Golf lends itself to superstition and the adoption of quirky habits and heathen beliefs in order to tip the balance of fortune in your favour. Skill is still the main ingredient for success, but it helps somehow if outside forces are in your corner.
Research reveals several areas where superstition finds a willing home in a golfer’s mind. The three most common talismans to counteract bad luck are the number on the ball, the colour of the tee, and the manner in which the ball is marked on the green.
There is also a belief among golfers that compliments made while the ball is in motion can somehow affect the outcome of the shot. Rick Reilly in his book Who’s your Caddy? mentions how his player Tommy Aaron told him bluntly during a practice round at the Masters to "keep your mouth off my ball".
What is happening here is a phenomenon known as 'new yorking'. Dr Richard Frei, Assistant Professor, Social/Organizational Psychology at Temple University describes in a paper how "a common complaint of disc golfers is that comments made while a disc is in flight, particularly compliments made regarding the shot, in some way change the flight path, usually in the direction of a tree".
Any thinking adult would question the logic behind such a ridiculous belief which brings us to the definition of 'superstition'. The Reader’s Digest Universal Dictionary defines 'superstition' as "an unfounded belief that some action or circumstance completely unrelated to a course of events can influence its outcome".
We all know of the power of superstition. You have only to remark casually to a player in your group how well he or she is putting, and therefore is bound to win the competition, to witness thereafter a series of three putts.
It would seem that the human mind is extremely frail, hence the growing need for sports psychologists. To deal with this aberration most golfers, both professionals and weekend hackers, have devised a number of behaviours or quirky habits to ward off the effects of any bad luck.
Ball manufacturers stamp different numbers on balls purely to help golfers with identification. The numbers have nothing to do with the quality or characteristics of the ball. However, balls with a number higher than four are often associated with bad luck so much so that they are hardly made anymore.
Some golfers will only play with numbers one and three. Ernie Els regards the number two as unlucky and believes that there is only one birdie in each ball. South African Retief Goosen uses a ball with number four in the first round of the tournament counting down to number one in the final round. Vijay Singh goes in the opposite order.
The colour of a tee can also play mind games. Shigeki Maruyama never uses white tees as green is his tee colour. Colin Montgomerie avoids yellow and red tees as he associates them with the stakes indicating a water hazard.
Doug Sanders, best remembered for a short missed putt on the final hole of the 1970 British Open, had a thing about white tees and the white out-of-bound stakes.
As I am red-green colour blind I avoid red tees for a more practical reason. I just can’t see them on the ground after I have teed off.
How you should mark your ball on the green and what you should use is a science all on its own. Here the golfer has an opportunity to give free rein to his or her superstitious beliefs.
Coins are the markers of choice among professional golfers. Mind you not any coin; and the number you carry in your pocket has also to be exact. Paul Azinger uses a penny with the head up and always with Lincoln facing the hole. Aaron Oberholzer follows a similar routine with a quarter.
Fred Funk apparently flips his coin and if it lands heads, he too will have the face pointing towards the hole. Vijay Singh uses a different method. Heads up until he misses. Jesper Parnevik on the other hand prefers his coin to be showing tails.
Jack Nicklaus when he plays golf still carries three coins in his pocket; a trait now copied by others. Davis Love III marks his ball with a 1965 or 1966 penny. Coins minted in the 70s or later can occasion high scores.
Peter Lonard multiple winner of the Australian PGA felt that the green marker he used for the first three rounds of the 2007 event was cursed. He changed to a five cent piece for the final round and the spell was broken.
A major relief as he was quoted a few days before as saying that he would stick his head up a "dead bear’s bum" to find the right putter. Obviously it wasn’t the putter, but the coin all the time.
The most pervasive superstition in golf that has stood the test of time is the belief that whoever wins Wednesday’s Par Three competition at the Masters has effectively shot himself in the foot for the main trophy.
Forty plus years of history has shown that no player has pulled off the double. Raymond Floyd came close one year, but lost in a playoff in 1990 to Nick Faldo adding strength to the legend. Players in line to win the preliminary competition have been known to abort their effort just to be on the right side of providence.
Tiger Woods withdrew from a three way playoff in 2004 just in case, but finished tied 22nd.
One final thought on superstition. Justin Rose en route to a possible 59 in the 2006 Funai Classic in Florida openly discussed his chances of achieving the elusive number while still playing. He should have known better. Every golfer soon learns the unspoken rule that you don’t tempt fate by talking about your game when you are having a good round.
As Bernard Darwin, golf game's most revered writer, so clearly put it in an article for the American Golfer in 1924 - "Here was a man defying lightning".
We all have to decide one way or the other whether or not to give in to superstition. There can be no sitting on the fence. Maybe we should all be like Stewart Cink who stays clear of all superstitions because, he says, all they do is bring him bad luck.