Study: Putting Better With Ben Curtis’s Putter

By Tom Jacobs


This article originally appeared at Miller-McCune and is used with permission.

GOLFERS: WANT TO PUTT LIKE a champion? It’ll help if you use a champion’s putter. That’s the key finding of a study published in the online journal PLoS One, which finds the “positive contagion” of a piece of sports equipment can substantially improve a player’s performance.

Forty-one undergraduates—all experienced golfers—took part in an experiment conducted by a research team led by University of Virginia psychologist Charles Lee. They were taken to an artificial putting mat, which was designed to mimic the speed of greens professional golfers play on.

Study: Putting Better With Ben Curtis’s Putter 1
Ben Curtis prepares to putt.

Half the golfers were told they’d be using a putter formerly used by professional golfer Ben Curtis, a veteran player on the PGA Tour. The researchers discussed this fact with each player for about 15 seconds, noting Curtis’s recent successes and asking, “Isn’t that cool?”

The other players were told nothing of the putter’s history.

Each participant viewed the hole from a distance of 2.13 meters. They then estimated the size of the hole by drawing a circle on a computer screen. “To promote accuracy, participants were encouraged to redraw the circle until they believed it matched the size of the golf hole,” the researchers write.

Each golfer then putted the ball 10 times, starting out from a place on the mat that increased the difficulty of sinking the ball.

Results and Explanations

The results: The players told they were using Curtis’s putter “perceived the golf hole to be bigger, and sank more puts” than the others. This occurred in spite of the fact there was no difference between the two groups in terms of golf experience or self-reported level of confidence.

Lee and his colleagues offer several possible explanations for their results.

“Previous research has shown that engaging in positive imagery before a sports competition is positively correlated with performance,” they note.

“Such imagery involves imagining oneself as having control over one’s situation, and engaging in a state of focus and mental toughness.”

Perhaps, they speculate, the mental image of Ben Curtis helped facilitate that enormously helpful mindset. Or perhaps a “placebo effect” could be in play. The researchers note that past research has found “positive contagion” can “lead one to impute more value to an object.” (A guitar played by Paul McCartney is worth more than one strummed by your brother-in-law.) Those who believed they were using Curtis’s putter may have “amended their perceived putting abilities” since they had such a valuable club in their hands.

The researchers can’t be certain that the perceived size of the hole played a role in the golfers’ better scores, although that seems intuitively correct.

“It is possible that a third variable could independently influence both perception and performance,” they write.

In any event, this research provides more evidence that golf is as much a mental game as a physical one, and that certain superstitious beliefs can become self-fulfilling prophecies—in a good way, in this case.

Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years of experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and Ventura County Star.

(Photo credit: Keith Allison, Flickr, Creative Commons license)

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