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Science Looks at Taming the Yips

ROCHESTER, Minn. (AP) -- Bob Jensen's nickname is 'No Way' -- appropriate for a thin man who can drive a golf ball more than 350 yards.
But it also fits Jensen when he stands over a 1-foot putt under pressure.
Jensen suffers from what golfers call the yips, a tendency to flinch, jerk and twitch during a stroke that turns those routine tap-ins into torture. An otherwise talented golfer with the yips can send a ball several feet off the mark on even the simplest putts -- and pile strokes onto his or her scorecard.
On Monday, Jensen was one of 16 golfers taking part in a 'tournament' as part of a Mayo Clinic study of the phenomenon. Researchers hope to determine whether yips are psychological or neurological, and are testing the effects of drugs called beta blockers on golfers with the yips.
Researchers speculate that the yips can be either psychological or neurological, and that beta blockers -- which slow the heart rate -- won't help when the yips have neurological roots.
Jay Smith, the study's medical director, said many golfers are afraid to admit they have the yips. Some are so superstitious they won't golf in the same party as a yipper. Others believe they can get the yips just by talking about it.
The yips typically affect older golfers with least 10 or 20 years of experience. But Jensen first caught them in a practice round for his high school golf squad at age 17.
'I couldn't even make a 1-foot putt,' said Jensen, a computer consultant from Louisville, Ky. 'I three-putted every single hole after that.'
His putting game became a source of embarrassment on the links -- and fodder for his needling golf partners. The yips bothered Jensen so much he quit playing for 25 years until he picked up his clubs again about a year ago.
Like many yippers, Jensen has tried with some success to alter his game. Researchers believe the yips are sometimes caused by the golfer 'wearing out' their motor system for a particular activity. If that's the case, small tinkering can put them almost back to where they were to start.
Other potential remedies include using a long putter, putting from the opposite side, or using a cross-handed grip so the tics in one's dominant hand have less control over the shot.
During Mayo's two-day 'tournament' this week, the golfers were fitted with electrodes to monitor and record heart rate and given special putters that measured their grip strength. Two video cameras recorded each golfer's swing. Two 'rounds' were played on a nine-hole putting green; nine golfers who don't suffer from the yips played to serve as a control group.
Beta blockers and placebos were to be given alternately to the experimental and control groups during the two days of play. To increase the pressure, researchers said the winner would get $400, and reminded the players that their performances would be watched closely during the data analysis part of the research.
'This is the first time I've gone to a tournament where they expect you to do bad,' Jensen joked.
Most of the golfers, who came from as far away as Scotland and as nearby as the Twin Cities, said they found out about the research project on the Internet. All paid their own hotel fare and travel expenses.
The yips aren't confined to golfers. They can also affect other athletes, musicians, artists and physicians. And researchers say understanding the yips could help in treating disorders like facial tics, writer's cramp and repetitive stress injuries.
Many of the golfers at this week's tournament said they were participating for just that reason.
'I want to help out in finding a cure. It's a lot more important for a surgeon or dentist than it is to find a cure for me,' Jensen said.

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