DOES TIGER HAVE THE YIPS?
If the former No 1 hopes to succeed in 2015 after a lost 2014, the answer better be no.
Any time Tiger Woods changes his swing, he sets off an avalanche of secondguessing, slow-motioning and screen-grabbing from instructors and pundits, professional and amateur. But when the world’s most famous golfer botched 10 short-game shots at the Hero World Challenge in December, his first tournament back after a four-month layoff, it spawned a new kind of rubbernecking, complete with Twitter hashtags and Vine video loops.
Sure, Woods’ full swing looked smoother and showed more horsepower after some work with new technical advisor Chris Como. But did the owner of what was long considered the best short game this side of Seve Ballesteros come out of his latest swing rebuild with a potentially devastating issue most tour players won’t even mention by name? Does Tiger have the chipping yips?
It’s a fair question as 2015 begins and the former world No 1 tries to put his injury-plagued 2014 season behind him. After all, when was the last time anybody saw any professional badly mis-hit that many short shots over the course of a single tournament?
“I just flubbed them,” Woods said, chalking the chunks and blades up to competitive rust and residue from his full swing changes. “It’s something I need to work on.”
No doubt. But whether Woods’ problem is a shortterm mechanical hiccup or something more makes for fascinating fodder among short-game experts. According to Dave Stockton, the technique Woods has been using lately is a clear departure from the supple, athletic form he showed as a teenager.
“I bet a tournament like that has never happened to him in his life,” Stockton says. “He always hits the correct shot, and just doesn’t mis-hit stuff. It looks to me he has his feet extremely close together, and he can’t get his weight forward. He’s making these big swings for a short shot. It looks like he’s trapped between hitting two different kinds of shots.”
It’s a recipe for poor contact. Stockton says that the fix is as easy as committing to hit a chip shot low or high, and using the proper, corresponding technique. “I’m sure he already knows what it is,” says Stockton, who doesn’t believe Woods has the yips, “and he’ll get out of that phase in a hurry.”
Fellow short-game gurus Stan Utley and Kevin Weeks – who between them work with more than a dozen tour pros – also see improper technique. “His hands are leading too much and his right knee and right shoulder dip, which makes the leading edge stick into the ground,” Utley says. “He needs to work to keep his right side tall and throw the clubhead. It’s a four-minute fix if he’s working on the right stuff.”
Adds Weeks: “In his swing, it looks like he’s trying to get the left shoulder to go forward, then up and around. When the left shoulder goes up in your short game, the right shoulder goes down. That’s fine if you’re moving forward – and he wasn’t. He probably already has sorted it out.”
As straightforward as those assessments might be, others wonder if the answer is more layered.
Randy Smith has worked with dozens of PGA Tour players over a four-decade teaching career – he currently teaches Justin Leon-
ard, Harrison Frazar and Martin Flores – and has battled his own chipping yips for nearly as long. He describes a frightening psychological spiral.
“You can fix bad technique, but you can then be sound and dump a couple and end up thinking over every shot, This is the one thing I’m not going to let happen,” says Smith. “Your body will start to do things you just can’t believe. The anticipation of it becomes a mental thing, and the more you work on it, the more rigid you get – which is the opposite of how the great short-game artists play. When that starts to happen, the guy who plays for a living gets scared. He’ll joke about it and call it a chipping ‘problem.’ He’ll never say the words.”
Chipping yips don’t have the rich narrative history of their twitchy putting sibling, in part because they’re harder to address. The thicker grips, longer shafts and alternative hand positions that can mitigate the putting yips rarely work as well on the chipping motion. And greenside collection areas at PGA Tour courses are tighter and faster than ever, requiring extreme precision – and extremely calm hands – exposing more and more sufferers.
The yips terrify tour players because they break the hard-earned connection between the mind and the hands, turning a shot they used to hit without a second thought into one that makes them worry about the possibility of barely moving the ball. “Good players will stick it in the ground a couple of times and remember what they did,” Smith says. “Then they’ll go try to practice out of it and hit that same shot 50 or 60 times and just ingrain it into their short game. The more you practice, the harder it is to beat.”
When it gets to that point, treatment looks more like a patient learning to live with a long-term disability rather than counting on a cure. On tour, Tim Clark has adapted some of the putting-yips tactics, using a heavier, longer wedge, a split-handed grip and a willingness to putt a lot from off the green. Jason Palmer earned his 2015 European Tour card with a more extreme solution – hitting every short-game shot inside 50 metres with one hand.
“Once it’s in there, I’ve never seen it leave completely,” says Hank Haney, whose battle with driver yips caused him to virtually stop playing for 15 years. “You go around it. You find some shots you’re comfortable hitting, like more semi-flop shots where you’re generating some speed, and you start putting from off the green a little more. It’s possible to deal with. But this idea that you make a simple mechanical adjustment and they go away? It just doesn’t work that way.”
Haney, of course, worked closely with Woods from 2004 to 2010, and played hundreds of rounds with him at Isleworth, the scene of the chipping disaster. “Not being there and seeing them from closeup, I can’t say he has the yips,” Haney says. “But I probably played 300 rounds with him on that course, and I never saw him hit one shot like that, and in four rounds, he hit 10 of them. Guys are going to chunk shots, but when you get a repeat like that, you have to wonder if it’s an issue.”
No matter how Woods spends his practice time until his likely first start of 2015, at Torrey Pines in February, the question won’t really be answered until he demonstrates he can hit good chips from tight lies under pressure.
“You can play a lot of rounds and not really come across that shot, but one place you can’t avoid it is at Augusta,” Haney says. “You know what everybody will be thinking when he gets over a tough one there. You know what the commentators will be saying. How can Tiger not be thinking the same thing? At the end of the day, he’s just human.”
‘You can play a lot of rounds and not really come across that shot, but one place you can’t avoid it is at Augusta.’ –HankHaney
Tiger Woods with new ‘coach’ Chris Como.