Rochester, Minn. — For many golfers it's an everyday nightmare. You're on the green of the 10th hole and you're shooting for a birdie. All you have to do is sink a simple, two-foot putt. The last thing that goes through your mind is: "Anyone can make this putt." But you don't.
You either freeze up and barely hit the ball, or your wrist makes a jerking motion that sends the ball sailing past the hole. You probably should've taken a gimmee, but you've just yipped it. And golfer Alan Ferguson knows exactly how you feel.
"I've gotten almost beyond embarassment now. When it happens, it happens, and that's it," says Ferguson. "My playing partners just crease themselves, they laugh, they roll around the ground, they think it's very funny. I just ask them to not laugh before I hit the ball."
Ferguson is one of 16 golfers who have agreed to let the Mayo Clinic study what for them is the most embarassing part of their game. He's dressed for a round of golf, but he's a got a little extra hardware. He's wearing electrodes on his chest and back. There's another in his putter. They're all connected to a computer that is monitoring his heart rate and his grip force.
For a non-golfer, this all may seem a little extreme. But this is serious business. Ferguson lives in St. Andrews, Scotland, golf's spiritual home. He plays the old course three times a week. But he's paid his own way to come to Rochester to what amounts to a glorified round of mini-golf.
You just don't like to look stupid when you miss a one-foot putt or a two-foot putt. Hell, I've missed a six-inch putt, but we don't want to talk about that one.
The yips most commonly affect accomplished golfers like Ferguson. He once had an eight handicap. Since the yips set in, it's jumped to 12.
"You just don't like to look stupid when you miss a one-foot putt or a two-foot putt. Hell, I've missed a six-inch putt, but we don't want to talk about that one," says Ferguson.
Mayo researcher Aynsley Smith hopes to help. Some golf experts blame the yips on severe anxiety, what is commonly known as choking. But Smith thinks there's more to it.
"A few people can learn to choke when the pressure is on, but an awful a lot of them should have acquired some sort of resiliency to it, too," says Smith.
Smith thinks the yips could be part psychological and part physiological. Some golfers, she thinks, have worn out parts of their neuromuscular system through constant repitition of the putting stroke. This is called a dystonia.
Smith has tried to study the role of a dystonia in the yips before, but most golfers won't yip a putt unless they're in a high-anxiety situation like a tournament.
Mayo's two-day putting tournament is complete with a gallery and a scoreboard. There's also a complete raft of cameras and microphones from media covering the study. They were encouraged to set up very close to the players to add to the yip-inducing tension. The players are even told the winner will receive a cash prize. All this pressure seems to work.
Alan Ferguson, the golfer from Scotland, gets the yips on the fourth hole. It's a three-foot downhill putt that breaks right to left. He jerks the ball two feet past the hole. Ferguson says after he sunk the putts on the first couple holes, he felt confident he wouldn't yip it. But, he says, that's when you have to watch out.
"If you get the first putt out at the golf course, the first tricky one, the rest are fairly easy," says Ferguson. "Well, I got the first two, and you saw me practicing putting before I started, and I was hitting them in all the time. But once you get out there and it's the real deal, the mind plays tricks."
Ferguson says he hopes by the end of this tournament, Mayo will be able to help him explain why his mind is playing these tricks. Mayo plans to release the results of its study on the yips in September.