Don't go to Oakmont for the U.S. Open with a case of the yips

June 13, 2016, 7:27 AM

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The fear and loathing that consumes those attempting the seemingly simple task of striking a ball with a putter is very real. For golfers everywhere, whether it be amateurs trying to enjoy the game, to pros the likes of Ernie Els, it can be terrifying.

Els' struggles played out on the greens of Augusta National during the first two rounds of the Masters in April. And with the U.S. Open looming at treacherous Oakmont -- notorious for its fast, pitched greens -- there is no resting easy for those who have issues with the short stick.

"I've heard the tales of Sam Snead and Ben Hogan and all these guys, and I had the same feeling; it's a terrible feeling,'' said Els, referencing the malady that is known as the yips. "It obviously got away, mostly because I tried something new in practice that week. And then I got on the first green and it was like, 'Oh, my God.'

Afterward, Els said he simply couldn't take the putter back standing over a 3-footer. "You have snakes and stuff going up in your brain,'' he said.

Els knows he is not alone -- whatever solace that may bring him. Numerous studies have been done pertaining to the yips in golf and similar issues in other sports. Is it neurological? Psychological? Physical? Is age a factor? Pressure?

It could be all of the above.

Former Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Steve Blass had a "disease'' named after him when he suddenly lost his control after the 1972 baseball season. It basically applies to anyone who can no longer throw the ball properly. Los Angeles Dodgers second baseman Steve Sax suffered a similar fate, having difficulty making routine throws from second to first. Same for the New York Yankees' Chuck Knoblauch -- who had no such problems throwing the ball from the outfield.

Mark O'Meara, an excellent putter in his career who won two major championships, had a form of the yips that eventually saw him move to "the saw'' putting grip. "If you had told me to go around the corner and stand on my head for five minutes and then come over and putt, I would have tried it,'' O'Meara said. "I was very desperate.''

Just last week, Graham DeLaet withdrew from the Memorial Tournament because he had "incredible anxiety with chipping/putting'' and felt he needed to get it sorted out quickly.

The term "yips'' is generally credited to Tommy Armour, the Silver Scot -- who coincidentally won the first U.S. Open played at Oakmont in 1927. Armour would win three major championships despite the malady he described "as a brain spasm that impairs the short game.''

Perhaps the best case of a golfer who endured and overcame the yips has been Bernhard Langer, who said he has dealt with the malady on four occasions, including soon after turning pro. Along the way, he has changed the way he putts to combat the problem, from a conventional putting grip to conventional on long putts and left-hand low on short putts; to holding the putter along his left forearm with his right thumb clutching the left forearm; to finally the broom putter and an anchored stroke -- which he had to change this year when the rules changed banning an anchored stroke.

"It started the very first time I got on tour,'' said Langer, 57, who is from Germany and began his career on the European Tour. "I was 18, driving to Portugal and Spain, and when I got there the greens were lightning fast, and I wasn't used to that. I grew up on pretty slow greens in Germany and developed the yips right there and then, the first two or three weeks on tour.

"I had no idea if I was ever going to make it, because if you have continuous putting problems, you will not. If it goes on for months and months, you can lose your exempt status or your confidence and that's it; might as well find another job basically.

"I've had it four times in my career and been able to overcome it, but every time you have it, you wonder will this ever go away and when and how? You know how it is when you're in a dark valley, we can't always see the light at the end of the tunnel and you want to get out of there as soon as possible.''

Langer overcame his issues seemingly through sheer will. Experimenting with different putting methods and getting them ingrained became his mission. At various time, he led the European Tour or was well up on the list in the putting statistics. And, of course, he won the Masters twice, employing different styles each time.

Others seek out psychological help and getting to the root of the issue is never an easy task, said Dr. Morris Pickens, who works with several golfers, including reigning Open champion Zach Johnson.

"I do think there can be a physical component to the yips when you get older,'' Pickens said. "There are definitely people who lose some of the fine motor control as they get older. But assuming that part is fine, then I would consider it a true case of the yips, where basically your mind or your thinking is causing you to perform adversely compared to how you normally can perform under pressure. That is how it manifests.''

Pickens said in that situation he typically wants the player to have a very specific mental routine. "I tell guys to treat every putt like a math problem: "This is 4 feet uphill right to left. It's not 4 feet to save par or to make the cut.' That's where you get into trouble. Articulate to yourself what you're facing and take the emotion out of it.

"Then once over the ball, I would want him to have a specific mental routine. Set the putter behind the ball, feet behind the ball, look at the hole, back at the ball, through stroke. Some guys might count or say 'smooth, smooth' through the stroke. Those are process thoughts, tempo thoughts. You're not focused on the result, you are focused on something you are trying to do to achieve the result. What you are trying to do is take the stroke and let the ball get in the way.''

Stan Utley, a former PGA Tour player, sometimes Champions Tour player and now a putting and short-game instructor, believes the issues are rooted in technique.

"I think it's a combination of mental and physical,'' said Utley, who has worked with the likes of Sergio Garcia, Jay Haas, Kevin Streelman and Scott Piercy, among others. "And I usually think the physical comes first. They've done something to make their stroke different.

"It is hard to overcome the mental side. But particularly good players are used to playing with swing thoughts and applying those. If a good player finds a swing that is effective, sometimes that eases the mind. I think it helps when you start to see that your better technique can help produce a better result.''

Whether or not Els has the yips is a matter of interpretation. The very next week at Hilton Head, Els was among the leaders in strokes gained putting. But he has had a couple of high-profile instances of flinching over short putts, including a tournament late last year in Scotland and at the Masters.

"I would say he had them that day,'' Utley said of Els and the first round at Augusta. "It's a function of fear.''

"I've never spoken to him, I don't work with him,'' Pickens said of Els. "But if I had to give an opinion, he probably did what he wanted to do on the first [putt]. After that is where it really started. He got flustered. He didn't slow down. He went too fast. His mind could not get away from the thoughts of 'How do I get this ball in the hole' and the result and not wanting to embarrass himself.''

To his credit, Els handled the situation remarkably well and was lauded for addressing it head on and not withdrawing from the Masters. He spoke about it afterward and has done so several times since.

During a recent interview, Els took the light-hearted approach. "I don't have the yips,'' he said. "That's a different deal. That's like neurological. Mine is a lack of confidence. I need to see the ball going in the hole. I've read up on all this s--- and I don't think I have it. No way. It's emotion. Anxiety.''

A former No. 1 player in the world, Els has won four major championships -- the most recent in 2012 at The Open -- 19 PGA Tour events and more than 60 worldwide victories.

Els clearly has made his share of putts over the years, so to think of his struggles in this manner is all the more perplexing.

"I've had episodes,'' Els admitted. "And Augusta was really bad. But I've gotten more in control of it. I've been really practicing and really trying to get into a routine where I'm on the 72nd hole or the first hole or the 15th hole, it's the same feeling. I'm trying to work toward that. I'm getting better.

"Obviously what happened at Augusta, that'll never leave you. My story will be told about the first hole forever. You don't want to ever be part of a story like that, but that's how it is. Everyone has done it out here. You don't see it often like the first at Augusta, but you have to deal with it.''

All that said, Els is looking forward to the challenge of Oakmont. He won his first major, his first professional event in the United States, at the venerable course as a 24-year-old in 1994.

And he loves the greens, their diabolical nature be damned.