Yips – Bare Feet and Five-Irons

Yips Discussion Emerges Again with Interesting Solutions

I don’t believe that I’ve ever experienced the yips.  On the other hand, I am often simply a poor putter. It is a reflex for me, and for many of us, to connect the yips with that part of the game, and I have a relatively ignorant explanation for it. Golf is a funnel game. We begin at the tee with the world stretching out before us. However, by the time we have hit our fairway iron and approach shots, the goal has shrunk to a few inches. From the wide open spaces to the green, many of us become increasingly tense. What a medical or professional sports person would say about that, I don’t know, but I am sure that I hold a five-iron and a putter very differently. The five-iron is a partnership, but the putter gets the same death grip I would give a firefighter carrying me out of a burning building.

The subject of the yips was put in focus in Hawaii this week, where the Sony Open features a pro-am. And there he was, June Jones, former quarterback and head coach of several college and pro football teams. In the golf tournament, he was doing two interesting things. First, he was putting with a five-iron as a response to suffering from a case of the yips. Second, he was playing barefoot. Whether this was also a response to the yips is less clear, but he is in Hawaii, and worked there for years. My local course probably wouldn’t allow it, but I’m in the sometimes frozen north.
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So, is June Jones just a golf crackpot? He isn’t called that anywhere else. Putting wizard Marius Fillmalter says he’s not, either. In fact, Fillmalter, who is described throughout the internet as a golf instructor and research scientist who has analyzed over 65,000 putting strokes, says that Jones is on to something. The first thing I learned from Fillmalter is that the putt-killing anxiety many of us experience is not the yips. The next thing I learned from him is that in terms of performance anxiety, fine golfers have built up far too many and high expectations for making the putt, because they are supposed to make it. For many of the rest of us, we develop the same anxiety out of a yearning to make the putt, and a basic disbelief that we can or will. In my case, the death grip exerted on the putter is to desperately control accuracy by strangling the process, amidst a feeling of despair that I have missed the putt before I even make a try at it. For the pro and the rank amateur, overthinking is the culprit.

The yips, however closely related, has one further component, and that is a “damaged neural pathway,” the same one we use for a putting stroke. It cannot be repaired by practicing the same putter stroke endlessly. According to Fillmalter and others, that pathway must be at least temporarily abandoned and replaced by another. Enter the five-iron experiment. No, it wasn’t made for putting. The blade can catch, and the ball can become airborne, along with numerous other side effects. But, it knocks the brain out of its obsession with accuracy, and detours the damaged pathway by choosing another.
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And what about the bare feet? Does this question overlap science, pseudo-science and metaphysics? Which shall I choose, and should I reject it as tales from the old country? My wife, who is Austrians and alpine by birth, swears that everyone needs to dig their toes into their native soil from time to time as a restorative. I can’t refute the argument. Whenever she gets to do that, it’s as if someone installed a bright halo around her. June Jones might agree that the feeling of being grounded is essential, after we’ve run around so much in our claustrophobic and expensive sneakers for so long. Even though I don’t have the yips, my putting anxiety needs something, so when spring rolls around, I’ll give it a try, and not just the five-iron. The shoes are coming off, just to see if I can get one of those halos.

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