right track by blaming the yips on the brain.
There is hope. Yippers can improve by breaking a physical pattern: By using a different putting stance or swing routine, the wrong program doesn’t have a chance to upload. Unfortunately for everyone from me to you to Larry’s dad’s surgeon, given the mysteries of the brain and the endless opportunities in golf (and life) for tiny glitches, don’t expect a catch-all cure anytime soon.
Mark Peters is a columnist for McSweeney’s, and a professional etymologist and comedian. His most recent book is titled, Bullshit: A Lexicon.