How I cured my driver yips: for 20 years, I taught thousands of people how to hit the hardest club in the bag. What they didn’t know is that my own problems with the driver nearly drove me from the game
THE SUMMER OF 2002 was supposed to be an exciting time for me. Business had never been better at my teaching ranch outside Dallas, and a course I built–Texarkana Golf Ranch–was opening soon. The course looked so good. You’d think that I couldn’t wait to play it.
I couldn’t wait, but I had to face something that had wrecked my game for the last 20 years.
I could watch you hit 10 shots and fix your slice. Some of the best players in the world trusted me to help played, I had no idea where my next tee shot was going.
I had the driver yips.
One morning, I went out alone with a carry bag and one of those 18packs of cheap balls. I lost every one by the time I made the turn. The next day, I tried it again, this time with a friend. On the first tee, I swung my driver and caught it dead flush–and hit it 100 yards right of where I was aiming. My friend yelled “Come back!” as soon as I hit it. Before it even landed, I said, “Bud, there’s no use cheering for those. They aren’t coming back.”
Chances are, someone you play with has the putting yips. A mini industry–long putters, belly putters, training aids–has sprung up around the affliction, and tour players have long talked about getting and overcoming them. Bernhard Langer did it four times. And you’ve probably seen someone with the chipping yips take a painful-looking stab at the ball from just off the green. I know of at least two top-50 teachers going through that right now.
But full-swing yips are the real unspoken curse in the game. No active tour player has ever admitted to having them. Even if a tour player did have them, he or she probably wouldn’t know what to do about it. It’s uncharted territory. We’re only just now learning that they do exist.
I believe driver yips–not fatigue, stress or some mechanical swing problem–have sabotaged the careers of David Duval, Seve Ballesteros and Ian Baker-Finch. There’s just no other explanation for how players with so much talent could completely lose the ability to find their tee shots. It is a devastating experience. It nearly caused me to quit the game forever. And I promise there are thousands of amateurs suffering the same way, even if they haven’t pinpointed the problem.
PHYSICALLY, MY DRIVER YIPS seemed to be similar to the chipping or putting versions–a flinch or spasm at impact. But a yipper might miss a five-foot putt by a foot left or right. With a driver in my hand and 115 miles per hour in clubhead speed, that spasm made me hit shots that went off the golf course–shots you just can’t play with.
My problems started in the early 1980s, when I was beginning to spend a lot more time on other players’ games than I did on my own. I didn’t have much time to practice or play, and when I did play competitively, I’d have rounds where I lost all feel for my driver. I wrote it off as rust. After all, if you don’t practice, you can’t expect to score, I thought.
Those rounds became more and more frequent, and it got to the point where I was nervous about hitting balls in front of students or other teachers. I started turning down invitations to play in outings.
But I couldn’t miss the Spalding pro-am at Pebble Beach in 1985. I love the course, and I was going out to California with Mark O’Meara, one of my best friends in the game. Hitting balls before my round, I was really nervous about my swing, and was trying to come up with some way to scrape it around the course without embarrassing myself–especially because I was playing in a group in front of Craig Stadler and behind Mark. On the sixth hole, I hit my driver at least 150 yards off line right, into the ocean. I hit in the ocean again on nine and saved par from the beach. I pull-hooked my tee shot on 10, and then hit it out of bounds right on 14.
When we finished on 18, Mark was waiting for me. “What in the world did you shoot?” he asked, after spending his day watching me search for balls on the beach. He couldn’t believe it when I said I shot 73. With 21 putts.
WAS EXHAUSTED FROM THE EXPERIence. If I had played the next day, I would have shot 95, without a doubt. When I got back from California, I basically gave up playing. From late 1985 until 2002, I played fewer than 10 rounds of golf. I turned down three invitations to play Pine Valley and three more to play at Augusta National. One of those Augusta invitations came from Mark, after he won the 1998 Masters.
I virtually stopped doing clinics that required me to hit drivers. If there was no way around it, I’d turn and talk to the crowd as I hit shots. For some reason–and this became very important later on, when I started to figure this problem out–I could short-circuit the yips by not looking at the ball when I hit. I’m sure the crowd was saying, “Wow, look at Hank hit it without looking at it!” They didn’t know that that was the only way I could hit it.
I started contributing to Golf Digest in 1992, and since then only one of the more than 30 stories I’ve done has shown me hitting a shot with a driver. It was the June 2001 cover story on curing a slice. The editors don’t know how lucky they were to get a photograph they could use. The only way I could hit the ball was to aim across a fairway and hit it into the farm next to the golf ranch, so there was no real golf target.
The first thing a player does when he has a problem like this is look at his swing to try to find out what he’s doing wrong, or examine what he’s doing now that he wasn’t doing before. It was no different for me. Obviously, I’m an instructor, and fixing swings is what I do. I spent hours in front of the video system in my studio, looking for something I could improve mechanically to make this go away.
I spent years waiting for everybody to leave my golf ranch at the end of the day, then hitting buckets of balls to try to build a perfect swing. And on video, my swing looked great–all except for that fraction of second at impact, where that flinch ruined the shot. I had completely stalled.
Ironically, the drive to improve–going out and hitting a thousand balls to fix something–only makes the problem worse. I’ve come to understand that the yips are a motor-sensory disorder. The brain stops processing the motor skill commands for a certain movement. To fix it, you can’t try to do the same thing you were doing before. You have to do something different. You have to create a new pathway in your brain for the task. It took a dose of golf reality to make me understand how wrong my approach was.
The amateur players I was working with hit the same shot, time after time–a weak push with about 20 yards of slice on it. Consistency wasn’t a problem for them. They just aimed for the left rough, hit it out there, and let it slice. They wanted to turn it into a draw. I knew how to help them. Finally, I knew how to help myself.
My goal changed from making a perfect swing to making a swing that didn’t have a yip in it. Sure, my students hit this weak push slice that any teacher would want to fix, but they were out there playing, and they could find the ball after they hit it. If I could figure out a way to just hit the ball without a yip–even with an ugly swing–I could go back and fix the mechanical problems later. I could get it back to a problem I knew how to fix.
I took my cue from the way people have dealt with putting yips. It usually involves changing the putting grip to something that takes extra wrist and hand movement out of the stroke. I did the same thing with my grip. I’ve always taught a pretty traditional grip (see the photographs on page 118), so the one I came up with for myself was a big departure. It is unconventional in the extreme–Natural Golf and then some. Instead of holding the club in my fingers, I moved it down into my palms. I virtually removed hand action from my swing.
I went out and tried to hit balls with the new grip, and you’ve never seen somebody so happy to hit low, weak shots to the right. I didn’t yip it.
The grip change was just the first step. I’ve learned that beating the yips requires you to break down mental adhesions. That means getting your brain to stop thinking about the same things when you hit a shot. So I completely changed my preshot routine, to something that barely resembles a golf swing. My arms go straight up in the air on the backswing, and I turn back and look at them. I’m focusing on getting my clubhead, arms and shaft in position, and forgetting about the ball and the target. Then I swing at least three feet over the ball and feel my head tilting left, the opposite of what it used to do.
My waggle before I swing is three times as big as Justin Leonard’s or Mike Weir’s. I take the club back almost to the top again, then look back at it. I literally can’t hit it without doing that. It just clears my head. It’s like re-booting the computer.
Everybody who has ever had the yips knows this ultimate frustration–you don’t feel a yip in a practice swing. That’s because there’s no ball, and no target. I wanted to keep that feeling in my real swing, and changing my focus in my preshot routine was part of that. The other part is focusing on the brim of my hat during the downswing. After I take my backswing, I don’t look at the ball until I’m getting ready for my second shot.
With this new grip, new preshot routine and visual drill, I went out and started to play in the spring of 2003. I didn’t yip it! My ball flight was lower than it used to be, and I had to learn how to play again. I was making stupid mistakes–like pulling the wrong club, taking too many chances. But those were mistakes I could work on. I love the game, and I was able to play again with out embarrassing myself. A month into this process, I made three birdies in a row, and my game was really starting to come around. I joined Vaquero, a club in Dallas, and started playing almost every day. I played 90 rounds from October 2003 to May 2004, and my Handicap Index was plus-2. I played 36 holes with Mark and missed one fairway. He teased me the whole time about my low ball flight. “Let’s talk when I miss a fairway, OK?” I said. A few weeks later, I made seven birdies and shot 66.
I play better now than I ever dreamed I could. It’s been 25 years since I shot scores like 66. It’s great to be able to play again, but more than anything, it’s a feeling of relief. Did I find my old swing again? No. I found something new. But it works.
I haven’t found a magic yips vaccine. The changes I made weren’t scientific. This process worked for me, but following it to the letter might not work for you. It’s not so important what you do to address the driver yips. It’s more important to understand that doing the same thing over and over again won’t work. You have to find a different pathway in your brain for the motor signals to travel. That might mean some other crazy kind of grip or preshot routine. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Golf is too much fun to miss out on.
GETTING MY GAME BACK HASN’T been the only exciting development to come out of this process. While I was finding my way through my own yips minefield, I met a team of German scientists at a teaching summit in Munich. They pioneered research on focal dystonia, a yips-like problem that afflicts professional musicians and athletes, and have adapted their work to help golfers. They built an incredible machine, the Super SAM Putting Optimiser, that measures ultrasound signals sent from a small device attached to a putter or a wedge. The signals are translated into swing information in a computer, and that feedback is used to retrain the brain to make a yip-free stroke. In the upcoming September and October issues, I’ll show you how that feedback changed the way I teach people with the chipping and putting yips.
WHAT I TEACH
A conventional grip runs across the lower part of the fingers, roughly parallel to the lifeline.
WHAT I DO
I moved my grip far up into my palms, in line with my lower arm, to reduce hand action.
First, I changed my grip …
The first step in beating the driver yips was finding a way to make a swing–any kind of swing–without a spasm. I started by gripping the club in a way that would virtually eliminate hand action. My first hockey-like swings with it sent the ball low and right, but with no yip!
… then, I created a new routine
After a lot of mechanical work to accommodate the new grip, I redesigned my entire preshot routine and practice swing to change my preshot focus. I take the club almost straight up in the air, then look back and focus on my clubface, shaft and arm all being in line–not on the ball or the target. I swing three feet over the ball, then check my clubface at the top again before I make my real swing. I want my preparation to get as far away from my old swing as possible. And you thought Mike Weir’s waggle was big?
It’s not my old swing, but it works …
I don’t look the same when I hit it now. I used to cock my head down, toward the ball, at impact. Now, I do the opposite–and cock my head left through impact. Once I start my downswing, I don’t look at the ball at all. I’m already starting to cock my head. I still hit the ball lower than before with the driver, but considering where I was last year, 275 yards and straight is just fine.
My key? Don’t look at the ball
The strangest part of my new process is the change in focus. I was determined to stop being fixated on the ball and on results, so I changed my focus to my position at the top. I don’t even want to see the ball when I swing. Now, when I play, I wear a hat or visor. Why? So I can focus on the brim, but not on the ball. It sounds weird, but if I’m not wearing a hat, I can’t play.
First in a three-part series. Next month: The chipping yips
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