Bert Yancey: Playing Through Mental Illness

Bert Yancey at the 1970 Masters / Screen shots taken from old Masters footage

With six holes left to play in the 1970 Masters tournament, 32-year old Bert Yancey sat atop of the leaderboard with golfing great, Gary Player and ’61 U.S. Open champ, Gene Littler.

In 1967 and 1968, Yancey placed third in the event. Surely, this was his year to put on the prized green jacket.

Yancey sailed his second over the green into a bunker on the par-5, 13th. His excellent blast ended up five feet from the hole. He missed the putt and was now one back of the lead held by playing partner, Littler.

On the 14th, he sent his second shot within 5 feet of the hole, and again, missed just right. On 15, Yancey nearly holed out his chip shot for a birdie.

The Masters was a tournament Yancey yearned to win. Even going as far as setting up clay models of Augusta’s undulating greens in his house, in hopes that he could master the reads.

At 16 and 17 he had longer putts to tie for the lead, but ended up with pars.

Trailing only by one shot, and needing a birdie to tie, Yancey sent his second shot into the 18th front greenside bunker. And when his third shot finished 12 feet behind the hole, he realized his hopes to win the Masters were dashed.

Again, Yancey would finish third.

His near misses at Augusta weren’t the only thing eating at Yancey.

Bizarre events and a diagnosis

Just five years removed from his chance at the 1970 Masters, Yancey would climb to the top of a painter’s ladder in a terminal at LaGuardia Airport, and order all “white” passengers to one side of the terminal and all “black” passengers to the other side. He then went on to preach to the bewildered crowd about the injustice of racism.

Soon, he was arrested, and sent to a quiet room, where he began spitting on a light bulb, believing the different colors and shapes coming from his burning saliva would reveal the cure for cancer.

Knowing there was something seriously wrong with their man in custody, Yancey was sent to Payne Whitney Hospital where he came under the care of Dr. Jane Parker.

After a series of tests, Parker diagnosed Yancey as “manic-depressive” (a mental illness now referred to as bipolar disorder today).

Yancey was prescribed lithium to control his bipolar disorder. And, while the drug worked to eliminate his episodes, its one side effect—hand tremors—would put an end to his competitive golfing.

In 1976, he quit the PGA Tour and started a golf school at Hilton Head, S.C. There would be another “manic” episode in 1977 involving an arrest, which included indecent exposure, voyeurism, resisting arrest and destroying government property (he tore up the back seat in a police car).

Yancey and mental health

The frantic episode in 1975 wasn’t the first time Yancey experienced a mental health crisis. Fifteen years earlier, as a senior at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, he would be hospitalized for nine months after a series of non-sensical ramblings about philosophy and the nature of God. During that time he suffered a nervous breakdown and was subjected to electroshock therapy.

After being released from the hospital, Yancey went to live with his brother in Florida. He continued to have different bipolar episodes that affected his life. One, where he was on a plane and became convinced he was a kamikaze pilot, and would not survive the flight. But as the plane landed safely, all was well again.

Oddly enough, the bizarre behavior went away. Yancey made his way onto the PGA Tour in 1962 and had little success. He accepted an assistant professional job at a course in Pennsylvania a couple years later. Through the backing of some of its members, Yancey was able to make his way back to the Tour in ’64.

Remarkably, from 1964 to 1975, Yancey made almost $700,000 in prize money and won seven tournaments. Even with his past struggles (and not knowing when it may return), he placed in the top-5 in six major championships.

Post-PGA Tour

In 1984, a new medicine came onto the market to treat bipolar disorder called Tegretrol. Yancey was prescribed the new drug and it seemed to do wonders for him. Two years later, he was back competing again and earned his first paycheck at the Tallahassee Open (a Florida mini-tour event).

According to his friend, Roy Barineau, he decided to join the Senior PGA Tour (now Champions Tour) in the hopes of completing his comeback and bring awareness to mental illness.

At the Franklin Quest Championship in Park City, Utah, Yancey was preparing for the first round of the event, when he felt some discomfort in his chest. He made a trip to the first aid tent and collapsed of a heart attack. Yancey later passed away at a nearby hospital. He was 56.

Yancey’s good friend, Tom Weiskopf, ended up winning the event.

“I didn’t win this thing,” a teary-eyed Weiskopf said. “Bert made me win this. I loved him. I won this tournament because of him.”

In the last five years of his life, Yancey became a public speaker and advocate for those living with mental illness. He founded a group called Bogeys, Birdies & Bert, for the education and support of mental illnesses.

In a 1992 interview, Yancey is quoted as saying:

“Control is not a cure. I don’t expect to ever exist without medication, without psychotherapy, without friends who will tell me, `You’re getting off the wall.’ ”

Much of the information contained in this article, came from Yancey’s friend, Roy Barineau’s book, Roybob’s Book on Golf: The Hucks, Bert Yancey, A Golfer’s Divine Comedy, and A Religious Philosophy of Golf.

To view the 1970 Masters Tournament.

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