With the Masters scheduled to start up tomorrow, Tiger Woods is looking to complete his comeback by winning his first major since all hell broke loose in 2008. The one thing that seems to be holding him back recently is his putting ability. Now, he could just go with Happy Gilmore’s advice of sending the ball to its home, but Jessica Witt from Purdue University might have some better advice.
In a recent research paper published in Psychological Science, Witt shows that perceiving the hole as being larger increases one’s odds of making a putt.
In the study, Witt set up a projector over a 5 cm hole that displayed a ring of circles surrounding the hole. This creates what is known as the Ebbinghaus illusion, messing with our minds like the staircase to nowhere and changing the size of the hole to our eyes. Just to make sure the effect was working, she also set up a computer with good old MS Paint so that the participants could draw how big they thought the hole was.
For two different projections of circles (see figure to the right), participants viewed the hole as 1.5 cm larger or 2 cm larger for a ring of large circles and a ring of small circles, respectively. And the bigger they saw the hole, the more putts they sank. That small difference of .5 cm between the two illusions accounted for almost one more putt sank, on average.
And we all know that major golf tournaments can come down to one putt.
I’m not sure how Tiger or anyone else in the field can take advantage of this, seeing as how I doubt the rules committee will let anyone set up a downward facing projector to make the hole seem larger. But previous research has shown that that softball players hitting better see the ball as larger, with similar patterns for throwing darts, kicking field goals or returning tennis shots.
So it seems that perception plays a large role in our performance. It could be a confidence thing. Whatever it is, it seems as though this weekend’s golfers – as well as all athletes out there – would do well to try to visualize their target to be as large as possible.