Roy Exum: 'The Yips' Are Very Real

Monday, May 14, 2012 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum
As I watched The Players golf tournament Saturday and Sunday, my insides were absolutely churning for Kevin Na, who agonized over almost every shot before he hit it. Kevin, who led the tournament after the first three rounds, is a neat guy whose family moved to the United States from Seoul, South Korea, when he was six after his grandfather was once a Justice on Korea's Supreme Court.
None of that really matters but is background music for the harsh reality that Kevin, age 29, has "the yips." Some people say there is no such thing but I can remember when Mayo Clinic doctors proved that a medical condition called "focal dystonia" is very real indeed. Apparently some people, golfers in particular, can lose their fine motor skills when they combine intense concentration, extreme demands on their coordination, and exacting muscle motion all at the same time.

What happens is that suddenly the golfer "can't pull the trigger." He actually freezes over the ball while putting and, for the life of himself, he can hardly pull the putter back, much less strike the ball. To watch is almost as cruel as the condition. It is like watching someone stutter as their brain holds them prisoner. And get this: Mayo researchers found that 33 to 48 percent of all serious golfers must work through the yips at some point in their life.

Ben Hogan had 'em badly at one point and so did Sam Snead. Tommy Armour is who came up with the nickname "the yips" but it has also been known as the rattles, the shakes, the jitters and the jerks. Basketball players can get the yips at the foul line, Pittsburg Pirates pitcher Steve Blass was once sent down to the minors to cure himself and, as Mayo Clinic learned, the yips can even affect fighter pilots, who "lock" on a target but can't pull the trigger.

Na's case was brought into screaming focus Saturday afternoon when he took the lead going into Sunday. But then he was heckled by the gallery and put "on the clock" by the PGA for slow play.  He understandably fell apart, bogeying five holes in a hurry after one errant shot went in the water. And he missed his time-allotment on one hole. 

The way the slow-play clock works is one miss is a warning, two is a one-stroke penalty and $2,000 fine, three misses will get you two penalty strokes and a $10,000 fine, and four misses during a round will get you disqualified. Na promises he's working on it, apologizing profusely and refusing to use his yips as any excuse.

But the Ponte Vedra gallery still ate him alive. As he waggled his club, he could hear yells of "Just hit it!" and "Don't choke!" After a bogey on one hole, one guy actually walked up and told Na and his caddie, "I have $2,000 bet on you," which cruelly led to even greater pressure.

By the 9th hole there were spectators singing, "Nah, nah, nah, nah. Nah, nah, nah, nah. Hey, hey, hey, goodbye." Matt Kuchar, who won the tournament, tried to lift Na out of the doldrums during the final round but Na's closing 76 took him from first to seventh on the final day. Na got a check for $296,083 while the popular Kuchar, who played for Georgia Tech is college, pocketed $1.71 million.

"It is what it is,” Na said after the tournament ended. “I do need to work on what I need to. I do need to work on my pre-shot routine. I do need to play faster. But the average golfer has no clue how much pressure we’re playing under and how tough it is and how much of a fight it is mentally. I honestly think with all that going on, I did pretty well fighting. I had a good fight. I hung in there, so you know what, I just take the positives from it.”

Na, who has been on the tour for ten years, will keeping fighting the yips. "As ugly as it is and as painful as it is, believe me I'm fighting it. I'm not being nice to myself. I am ripping me worse than anybody else."

Therapists have some skills in treating the yips but it is far from an exact science. That's because nobody is certain what exactly causes the condition to happen in some and not in others. But after Kevin Na's appearance this weekend, we all know the yips are a terrible thing indeed.


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