I have been a teacher for 26 years, a Headteacher for 11 years and, at the age of 50, this much I know about why Tiger Woods will never win another golf tournament.
Watching Tiger Woods trying to play a chip shot makes my forearms ache.
During the worst round of Woods’ career – an 11-over-par 82 in the second round at the Waste Management Phoenix Open just over a fortnight ago – he quite clearly presented all the symptoms of the chipping yips. It is a condition which afflicted me as a youth and, thirty years on, I have yet to find a cure.
The yips usually attack golfers when they putt. The yips are an involuntary, uncontrollable movement during a short stroke which sends the ball off in a quite unintended direction and nowhere near the hole. The yips are a nervous spasm. They are dreaded by golfers and usually strike as the fading nervelessness of youth is replaced by doubt-ridden middle-age.
There are many famous victims of the putting yips. Ben Hogan didn’t putt that well. Peter Alliss was hopeless on the greens. Bernard Langer was the doughtiest fighter of the yips. He repelled three full-blown attacks, turning to a number of remarkable putting contraptions and different grips to control his nervous system.
The fact that Langer is still scoring brilliantly at the age of 57 shows how the putting yips can be overcome. In his last tournament, the Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualalai, he didn’t three putt once and was ranked tenth in the overall putting stats.
At least you can get the ball to the green if you have the putting yips. The chipping yips are a different beast altogether; the chipping yips destroy your game. The chipping yips gnaw away at your frail golfing psyche from the middle of the fairway. If you miss the green, it’s all over for you. Your forearms tighten over that six iron because if you miss the green you have to chip over that bunker. And you know that the chipping yips make that an impossibility.
I was a good enough player. I have my name on a trophy which Peter Oosterhuis won in 1968. I was Sussex Junior Champion two years on the bounce. When I was a losing semi-finalist in the Sussex Amateur Championship at only 16 years old, a report in the Brighton Evening Argus claimed that, “Tomsett’s short game is a revelation.” In the quarter-finals I had chipped in for a half at the nineteenth hole and won at the next…at the first hole of the semi-final I went and chipped in again.
But by the time I was 18 my game was finished. I can still remember when I contracted the chipping yips. I was playing for the senior Sussex team against the French National side in the morning foursomes. We were one up going down the last. We’d missed the green to the right and I had a simple enough chip. No bunkers in the way. Nothing but me, the hole and 350 people watching. And I thinned it right across the green, scattering the spectators. We lost the hole, halved the match and nothing was ever the same for me again.
The chipping yips corroded my game. I would be in the centre of the fairway with a seven iron, my forearms would stiffen and I would miss the green. The walk to the green edge was tortuous. The fear of either fatting or thinning the chip shot overwhelmed my synapses. Something which was so natural to me – to get my weight on my front foot, grip the wedge lightly, keep the club accelerating through the ball with my left wrist dominating the shot and my right hand just a passenger – had become alien almost overnight.
Over the years I tried a number of different strategies to overcome my affliction. Practice swinging four times and, on the fifth, without missing a beat, hitting the ball. I bought a huge 64° wedge and played all my chips like sand shots, fatting the shot deliberately and excavating huge divots which landed on the green shortly after the ball had come to rest in the bunker immediately in front of me. It was embarrassing.
Nothing worked. I once had a 9 and an 8 in a round of 80 at Royal Ashdown – two chipping meltdowns responsible for me being nine over for those two holes and one under for the remaining sixteen.
The odd beer settled me. In the 1983 Sussex Colts at Manning’s Heath I had four pints of bitter for lunch. At one point I had four birdies in a row. With three holes left I was three under par. A long wait on the 16th tee saw me sober up. I finished double bogey-par-treble bogey to shoot 75. I smacked the ball with my putter, shinty style, off the green in utter despair.
The last time I won a tournament was in 1988. By then I had resorted to the hard stuff to keep things under control. Twenty minutes before I teed it up at 8.35 am I was in the toilets taking three huge slugs of brandy. I began birdie-par-par-birdie. I shot 74, 70 and won by eight. My victory speech was incoherent. I couldn’t continue like that and so I all but gave the game up.
Ironically, I can still putt as well as ever, but on my annual outing onto the golf course my chipping is still wretched. Some victims of the chipping yips claim a cure – Jason Palmer has recently secured a European Tour Card chipping one-handed – but once afflicted nothing will relax the stiffening forearms and the white knuckle grip.
And that’s why, when Tiger Woods fatted and thinned his way to an 82 in the Phoenix Open, I watched with genuine sympathy. I knew what Woods was going through and my arms ached for him. Jack Nicklaus can rest easy – his record of 18 majors is safe. With the chipping yips, Tiger Woods will never win again.