Golf is a precarious game, one in which the result of a round, or tournament, can literally depend on the bounce of a ball. The game is played at the whim of Mother Nature, who might send a gust of wind to deflect a ball that is flying straight toward the flag or drop a twig or a leaf in the way of a perfect putt. So it is not surprising that many golfers, especially professional golfers whose careers depend on their score, have superstitions about various aspects of the game.
The Masters holds a special place in the hearts and minds of pro golfers, and of course, there are superstitions associated with playing the first men’s major of the year, on the course that will always be associated with the revered Bobby Jones.
Jack Nicklaus, the man with one of the best Masters records in the game – most victories (6), most second-place finishes (4), second-best career scoring average (71.98), and second-best four-round score (271) – has a superstition that has apparently served him well, at the Masters and elsewhere: he must have three coins in his pocket when he plays, no more, no less.
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Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, and Gary Player
Two-time Masters champion (2012, 2014) Bubba Watson eats one or two burritos every day while playing the tournament. It worked for a couple of years there, so why not keep it up?
The best-known superstition concerning the Masters is the Par-3 Jinx. No player who won the Wednesday Par-3 Contest has even gone on to win the Tournament in the same year. In fact, only two players have ever won the Masters in subsequent years after having won the Par-3. Ben Crenshaw, who won the Par-3 in 1987, took home the green jacket (for the second time) in 1995 – eight years later. Vijay Singh went six years between his 1994 Par-3 contest win and his Masters victory in 2000.
As the focus of the game of golf, it is not surprising that there are a lot of superstitions about the ball – what number ball to play, when to replace a ball, etc.
Ball number is often the subject of players’ superstitions. Ben Crenshaw only played low-number balls – one through four – as a charm to keep his score on a hole to four or below (easy practice to follow, of course, because the standard numbering on a box of balls is one through four.)
Cathy Johnston-Forbes in 1990 during the Women’s World Golf Championship
Former LPGA player Cathy Johnston-Forbes has a ball-number preference that dates back to her junior golf days. “I have always played only Titleist 3’s in competition, ever since my junior golf days. I use to have to trade balls with players in the locker room sometimes to get enough 3’s for the week. Players were all too happy to get rid of 3’s, I guess because they thought it was a jinx for 3 putts.”
We know that the pros get their golf balls for free, but Ernie Els superstition borders on the ridiculous. Els famously changes to a new ball after every birdie, because he figures that ball’s luck is all used up. A quick look at Ernie’s record – 71 professional wins, including four majors – will show that he has used up a lot of golf balls over the years!
On the flip side, former LPGA Tour player and 18Birdies Brand Ambassador Kris Tschetter has a story about keeping a “lucky ball” in play:
“When I first got on tour, my dad gave me many pieces of advice. One of them was, ‘Don’t get superstitious out there. It will make you crazy.’ ”
“He was caddying for me in a tournament, probably my first or second year on tour, when I handed him my ball and asked him for a new one. ‘You can’t change balls, you just made three birdies with that ball.’
“I told him that I wasn’t superstitious. Then he said. ‘That’s not superstitious, that’s going with the flow!’ ”
The ultimate antithesis to Ernie Els’ “lucky ball” superstition, however, is this story from Cathy Johnston-Forbes, who rode a lucky ball to a major victory:
“I used the same ball for the entire 72 holes at the Du Maurier Classic in 1990 (which was then a major on the LPGA Tour). After I shot 8-under in the first round I decided to use (the same ball) again the next day. I was still leading so I went the third round with it. Still leading, so I basically thought, ‘Why would I change to a different ball now?’
“I finished all 72 holes without hitting any cart paths or finding any water hazards, and the ball still looked in pretty good shape after it was all over. Actually, I still have the ball in my safety deposit box at my bank, along with all of the scorecards from the event.”
Teeing it up
Every hole played in golf starts with a ball on a tee, so the subject of tees looms large in many players’ minds. Chief among the superstitions attached to tees is preference of color. Former U.S. Marine Lee Trevino won’t play a yellow tee, because “…yellow is the color of cowardice.”
Colin Montgomerie won’t use yellow or red tees because those colors mark hazards – but oddly enough, he doesn’t have a problem with white tees, which are the color of OB markers. Davis Love III, on the other hand, will only use white tees.
On the LPGA Tour, Paula Creamer’s tradition/superstition about the color pink – wearing all pink and playing a pink ball on Sunday – also extends to the color of the tees she uses.
For a time Cathy Johnston-Forbes extended her “lucky ball” superstition to the tee she played:
“I went through a superstitious phase where I would only carry one tee in my pocket and would use it until it broke or the head was so small the ball couldn’t sit on it anymore. I remember using one tee for over four weeks before the ball wouldn’t sit on it anymore. This tee thing almost put my husband over the edge.”
Marking the Ball
With all the importance that putts carry, there are superstitions in abundance when it comes to marking the ball on the putting green.
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Chi Chi Rodriguez
Puerto Rican great Chi Chi Rodriguez marks his ball with the head side up, and he never uses pennies as a marker; in fact, he uses a different marker depending upon the putt: a quarter for birdie putts, a buffalo nickel for eagle putts, and if he really needs the mojo, he switches to a gold coin.
Champions Tour player Joe Durant carries a quarter, a dime and a nickel to mark the ball with. He marks his ball on the green with small coins when closer to the hole, and with the bigger coins for the long putts.
Champions Tour fan favorite Fred Funk marks his ball heads-up and has the face on the coin pointed toward the hole, like the coin is reading the putt along with him.
You just know that a player like Boo Weekley is going to have little luck-quirks, right? “I always mark my ball on heads, and I always play with a coin that is 70 and below,” Weekley says. “Just for the score. All the coins in my bag are 70 and below.”
What Has It Got In Its Pockets?
The mind games that players indulge in even extend to what they carry in their pockets. While Jack Nicklaus will only play golf when he has three coins in his pocket, Champions Tour player Joe Durant ramps that up – he has to have five tees in his pocket when he plays.
Tom Weiskopf, the 1973 Open Championship winner, always carried three tees in his pocket, along with three coins. 1977 PGA Championship winner Lanny Wadkins took it a step further. Coins in his left pocket, tees in the right pocket, and his glove in his pocket in a certain, precise way when he wasn’t playing.
When It Comes Right Down To It
Because golf is a game of consistency and repetition, little drills and superstitions will always permeate the game, from tee to green. Consistent practice is important to achieving success on the course, and it’s not unusual for that consistency to be extended to the odd little quirks that players indulge in. Constancy in the little things that are peripheral to the game reinforces consistency in the big things that determine the course of a round.
Many of us, though, take the same attitude as two-time U.S. Open Champion Andy North, who does more television work than competitive golf these days, “I’m just trying to find my ball after I hit it, that’s my superstition right now.” So are we Andy, so are we.