From the start of his pro golf career, Bert Yancey seemed to possess both a picture-perfect swing and championship prospects. In 15 years, beginning in 1961, he collected almost $700,000 in winnings and regularly battled the likes of Trevino, Nicklaus and Player into the final rounds of major tournaments. Off the course, however, the Florida-born pro lived much of his life in the rough. A nervous breakdown during his cadet years at West Point was folio wed by increasingly frequent erratic behavior. Yancey found himself forced into straitjackets and padded cells and subjected to electroshock treatments. Finally, in 1975, he was diagnosed as a manic-depressive and treated with lithium, a once controversial drug that tempered the violent swings of mood be had experienced. Now 42 and a divorced father of four, he lives in Hilton Head, S. C. and gives lessons at the Bert Yancey School of Classical Golf. Last month he entered the Atlanta Classic, his first tournament in five years (he missed the cut). Pausing in his comeback, he spoke to PEOPLE’s Joyce Leviton about the mental problem he shares with an estimated 3 million Americans.
Manic-depression is thought to be caused by a chemical imbalance and is inherited. I would have it if I were a manhole worker or a baseball player or an accountant. It wasn’t the pressure of the tour. You can build up more stress in your own mind in 10 minutes by lying on the beach and telling yourself the world’s coming to an end than you can on the golf tour. I happened to go to West Point, which is identified with stress, but I have been exposed to no more stress than the average person—the housewife whose babies are screaming, who’s got a leaky faucet, a window that won’t work and a car that doesn’t start. As a 15-year-old I won the Southern Junior, shot 73-70-69 with nothing on my mind except winning that golf tournament. The importance of it was gigantic, but I had no manic-depressive illness then.
Manic episodes begin with your mind racing—creating new thoughts, suddenly being very sharp but not able to stay on one subject. Maybe you’re trying to sleep. Your mind begins to accelerate, but you want it to, because you’re thinking good things. You’re up on the edge of the bed, and then you turn on your tape recorder or pull out your sketch pad. Now it’s 2 in the morning. You go in and straighten up your desk, pull files out, just killing time. It’s the middle of the night, but everything is okay; you’re relaxed. Then you say, “Just before sunrise I’m going down to the beach and watch the sun come up.” So now it’s 4 in the morning. Maybe you drop off to sleep, and then, boom, it’s 6 o’clock and the alarm’s off, and you’re down on the beach running a little bit, waiting for the sun to rise. Can’t hardly wait. Now you’ve got a 7 o’clock breakfast to get ready for. People start to come in, and you’re handling everything just precisely. You’ve got everything in your mind, and it’s all working like clockwork. But that night, it’s like “Here we go again.” You’re talking on the tape recorder, cleaning up, and you’re going on and on; you charge a little more and get a little less sleep. After three or four nights you begin to lose control. You get irrational. You start to have grandiose illusions.
In 1975 I climbed a ladder to the ceiling of the terminal building at La Guardia Airport in New York. I was going up there to tell everybody that Howard Hughes had signaled to me on the golf course to distribute all his money through the American Cancer Society. It was a real feeling, and I can recall it most assuredly. In Japan once I tried to jump out of the window of the Tokyo Hilton. Fortunately, technology has developed far enough so that if there’s a building 40 stories high, there are safety locks on the windows. I tried, but I couldn’t get out. I felt in the dark night of my soul that the end of the world was really coming. The only thing that stopped me was the sun rising; I thought, if the sun rises and I see all of Tokyo laid out before me and it’s not bombed, devastated, then I know everything will be okay.
The turning point for me was when a psychiatrist at the Payne Whitney Institute in New York first diagnosed me as a manic-depressive and put me on lithium. That was 13 years after my first episode at West Point. I had got the best treatment in Army hospitals, but they didn’t know about lithium then, and the illness goes dormant for long periods of time. That’s the danger of it.
With a manic episode, you must recognize that someone is mentally ill as opposed to being a smartass or drunk or whatever—recognize it and get this person help. At La Guardia I was put in a quiet room with a psychiatrist armed with Thorazine, then taken to a mental hospital. I had no serious injury. On the other hand, in Tokyo I got in a fight with five men, and one of them gave me a karate chop across the neck. So you never know.
The episodes still occur, but with lithium I’m more aware of them, and I can control them. Since 1975 I have felt much more comfortable and at ease because I know that something can be done. I go to the doctor when I feel I need to talk to him, and I make notes and show him what I’ve done. If I have to be dragged off the golf course by a guy in a white coat, then I’m in trouble. But if I walk off and say I’m going to see a psychiatrist, then I’m in 100 percent better shape to recover.
It took a while to accept, but once I knew my illness was here to stay, then it became easier to overcome it. This is why it’s therapeutic for me to stand up in front of a group and say, “My name is Bert Yancey, and I am mentally ill. I am going to tell you tonight how I overcame and am controlling my mental illness.” The admission that I am mentally ill is important. It’s not easy. It never was easy. But I tell them what I’ve been through and what I go through. Mental illness is here to stay, and it can be controlled, and the sufferer can exist in a normal life.
I would never have been able to control my illness without lithium, but it’s a drug that makes your hands shake for two or three years after you start taking it. That caused problems with my golf swing. The feet, the knees, the head and the lower torso and everything in the body is moving at the same time to send a little projectile 200 yards into a hole that is only three times as big as the ball. The swing is an incredibly structured thing. But man has learned to do it. Over and over again. I can shoot 20 balls at a flag and I’ll hit it one out of 20 times from 150 yards. It’s an accomplishment of the body, like archery or ballet. The body becomes part of you, and into that relaxed system you throw a lithium tablet. I still feel a tremor occasionally, but it has dissolved with time, and now the movement and the precision have come back. When it came back, I said what the heck, I am not going to sit here and tell people I can do something. In golf you don’t tell anybody anything. You keep your mouth shut and you do it. People have talked to me about doing a movie for television. I said my story’s not finished yet. Let me win the Masters. Let me win Atlanta. Let me at least make the cut or do something besides be a broken-down old golf teacher.
In a quiet time, with God, I made a commitment. I have got out of the hospital, I have recovered, and I live a normal life. But all that makes no sense if I can’t really use the illness and the experience that I’ve had to help other people. I believe golf is a source of therapy for mental illness. On every hole you have to learn that you try the hardest you can, but you don’t look back. That’s what golf teaches. You made a mistake? Big deal. Golf is full of grace. You go on to the next hole and tee it up again.