SAN DIEGO – When Hank Haney leaned into the microphone last week and said on his radio show that he believes Tiger Woods is battling the yips, and that the issue “isn’t going away,” he was speaking from his own experience.
Haney has battled the long-game yips since high school. The problem became so bad, he once lost every ball in his bag during a nine-hole stretch. He found a workaround, a way to manage the symptoms and stay in the game, and he went 122 rounds in a row without taking a penalty shot.
“But even during that period of time, I never felt super, super confident over the ball,” he said in a phone interview Wednesday. “I felt like it could happen again at any time.”
Haney, who worked with Woods from 2004-2010, has studied the subject extensively. He even wrote a book about the yips, in ’06.
The title was “Fix the Yips Forever,” with the tagline: “The First and Only Guide You Need to Solve the Game’s Worst Curse.”
“Unfortunately you don’t ever really do that,” he said, laughing. “But it was a better title than ‘Work Around the Yips Forever.’”
Not surprisingly, Woods’ recent short-game woes have elicited a variety of impassioned responses.
Is he lost? Confused? Or is it something deeper, darker ... the y-word?
Haney can’t say definitively that Woods has the yips, of course, because he hasn’t tested him.
Woods has insisted that his problems are merely technical – in his news conference Wednesday, he used the word “pattern” nine times. Outspoken ESPN analyst Paul Azinger doesn't believe it’s the yips, either. He said last weekend that Woods’ chipping and pitching problems could be fixed in “literally minutes.”
If that’s truly the case, if Woods’ problems could be fixed in not months or weeks or hours but mere minutes, then Azinger should do the golf world a favor and share the secret. Because Woods is still searching for answers. Because, in reality, the yips are a complex, complicated problem that have befuddled medical experts for decades.
Most troubling is that there is no known cure for the yips, according to Dr. Gio Valiante, a sports psychologist and Rollins College professor.
What Valiante does know is that the issue is three-pronged: Yes, the yips are a psychological problem, but they’re deeper than that. There are neurological and mechanical elements, as well.
It’s psychological, because nervousness and performance anxiety can exacerbate the problem.
It’s neurological, because, Valiante said, “the cortical maps in the sensory motor cortex are misfiring at a fundamental level.” In other words, when the neurons in the brain are compromised, they stop telling the other muscle groups to be quiet – thus, the involuntary motions.
And it’s mechanical, because there are certain techniques that can provide relief, albeit temporary.
“People usually go with the theory that there’s only some kind of physical problem, that technically there is something wrong with the motion,” Haney said. “Then they see bad results, and then it becomes a psychological issue, too.
“Except the problem with that is that when you fix the physical and you get better technique, and you work on the mental aspect, you’re still left with the yips. It’s always there.”
Valiante says the yips develop after years and years of overuse, and there have even been some studies that suggest that genetics plays a role. But it’s important to remember that the yips are not strictly a golf malady.
Musicians suffer from the yips. So do writers.
People who stutter can sing or whisper. The issue only arises when they try to talk normally.
Infielders Chuck Knoblauch and Steve Sax couldn’t throw to first base.
Pitchers Rick Ankiel and Mark Wohlers terrified batters with each wild pitch to the backstop.
Shaquille O’Neal could knock down free throws in practice, yet brick nearly every attempt in the game.
Ian Baker-Finch had the yips. David Duval had the yips. David Gossett had the yips. The list goes on and on.
Players have tried just about everything in a last-ditch effort to prolong their careers.
While putting, simply orientating your hand in a different position relative to the hole can smooth out the stroke. That’s why more players have turned to the claw, saw and pencil grips. Kevin Stadler has even gone to putting left-handed.
Duval was a former world No. 1, but his problems began when his club went across the line at the top of his swing. During his prime he always cut the ball, but he soon developed a two-way miss and began hooking the ball. Cue the decline.
Most experts agree, however, that the chipping yips are the most serious form.
With the driving yips, players can still scramble from the rough. With the putting yips, players are usually left with only a tap-in. But with the chipping yips, players are faced with essentially the exact same shot after a chunked wedge or a bladed chip.
Even worse, there isn’t really an alternative way to work around it. Players have tried split and cross-handed grips, but those haven’t proven effective over time. There is a player on the European Tour this year, Jason Palmer, who now chips one-handed.
“That may give you some relief,” Haney said, “but there’s no cure for this.”
For the past few months, Woods has talked repeatedly about release points and swing patterns and the bottom of his swing.
At Isleworth, he flubbed numerous shots around the green. It was alarming, but not totally unexpected: It was Woods’ first tournament in four months, he was in the early stages of his work with new swing consultant Chris Como, and he was one of several players who struggled to pinch pitch shots off the tight, into-the-grain Bermuda grass.
Last week in Phoenix, though, the issue seemed even more widespread. There was a shanked shot out of the bunker, multiple chunked pitches and bladed chips.
Indeed, it was a stunning development: One of the game’s greatest short-game magicians seemed gripped by fear and indecision, even while faced with straightforward shots.
“It’s a hard game, it’s a hard problem, and you kind of have to play around it,” Haney said. “He’s got to figure out something that’s quite a bit different than what he’s doing to give him some better shots and relief, and it’s a slow process to build up your confidence.
“Will he ever be as confident off of those (tight) lies at Isleworth as he once was? No. He never will be. It’s in your mind now, and that’ll never get out of there, no matter how many good shots you hit.”
No player in the sport’s history has had every shot scrutinized like Woods. Even on the range Wednesday there were at least a dozen people with cellphones and cameras, just waiting for his next miscue.
The pressure to perform must be suffocating, so it’s little surprise that Woods has deflected attention away from the mental aspect and said that this is simply a technical issue – that the release pattern under Sean Foley is markedly different than the one he is working on now.
Such an explanation helps shield his confidence, and it also buys him a little more time to turn around his game.
“I just need reps,” he said Wednesday at Torrey Pines. “I just need to keep doing it and doing it and doing it, and eventually it will start becoming more natural.”
Except that if Woods has the yips, that won’t be the case at all.
“You can’t will your way out of them,” Valiante says. “Really, you can relax your way out of them and lower the probability that they will pop up. The more intensely you try, the deeper the problem becomes.
“You just can’t hard-head your way through the yips. You’re using your own will against you. The harder you try, the worse you’re getting.”
Woods’ road to Augusta continues Thursday, and after last week’s debacle his short game will draw even more attention. If nothing else, it is abundantly clear that this issue can’t simply be fixed in minutes.