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Dreaded yips could be an age-old issue

Researchers at the Mayo Clinic think the condition that affects a

March 13, 2009|James Wagner

Hush, hush.

Don't say that.

At least not this week at the Valencia Country Club.

Utter the word for the mysterious affliction that golfers steer clear of like a flesh-eating plague and you'll get a couple of wide eyes.

"It's not something I want to talk about before a competition because it brings back some bad memories," Bernhard Langer said, before explaining his harrowing experiences with the condition know as the "yips."

The disorder-we-don't-speak-of involves those sudden and uncontrollable spasms that send a seemingly easy putt spurting off in surprising directions.

Some golfers have likened the yips to a last-second jolt of electricity on the putting green. Others have compared them to swinging a snake or an exploding firecracker. Or as two-time Masters champion Langer, 51, ominously put it: "It's like someone else has taken over."

They affected the careers of Ben Hogan and Sam Snead. They have caused immeasurable heartache to such successful golfers as Langer, Tom Watson and Tommy Armour.

As the Champions Tour concludes its Southern California swing with the AT&T Champions Classic beginning today at Valencia, some information suggests this may be the prime yipping demographic.

Researchers at the Mayo Clinic believe the yips are not only a mental condition but a physical ailment. Thanks to repeated fine-muscle use, older golfers may be more likely to develop the yips, said Aynsley Smith, research director of the Sports Medicine Center at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, who has supervised three studies on the subject over the last decade.

Ben Crenshaw, considered one of the game's greatest putters, has yet to feel his skills deteriorate.

"But they might. We always feel like they might," said the 57-year-old Crenshaw, who laughed at the first mention of the yips, perhaps nervously.

To shake the scourge, golfers have resorted to unorthodox grips, new mechanics and equipment. Watson, who has won eight major titles, toiled with on-and-off yips before conquering them by adjusting the pace of his putting stroke. Langer, whose most recent bout was in 1997, is using his sixth putting grip. He holds the top of his chest-high putter with his left hand as a fulcrum and places the shaft in between the fingers of his right hand. When he strikes the ball, it's almost as if he were sweeping with a broom.

For the yips of the physical variety, changing grips has proved successful.

"It's like bypassing a little bit of bad road of the highway," Smith said. "But sometimes it creeps back into their game again."

Which it did for Langer, who has survived four bouts with the yips. He estimates that most grips lasted seven years before he would lose control without reason. Luckily for him, his current grip is on its 12th year.

But even the 2008 Champions Tour Player and Rookie of the Year doesn't know how much longer it will last. "I don't know what the future holds," he said.

Suffering from the yips can add more exasperation to a sport that is notorious for quiet frustration. Talking about it is a golfing faux pas and difficult for its victims.

"Let's say, let's talk about your six divorces," Langer said, in jest. "That's not much fun, is it?"

Even Crenshaw held back and didn't utter the haunted word. He watched Snead's career melt with putting woes that Crenshaw dubbed "painful to watch."

"I played with Sam early on and he was putting side-saddle, he was putting this way," said Crenshaw, as he demonstrated how a desperate Snead putted from the side of his body. "He had confessed that he had the . . . " Crenshaw stumbled and paused. " . . . the balky putter."

No one wants to actually say the word "yips," huh?

"Yeah, I know," Crenshaw retorted.

Hush, hush.

--

james.wagner@latimes.com

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