Yikes and yips: Local pros weigh in on golf's latest no-no

ANNE DeSTEFANO PHOTO | WEIGHING ANCHOR: Golf pro Bob DeStefano demonstrating his ”belly-anchored” putting technique.

 

The two-foot putt — a simple thing.

Golfers in cold weather countries all over the world are draining them right now. In their minds, that is, or on living room carpets into tipped-over drinking glasses, dreaming of a local tournament victory, or securing that $10 bet from a friend at the 18th hole this coming spring.

But actually making the putt when it counts on a green – that’s far from simple. In fact, it’s the most angst-ridden moment in sports, designed to fray athletic nerves to the breaking point.

And now one relief from the ego-killing little stroke has been eliminated by a commandment from the golf gods. But before divining — with the help of two local professionals — the new regulation against “anchored” putting recently handed down by the United States Golf Association and the Royal & Ancient (a ruling body so austerely British it wouldn’t have anything as commonplace as “organization” or “association” tagging along behind it), we’ll return to the mystery why the “gimme” stroke is the Everest of sports when you’re forced to putt it out.

The solution to that mystery actually is simple. You are alone, and to make the putt, you must overcome yourself. In fact, that’s what makes golf the trial and joy it is, that in order to succeed, the athlete must beat back the most squirrelly part of himself, the place where body and mind are interacting.

In almost every other sport there’s someone or something you have to beat. With the game on the line and the batter strikes out, he can always use the fact the pitcher beat him with his best. The kicker missing the game-winning field goal? Either the wind, the turf or the hold, or all of the above, were against him. The only thing similar to the embarrassing putt choke might be the free throw with a second on the clock to win the game. But even the very best free throw shooters miss one in 10, and the hoop is 13 feet away and ten feet high.

Shouldn’t you make every single two-foot putt?

To say golf can drive you crazy is to say nothing. Witness the case of Charlie Beljan, who shot a 64, the best round of his life at a tournament in Florida last month, and then was taken from the course in an ambulance, suffering from fevered breathing and a pulse running wild. Beljan spent a night in the hospital where he was diagnosed as physically fine, but had suffered a panic attack, which had morphed into a complete crack up.

Beljan, however, is made of strong stuff, even if he was spotted weeping on the practice range the following morning, preparing to go back to battle. In one of golf’s most inspiring conclusions, Beljan played the next two rounds and won his first PGA Tour Victory. He’d won the battle against himself.

The new ruling from golf’s governing bodies forbids “anchored putting,” and not necessarily so-called “long putters” from use. (Long putters make it easier to “anchor” or lean the club against a body part, usually the chest, to control the club rather than swinging it freely with the hands.) Anchored putting has been found to cure a golfer of the “yips,” the affliction that affects motor skills, named for the involuntary twitching that can come into the hands.
Not just Sunday golfers come down with serious cases of the yips, but also champions such as Tommy Armour and Ken Venturi have had to leave the PGA circuit because the yips got the upper hand.

The most common manifestation of the yips is settling over a two-foot putt and knocking it as far as 40 feet off the green, said Leigh Notley, head golf pro at Gardiner’s Bay Country Club.

But it just isn’t hitting a putt like a chip shot, “You can stab the putter in the ground, or top the all, or go over the top of it,” Mr. Notley said.

No matter how you miss-hit it, the yips are “an involuntary movement of mostly the right hand – because most golfers are right handed,” Mr. Notley explained. “I believe it’s mental and to do with the preparation of impact. But the true yips are quite rare. People will miss a few short putts and say, ‘Oh, I’ve got the yips, but I’ve only come across four or five cases in my 20 year career.”

Mr. Notley said there were a couple of members at GBCC who had the genuine yips. He noted that he can sometimes cure golfers, keeping in mind that “preparation of impact” part of the stroke. “Quite often if you have them start to putt with their eyes closed the yips will disappear because the vision can’t give the brain the information on exactly where they’re going to hit it,” he said.

Bob DeStefano, head golf professional at GBCC for half a century and Reporter sports columnist, agreed the yips are all in the head.

“It’s pressure,” Mr. DeStefano said. “Everyone’s looking at you for a two foot putt, and if you’re in a tournament, you either are going to win or lose, or if it’s just a regular round and you miss it you look like an idiot.”

Asked if the putt is the most important shot in a round, Mr. DeStefano said what’s undeniable is it’s the most memorable stroke. “Everyone remembers the putt that drops to win a round,” he said. “And everyone remembers the putt that’s missed to lose a round.”

As for anchored putting, Mr. DeStefano has been anchoring his putter for the past thee years. “It steadies the stoke,” he said, describing how he uses a regular length putter that he calls a “belly putter. I stick it into my belly and I’m putting much better with it.”

Bob, Jr. is not above ragging his dad about the technique, however. “He said, ‘Dad, the way you’re putting weight on, you’re putter’s going to be only 20 inches long.’”

So where do the Island golf professionals come down on the ban on anchored putting? Both answered without hesitation, but each had a different spin on the ban.

“[The governing bodies] are concerned about how anchored putting would change the game, and they’re more worried about the amateurs than the pros, because they’re seeing young people coming up using long putters to anchor and that was never the way the game was played,” Mr. DeStefano said.   “Personally I don’t think it is ruining the game and if I were making the decision, I’d vote not to change it. However, the USGA and the Royal and Ancient are both great organizations, making remarkable decisions for over a hundred years. If they feel that strongly against someone anchoring a putter, I will quietly go along with it.”

Mr. Notley was stronger in support with the ban. “The club is to be swung with the hands alone,” he said. “To me that’s the essence of the sport and has been since 1450.”

It’s hard to argue with half a millennium of tradition.

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