Can putting with a five-iron actually help beat the yips?

January 13, 2018

For golfers with the yips, hope showed up in sunny Honolulu last week.

It drifted in the trade winds at Waialae Country Club during the Sony Open pro-am, where an amateur named June Jones played his round barefoot and putted with a five-iron. 

A former NFL and college football coach who is currently a head coach in the Canadian Football League, Jones, 64, said he went with the five-iron to combat the yips (he did not explain the thinking behind going barefoot).

If his back-to-back birdies at Waialae were any indication, the strategy worked well for him.

But was there any proven method to his madness? Are there lessons in his approach for the rest of us?

“Absolutely,” says Marius Filmalter, a noted putting guru who has worked with a host of big-name Tour pros, including Ernie Els and Vijay Singh. “The first thing I do when working with someone who has the yips is to try to get them not to be so precise.” 

Along with over-thinking, Filmalter says, golfers with the yips are often undone by outsize expectations. Burdened by the sense that they’re supposed to make their putts, they wind up making very few of them. 

Swapping out the flatstick for another club—a sand wedge, say, or, yes, a five-iron—can relieve that pressure.  It helps distract the player from complicating thoughts about technique while minimizing pesky expectations.

“Putting is very similar to driving your car,” Filmalter says. “If you have a policeman following you, you get very self-conscious about what you’re doing and you get in your own way of doing what would otherwise come naturally to you. When someone has the yips, I try to get them away from a sense that the technical part of their stroke has to be so precise. There are, after all, any number of ways you can make a putt, on a number of different lines. With a five-iron, you don’t have the pressure of expectations. It also works on the people watching you, because they don’t expect you to make it either.”  

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Performance anxiety is a common bugaboo for golfers of all stripes, and it’s frequently mistaken for the damaged neural pathways that produce the yips, says GOLF Top 100 Teacher James Sieckmann. The two are not the same, even if they yield similar results. But switching to a five-iron could work as a remedy for either.

“If it is a true neural focus dystonia (read: damaged neural pathway), then the yip cannot be overcome if the motor pattern is anything close to what is when the yip occurs,” Sieckmann says. “It has to be so different that non-damaged pathways are used to perform the action. What is different enough? Only the player can tell.”

For some players, switching to a five-iron could do just that: provide them with an alternate neural pathway, much in the same way that yip-afflicted golfers find relief by turning to the claw. 

So, there’s a lesson for you. If you’re battling the yips, try switching something up. Your grip. Your club. Your mindset.

There might even be something to playing barefoot, too.

“When golfers have the yips, they often describe it as everything feeling rushed,” Filmalter says. “That means they’re not grounded. So touching the grass with your bare feet, feeling the soil, anything you can do to ground yourself is a positive.”

Another plus: You won’t leave spike marks on the green.