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Yikes! And yips! Local golf pros on the most anxious moment in sports

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 cashing a $10 bet from a friend at the 18th hole this 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.

One relief from the ego-killing little stroke was eliminated by a commandment from the golf gods. But before divining — with the help of two local professionals — the regulation against “anchored” putting handed down several years ago 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 is simple. You’re 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.

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 a few years ago, 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 crackup.

Charlie, however, is made of strong stuff, even if he was spotted weeping on the practice range the following morning. 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 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.) Anchoring 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 cases of the yips. Champions like Tommy Armour and Ken Venturi have had to leave the PGA circuit because the yips got the upper hand (sorry).

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 ball, or go over the top of it,” Leigh 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,” Leigh 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 career.”

Leigh said he can sometimes cure golfers.“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.

“It’s pressure,” said Bob DeStefano, head golf professional at GBCC for half a century. “Everyone’s looking at you for a two-foot putt, and if you miss it, you look like an idiot.” Asked if the putt is the most important shot in a round, Bob 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, Bob has been anchoring his putter for the past several years. “It steadies the stroke,” 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.”

So where do the Island golf professionals come down on the ban on anchored putting? “[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,” Bob said.

Leigh was strong in his support of 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.