Ask any golfer to name their biggest fear, and they will likely mention either coming down with a case of (1) the yips, or (2) the shanks.
“Yips” occur when a golfer is no longer able to make short putts. Golfers with the yips may offer up scientific explanations for their loss of basic motor skills, but the truth of the matter is they are simply folding under pressure. Yips have resulted in professional golfers changing putters, putting strokes and, in a few extreme cases, careers.
Fortunately, when I played golf, I never had the yips. Then again, I never played for more than 50 cents a hole, nor has my livelihood depended on making 3-foot putts.
“Shanks” are a different story.
In golfing lexicon, a shank is caused when the golf ball is struck by the hosel (the point where the club shaft connects with the club face) rather than the face of the club during a swing. When this happens, the golf ball is propelled sharply to the right (left for southpaws), and nowhere near the intended target.
The first time I witnessed a shank, it was on television. A young (pre-U.S. Open winning) Johnny Miller was leading a golf tournament at Pebble Beach. Towards the end of the final round, Miller hit a fairway iron for his shot to the green. Miller – as well as a large gallery of fans and a national television audience – was just as shocked as everyone else to see his ball take off at a violent 60-degree angle. Technically, I didn’t see it, because the television cameras didn’t pick it up, allegedly because, like me, the cameraman had never seen one before, either. (Johnny Miller would go on to win 25 times on the PGA tour – 8 of them in 1974 alone – but today wasn’t one of them.)
Before that, the only thing I knew about a shank is that you weren’t supposed to say “shank” out loud, much like you don’t talk about Fight Club or say “Bloody Mary” three times standing in front of a mirror. Also, if someone like Johnny Miller could do it, I wondered why it had never happened to me before.
The next time I played golf, I wondered no more. On my first shot from the fairway, the ball violently took off on an apparent “seek and destroy” mission, target unknown. Unfortunately, I was playing in a golf match during my sophomore year in high school at the time.
I found my golf ball deep in the trees along the right side of the fairway, likely where no man had gone before. All was not lost, however, because I was pretty good at getting out of trouble situations. But that was prior to the “Johnny Miller incident.” I shanked my recovery shot, and it landed in the middle of the adjoining fairway. By the time I got to my ball, my three playing partners were all safely on the putting green, waiting patiently, and feeling just a little bit sorry for me. I shanked my next shot, then mercifully forfeited the hole to my opponent.
The second hole of the day was a par three. After three shots – all of them shanks – I forfeited that hole, too. My playing partners weren’t quite as patient as they were before. This went on for three more holes, at which point I lost the match, 5 and 4. With only four holes left to play, it was mathematically impossible for me to win, but at least there wouldn’t be any more shanks. At least not today.
Shanks plagued me for most of my sophomore year. It was a case of mind over matter: in my mind, no matter what I did, I was going to shank the ball. The head pro at my home course worked with me throughout the summer, and eventually I hit the ball straight again. Well, at least as straight as I did before the “Johnny Miller incident.” In the years that followed, although there would be the occasional shank here and there, they were no longer standard operating procedure.
Johnny Miller once said that sports are 90% inspiration and 10% perspiration. Success comes from inside, and just the right amount from the outside.
Yogi Berra said baseball is 90% mental and 10% physical. It was his way of stating the obvious: mind over matter.
Then again, Yogi Berra only swung a baseball bat, not a golf club.
Scott Ludwig lives, runs and writes in Senoia. His latest book, “Southern Charm” is a collection of his first 101 columns for The Newnan Times-Herald. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .