I take three or four practice swings, sweeping my pitching wedge back and forth across the grass and picturing where I want the ball to land.
I am rehearsing a chip shot from five yards off the green, one that a low-handicap golfer will get within one-putt distance 80 percent of the time. Even a 35-handicapper will get the ball somewhere on the green nine times out of 10.
The rehearsal always goes well. But then I stand over the ball and address it.
And the strangest thing happens.
My hands suddenly seem disconnected from the rest of me, as if they are someone else’s. The ball is down there, somewhere, but I can’t focus on it. As badly as I want to repeat the smooth little swinging motion I just practiced, I cannot do it. I literally cannot do it. I think positive reinforcing messages, but they are hollow words in a rattled brain. For no logical reason, I am filled with dread.
Now, my hands are being manipulated by a cruel puppeteer. They jerk backward and then forward, a spasm instead of a swing. Sometimes the blade of my club digs into the ground inches behind the ball, which burps forward a few feet; other times, the blade meets the ball squarely on its equator, sending it screaming over the green.
Occasionally, this simple back-and-forth motion, a little chip shot, causes me to lose my balance. I have, at times, stumbled and nearly fallen over.
The diagnosis is grim. I have the chipping yips.
For decades, from the time I started playing golf until a couple years ago, I considered myself a better-than-average chipper. I never hit the ball far with my driver and was not especially good with my irons, so I had to be proficient in the short game. My handicap index got down into the high single digits, only because I was at least semi-competent at getting up and down.
Those days are long gone.
I recently returned from a three-day golf trip with 15 buddies to Wisconsin Dells. In our final round at Wild Rock, I hit nine greens in regulation. On the nine I missed, I had a quadruple-bogey, four double-bogeys and four bogeys. When I missed a green, I was Bobby Orr in soft spikes, hitting slap shots all over the place. I shot 89 and it felt like 120.
On one hole, after a skulled bunker shot rattled me, I left my ensuing 15-yard pitch shot short of the green, then topped the next shot 20 yards over it, then grabbed my putter and putted 40 feet past the cup to the back fringe, all while my playing partners leaned on their putters and stared into the distance, not knowing what to do or say.
The Mayo Clinic has studied the yips. Some researchers believe they are caused by golfers “wearing out” their motor systems for a particular skill. The debate continues about whether the yips are psychological or neurological.
Years ago, I knew a talented amateur who was afflicted and once watched him shank his ball counter-clockwise around an entire green. A trained chimpanzee could do what this guy could not, and he had won tournaments. It was one of the most baffling things I’d ever seen on a golf course.
Now, unfortunately, I am enlightened. Or endarkened, if that’s a word. You know it’s bad when you’d rather hit an 80-yard wedge shot than a 5-yard chip.
I’ve received all kinds of tips from well-meaning friends. I’ve been told to lighten my grip pressure, keep my hands ahead of the club head from start to finish, use a less-lofted club, mimic a putting stroke, think of something else, think of nothing at all. Archie Dadian, the public links legend and a man I admire and respect, told me I was standing too far from the ball. I moved closer. No bueno.
Lately, I’ve taken to using my putter from as far as 30 feet off the green. It’s not pretty, but at least I know I can get the ball somewhere on the putting surface. I have come to detest frog-hair fringes, which force me to confront my nemesis.
Is there hope? I’m somewhat encouraged by stories I’ve heard about people overcoming the chip yips. Tiger Woods had them, and he won the Masters in April. Then again, he’s Tiger Woods. On the mental toughness scale, he is titanium and I, apparently, am marshmallow.
If you’ve had the yips and gotten rid of them, I want to hear from you.
I’m willing to try anything short of voodoo, unless it involves sticking pins in my wedge. That actually might be fun.