In the winter of 1974, when he was one of the best golfers in the world, Bert Yancey believed he was a messiah handpicked by God, and given awesome responsibilities. Yancey was to save God's people from evil, put an end to racial prejudice and find a cure for cancer. The assignmnet thrilled him and he did his best to complete it.
This week the Professional Golfers Association tour stops on the island. It is a chance for Yancey to see old buddies. Retired from the tour two years now, he runs a golf instruction school at Hilton Head Golf Club. He also writes for the local newspaper, does a daily radio show and will do two-hour radio interviews of players here this week for the big tournament.
Yancey was a star in the late '60s and early '70s. In 13 seasons on tour, he won seven tournaments and $688,124. Few players were his match. Where Arnold Palmer lashed aggressively at the ball and Lee Trevino seemed the happy hacker, Yancey was a classicist with a club in his hand. His swing was a symphony, each movement majestic in its purity and simplicity. Putting he was a thief working in daylight, stealing birdies from 20 feet when par was his due.
Only aficionadoes knew much of Yancey. For while he was a winner, he never won the big ones and while his skills were immense he did nothing to attract attention to them. He didn't say funny things, he didn't dance on the greens. All he did was pull a white visor low over his eyes and walk slowly around a golf course, walking so smoothly he seemed to float, a man in a dream world.
He was a dreamer. He loved golf. He loved its heroes, Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen and Harry Vardon. The rules of golf seemed to Yancey the ultimate guides to honor and sportsmanship. For years he studied films and read books, working on a history of the golf swing, Yancey was bright - some said his IQ was at the level of genius - and he wanted nothing more than to make a lasting mark in the game he loved so.
Greatness as a player eluded him, though. He made a crusade of winning the Masters. When someone told him the only way to win at Augusta was to acquire a feel for the greens, Yancey built clay models of every green. He wanted to run his hands over the contours, to truly feel them. He knew everything about the Masters, including the name of the tailor who made the winner's green jacket.
But he couldn't win the tournament. He twice finished third, once fourth. He was the early leader the first time he played Augusta, in 1967, but finished with rounds of 73-73 and lost by four shots. He could have won the U.S. Open in 1968, when he set scoring records for 36 and 54 holes. On the last day, he played horribly and finished third. So in the tournaments that put golfers in the history books, Yancey twice threw away victory when it was his for the taking.
He sat in his apartment at Hilton Head two weeks ago and said his days on tours are over. He'd like to play two or three tournaments a year, perhaps in California and Arizona, just to keep a hand in. The obsession with the Masters - he chose to live at Augusta with the J.B. Masters family - is also over. "I had my fun, " Yancey says now.
Today he is chasing a greater prize.
"I'm not afraid to say I'm mentally ill, and I'm coping with it," Yancey said.
Yancey, 39, has lived the last 18 years subject to the extreme mood swings symptomatic to manic-depressive illness. As thousands like him do, he now takes a drug, lithium carbonate, that acts as a governor on his moods. With the drug, Yanceys behavior is normal. Without it, he likely would go off on another of what he calls "my manic highs."
Those are episodes marked by bizarre behavior. They are generally thought, by Yancey and his doctors, to be defensive reactions to severe depression. Some of those episodes are recounted in this article. Yancey told the story of his illness, he said, because "I think it could do a lot of good for people who would like to know more and understand metal illness. It is, you know, here to stay."
In the winter of 1974, Yancey was floating on a high. He k, Bert Yancey has lived a nightmare. He has been in a strald, he loved it. The high is intoxicating. It is a feeling the manic-depressive craves just as the alcoholic thirsts for the bottle's deliverance from life's pain. On a high, Yancey said, he felt smarter than everyone else. No one else could see what he could see. In a comb, he saw evil; he saw good in brush.No one else could do that. He was smug.
The best part, he said, was the feeling he had been chosen to do God's work against evil, prejudice and cancer. He had completed the 1974 tour with money winnings of $84,692, his best year ever, and was in Japan for a series of exhibitions and clinics. "I was a messiah rising out of the PGA," he says now. "I was going to the Orient to bring an end to the evil of Communism and bring the religions of the Orient into line with Christianity."
Manic-depressives on a high can not sleep. They are both physically and mentally excited. It was 3 o'clock in the morning in Tokyo when Yancey, in his hotel room, heard a message from his radio. A song came on, "Take a Walk, Take a Walk." "So," he says now, smiling, "I took a walk."
In the three years since that walk in the dark, Bert Yancey has lived a nightmare. He has been a straitjacket, left face down overnight on a jail-cell floor after being arrested on four counts: indecent exposure, "Peeping Tom," resisting arrest and destroying government property. He has been chained by all fours to a bed in a psychiatric ward. Yancey's wife left him, taking their four children. The lithium carbonate produced hand tremors that ruined him as a touring player.
Leaving his hotel room that night in Tokyo, Yancey thought it right that a messiah walk to the top of a large hill nearby and visit a Japanese religious shrine. There a guard winked at him in acknowledgement, Yancey believed of his status.
While returning to his hotel, he chanced to meet the American singing group, The Temptations. Anyone with such a name must be evil, the golfer-messiah decided. "You're the devil," he told them," and I'm here to take you on." Yancey remembers the words exactly. In a manic state, everything is sharply defined, unforgettably vivid.
Yancey assumed a karate stance, though he knows nothing of the martial art. Before he could attack evil, one of the singers slipped behind him and with a karate chop of his own leveled Yancey with a blow so strong it ripped the golfer's eye.
Yancey returned to his hotel. There was a Christmas tree in the lobby. He pulled it over. "Here I am with my eye bleeding," he says now, "and I'm yanking down the Christmas tree. As the champion of justice, i had not lost to evil, and that was no place for a Christmas tree."
From Japan, Yancey was taken to a public mental hospital in his hometown, Philadelphia. His roommate sat up in bed every three minutes and screamed. "It was a jungle," Yancey says. Transferred to a private hospital, Yancey stayed there are first 2 1/2 months of 1975.
No one diagnosed Yancey's illness then, just as no one had in the summer of 1960. A son of the city manager of Tallahassee, Fla., he was a third-year cadet at the U.S. Military Academy. He made the Dean's List, was a nationally ranked college golfer, had a pretty girl friend, was proud to be at West POint. "I was loving the whole thing," he says today, "when - boom! - in less than two weeks I was in a padded cell."
He didn't know what to make of it in 1960, but now Yancey recognizes the symptoms of his illness. "I couldn't sleep. I went for three nights and four days without sleeping. When you're high, your mind just works and works and works constantly. That's why you're creative. You get really charged up. But I'd stand plebes against the wall and say, "What is truth, mister?" Or, "What is love?"
"A couple of guys noticed it and asked me to go into a doctor and talk about it.
"I did, and they committed me. Right away."
For nine months, Yancey was in a hospital at Valley Forge, Pa. He underwent two series of electro-shock treatments. Within a year he was on the PGA tour briefly, dropping off for two seasons to work as a club assistant pro.
In 1964, he went on tour full-time and for Yancey that step into the snlight by a man who had seen the darkness of a padded cell was a great victory. For the next decade, he walked with Palmer and Trevino and Nicklaus. His best friends were Frank Beard and Tom Weiskopf, two of that time's most prominent players.
I want to be on Bert's side," Beard said. "Unless your entire story is going to be positive, I don't even want my name in it. The thing is, the Bert Yancey story is a story with an answer and it's never been printed.
"All these damned assassins in the press are interested in is putting. 'Peeping Tom Yancey' in headlines on the front page. Somewhere, human decency has to take over. The boy has been raked through the coals. His life has been made a hell.
"The pathetic thing is, he's not a man who needs to be locked up. He's not a crazy man, not a raving lunatic. As long as he takes his medicine, he's as normal as you and I. And he's got a lot to give. He has a wonderful golf mind and he's wonderful teaching with both low and high high handicappers."
"When Bert was out here, he was probably my closest friend," Tom Weiskopf said.'He and Frank and Tony Jacklin and I would play all day every Tuesday. He had a tremendous sense of humor, but at some point there was a personality change. His humor turned to a serious nature. It wasn't a bad change; he was just different."
Weiskopf said Yancey was "very, very intelligent and intense." On airplane trips, Yancey worked mathematical puzzles and prodded Weiskopf to describe symptoms of an illness, which he then would diagnose. Once a pre med student, Yancey always was ambivalent about his choice of careers. He loved golf, but believed he might have made a real contribution as a doctor. It worried him.
"My best year in golf, I'd been having trouble with my putting," Weiskopf said. "So Bert spent hours with me developing a putting system that would work for me. He's stand at the putting green and say, 'Yeah, you're doing it,' 'No, you're not doing it."
Beard said Yancey's great obession was the Masters. Obession really is not even the word for what he had at Augusta. Had I ever been as intense on any objective as he was at Augusta, I could't have got out of bed."
Weiskopf said, "Not winning at Augusta hurt Bert, but what hurt more than that was not winning the U.S. Open in 1968, He broke all the records for 36 and 54 holes. Then, the last day, his wife Linda and I went out to watch him play the last five holes.
"He had the most discouraged look I've ever seen on anyone. Defeated. Even before he was finished. Right after that, as I look back, the personality change began."
Once the leader by six strokes in the '68. Open at Oak Hill in Rochester N.Y., Yancey shot a 76 the last day and finished third. Trevino won. The memory seems painful to Yancey, for he spoke of that day and Trevino haltingly.
"I lost it. He just had . . . he beat me. he had more . . . he had more . . . well, he was concentrating somehow with . . . he knew what he wanted to do. He knew he wanted to win. He knew he was going to win and I could feel that . . . and I couldn't get it out of my mind.
"I just felt like he was going to win the tournament. There's so many of those bluecollar workers in Rochester and they were all rooting for Lee, boy, and he would tee off and they would go and I would have tee up when everybody was moving. Stuff like that. I just never could catch him, the son of a gun."
Those who knew of Yancey's traveil at West Point saw in the Rochester defeat evident that he would never win again. Too much pressure, they said. In fact, Yancey would win three PGA tournments after Pochester, including two on great courses: the 1970 Crosby at Pebble Beach and the 1972 American Golf Classic at Firestone Country Club.
By the fall of 1974, Bert Yancey was a respected member of his profession. His fellow players elected him to a responsible position in the PGA hierarchy. An insurance company paid him well to do golf clinics for its excutives. Every week at each new stop, Yancey did clinics for tour sponsors. He was a member of the President's Council for Physical Fitness in Sports. As an elected delegate to the national meeting of the PGA, Yancey went to Hawaii. There he was asked to give the invocation.
"Now, that's how far I had come from that padded cell," Yancey said. "I had it licked again, right? It wasn't the parade field at West Point, but I was sitting on top of the world. And the roof fell in again."
From Hawaii, Yancey went to Tokyo, where the dark journey resumed. It hasn't ended yet. The third week out of the Philiadephia hospita, Yancey finsihed second in a tournment at Miami's Doral Golf and Country Club. In about six months, Yancey won $35,000.
He did it while believing he was marked for murder. Because he voted in favor of a PGA decision to abondon a tournament played at a club thought ot be controlled by mobsters, Yancey experienced "a real and honest fear of the underworld. . . . I felt were out to get me."
After a tournament at Westchester, N.Y., in August of that dreadful summer of '75, Yancey ordered a painter down from a ladder inside LaGuardia Airport. Yancey scrambled up near the airport's and, hoping to convince the roomful of puzzled witness that racial prejuice was foolish, he called out orders.
"I was saying, 'All right, all the whites over here, all the blacks over there, we're going to have us Chinese fire drill," or something like that," Yancey said.
"Which meant a great deal to me at the time. And people were laughing, right? That's high, right? Literally and figuratively. That's a natural high. That's manic-depressive illness. You're uninhibited. You do things that have a great deal of meaning to you but they don't have any meaning to other people. They don't understand your meaning.
"So in comes the security and takes me down off the ladder into the quiet room. And down there I was spitting on a light bulb, thinking if I watched the saliva burn, the different colors and shapes, I could find the key to the cure for cancer.
"The doctor's there, they give me medication and I'm in the hospital in 10 minutes.
"And in the hospital, within two days, Dr. Jane Parker of Payne Whitney Hospital diagnosed my case as manic-depressive illness and put me on lithium.
"That woman saved my life."
For his life, Yancey gave up his golf swing. Among the thousands of manic-depressives on lithium who function extraordinarily well, the limited side effects of the drug are no bother. A small dosage produces a hand tremor so slight it is invisible. Nothing worse.
For a professional golfer, nothing is worse than a hand tremor, however slight. At the levels of Yancey's game, four strokes a day is the differencec between success and mediocrity. Once as elegant player, Yancey in 1976 was a pathetic figure, seldom able to break 80.
He earned no money that year and quit the tour that winiter to set up The Bert Yancey Classical School of Golf at Hilton Head. More than 1,000 students paid $50 a day for a full days's instruction from one of the game's learned teachers.
So many times up and down - from the Dean's List to a padded cell . . . up to his biggest year and down in Japan . . . then back to finish second at Doral, only to wind up spitting on a light bulb - so many times up and down, Yancey was now away from the tour, free of that terrible pressure that demanded repeated successes, and now he would be fine.
"What happens," Yancey said, trying to explain the catalyst of his manic highs, "is that when you succeed, believe it or not, you become depressed. For me, anyway, you become depressed because your body feels now it has to succeed again and again. And the manic highs are a reaction and a defense mechanism against that depression. So my body was saying, 'Man, I'm tired of this, I'm depressed, because we can't keep up this pace.' So a manic episode follows."
On tours, golfers play through various levels of sucess, each small victory requiring a larger to certify it as real. "You win a tournament, you got to win another, then three or four. You win three or four, you get to win a major. You win a major, you got to win another major. I mean, there's no end to it."
The tour, Yancey said intensified his illness, but he doesn't say it caused it."How could I? What touring player in the history of the world," he said.
Teaching golf at Hilton Head, Yancey felt safe.
Or thought he did. From Philadelphia, his estranged wife demanded he sign divorce papers. Never gregarious - his few friends on tour remember him as a loner who always seemed lost in thought - Yancey was now painfully alone.
Somehow he became high. His friends, Frank Beard, said Yancey wanted to go back on tour. So some people suspect Yancey stopped taking the lithium, he might also find the manic-high escape from that fall's depression. Yancey denies it and gives a detailed physiological explanation of why his lithium level was low. It is an explanation at odds with generally accepted knowledge of lithium's behaviour.
This was on Halloween of 1977.
The police account: responding to a prowler call, they arrested Yancey at 1:30 in the morning outside his apartment. He had peeked in on a neighbour, a woman, and exposed himself to her while standing outside her window. He struck police officers and, from the back seat of the squad car, kicked out a screen partition.
According to friends of Yancey, it happened this way: he asked the neighbor for cigarettes. She had none. So he went back to his place and 10 minutes later saw a police car. Wearing a jogging suit with a hood, he told the police he was Robin Hood and playfully extended a leg toward an officer. In quick reponse, the policeman hit Yancey with a flashlight. At that point, Yancey resisted arrest. By this account, Yancey never was a 'Peeping Tom' and never exposed himself.
Yancey won't talk about the episode, other than to admit he was high that night. "I don't want to knock anyone," he said. "I don't have any feeling of revenge or malice against anybody - because I'm the one responsible. No one else is responsible. Here's a young policeman out in the dark and a guy acts like he's a karate expert and he makes a move and that policeman react immediately. And I mean that from the bottom of my heart. I felt like this guy beat the - out of me. He was a young policeman doing his job. Everybody was doing what they thought was right."
The police put him in a strait jacket, face down, in a jail cell overnight. By court order the next day, Yancey was taken to a South Carolina state mental institution.
"There I was strapped to a bed, chained all fours to a bed, and after three days I was moved to another ward that . . . It was incredible.
"I spent three of the most unbelievable weeks of my life in that ward. I had human feces all over the wall of the cell. And it was a cell, it wasn't a room. Bugs, roaches, files, just crawling all over and I was tied down. I spent a couple of days just cleaning up the cell."
"There must be a man there who loves Bert," Frank Beard said.
Billy Palmer, 27, the vice president of operations for Hilton Head Golf & Racquet Club, renewed Yancey's teaching contract even after the island episode. The criminal charges are yet pending, but all sides seem content to do nothing about them.
"Bert scared me at first and I thought we ought to disassociate ourselves from him," Palmer said. "I thought it'd be bad for business to have somebody like Bert around. But then I got to thinking I couldn't kick a man when he was down. And finally I took the attitude that people with any sense at all would'nt pay attention to what had been in the newspapers."
A conference with police, the country peosecutor's office, Yancey's doctor and minister convinced Palmer that Yancey, as long as he took the lithium, was not a business risk. He would be an asset to the club.
"A golf school like Bert's is unique on this island," Palmer said. "He's super dealing with people and he's a personally I like around here. As a teacher, he's the best I've ever seen."
Still, Palmer said Yancey's school is not guaranteed a spot at the club forever. "He's gotta show me he's making the club money," he said.
Yancey's golf school opened for the season three weeks ago. He was apprehensive at first, he said, wondering how people would accept him. He says they've been nice and he's enjoying the school. "People have an ability to give you a clean shake," Yancey said.
The foundation theory of golf that is the key element in Yancey's teaching is what he calls "the preswing motion." He teaches students to adopt a rhythmical routine that precedes the moment the clubhead moves away from the ball at address.
It was a cold and gray day, maybe 45 degrees, when Yancey moved beside an old woman and said, "Now, Margot, the oldest truth in golf instruction is, 'So goes the waggle, so goes the swing.' Let's try again."
Waggling the club behind the ball helps set up a rhythmical swing, Yancey says. With more documentation, he hopes to write an instructional book on the preswing. He once studied films of top golfers, including Bobby Jones, to see if they had an established routine prior to each swing.
"And they all did, whether they realized it or not," Yancey said. "I put a stopwatch on them. Bobby Jones would take the same amount of time, withing two-tenths of a second, every time he walked up to a shot. By setting up that rhythm, he was programming his body for the swing."
Yancey lives under heavy burdens: the club vice president says Yancey msut make the club money to stay on the job; the criminal charges are still alive if anyone wants to make something of them, and the roots of the manic-depressive illness are unchanged and Yancey says he plans to be on lithium forever. Heavy burdens, and Yancey says he's up to carrying them.
"This story can be helpful," he said, "if you get the point across that mental illness is not something to be afraid of. BUt it's something to be handled with care, both by the mentally ill person and by the people around him.
"I'm not talking about brain disease, and I'm not talking about tumors. I'm talking about reactive mental illness. It's a part of people's existence and that's why I feel a responsibility as a mentally ill person to do a good job, to just say, 'Heck, I'm normal, like a guy with one arm. I can exist.'" CAPTION: Picture 1, In 13 seasons on the pro golf tour, Bert Yancey won seven events and more than $600,000., UPI; Picture 2, Bing Crosby offered congratulations after Bert yancey won 1970 Crosby Pro-Am., UPI.