My Usual GameAugust 17, 2010

Lucky Charms

In a study at a german university, subjects who were given what they were told was a lucky golf ball were 35 percent more successful at sinking putts than subjects who were given what they were told was merely "the ball everyone has used so far." Lysann Damisch, a co-author of the study and an assistant professor at the University of Cologne, said, "Our results suggest that the activation of a superstition can indeed yield performance-improving effects."

Well, duh. But what's the empirical explanation?

Scientists, when weighing competing hypotheses, often employ Occam's razor, an evaluative principle suggesting that the simplest explanation covering all the facts is usually the correct one. In this case, the simplest explanation is that Damisch and her collaborators used a magic ball. Maddeningly, the study's online abstract doesn't mention the ball's brand or model. Actually, a magic ball might not be all that useful, in the long run. Even if losing it turned out to be impossible (it's lucky, after all), you would eventually wear off the paint. That's why I, in my current research, focus on magic ball markers, which are more durable. My favorite markers have always been foreign coins, and, in recent years, I've narrowed my game-day selection to a handful of proven performers.

For most putts, I use a 2001 British two-pound coin, which commemorates the 100th anniversary of Guglielmo Marconi's first trans-Atlantic radio transmission. The coin is bimetallic (with an outer ring of goldium), making it inherently lucky. Even better, the image on the tails side depicts four arrow-like radio waves (or something) emanating from what appears to be a golf hole. When I mark my ball, I aim the luckiest-seeming arrow toward the actual hole, and the coin takes it from there.

In situations where anything worse than a two-putt would be unacceptable, I use a 1994 Danish two-kroner coin, which -- in addition to having a "2" and three "II"s embossed on it -- has an actual hole right through its center. How lucky is that?

For absolute, must-make putts, I use a 2005 one-dirham coin that I picked up in Dubai a few years ago. It has a scimitar-shaped Arabic numeral "1" on the obverse -- exactly the number you want to have working for you when a two-putt won't do. On the other side, there's an image of what looks to me like a genie's oil lamp. The scimitar is really all I need, but, just to be sure, I usually give the lamp a little rub.