- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 27, 2007

En route to his breakout, wire-to-wire victory at the 1999 Kemper Open, Rich Beem famously ate at the same meal at the same restaurant on five consecutive nights. “The burgers were lousy and the beer was skunky, but there was no way I was changing a thing,” said Beem after his bolt from oblivion to the winner’s circle.

From Jack Nicklaus’ bag full of buckeyes to Tiger’s Sunday scarlet, superstition has long been a silent partner on the PGA Tour.

With its slow pace and profusion of equipment and accouterments, no sport provides a better petri dish for spawning superstitions than golf. The game is a blank canvas beckoning eccentricity and virtually begging for obsessive-compulsive behavior where the line between routine and ritual is constantly blurred.

‘I’d say almost every player out here is superstitious to some degree,” longtime PGA Tour instructor said Juan Elizondo at the recent Accenture Match Play Championship. “Many things these guys would merely dismiss as part of their routine, like always playing a ball with the same number, are actually ritualistic displays of superstition.

‘Every instructor out here has learned to walk on eggshells around such subjects, especially on game days. Tell a guy he looks a little steep, and he’s likely to accept it on face value and evaluate his mechanics. Acknowledge a new headcover, and the next swing he takes could be at you.”

The Washington Times put Elizondo’s theory to the test at the Accenture and found that most players are indeed superstitious, though few admit it. Of the 12 players polled at the Gallery at Dove Mountain, only David Toms openly embraced his superstitious nature.

‘Are you kidding? Of course I believe in that stuff. I’m from Louisiana,” said Toms, a 12-time tour winner who always carries a good luck charm of some sort in his bag. “I can’t tell you some of the things I’ve carried — people would talk. Right now, I’m carrying a trinket stamped with Saint Andrew’s likeness on it that was given to me by this lady in Hawaii. I might take it out though, because I’m not really feeling it.”

Among the 11 others in our survey, all of whom immediately claimed they were not superstitious, only three (Jose Maria Olazabal, Charles Howell III and Geoff Ogilvy) actually manifested no signs of Elizondo’s ritualized superstition upon further questioning.

Most players were like England’s Ian Poulter, scoffing at the notion before coloring upon introspection.

“No, I have no talisman, nor any superstitions,” said Poulter, a fashion canary famous for his flamboyant trousers. “Of course, I do always mark it heads up. The denomination and country of the coin don’t matter, but it’s got to be heads up. And I never use No. 3s, either. Never. Bit contradictory those little bits, I suppose.” Indeed.

It was even more entertaining to watch self-awareness dawn on South African Retief Goosen, a two-time U.S. Open champion.

‘No, no, I’m not superstitious at all,” said Goosen, backpedaling through the follow-up questions. “OK, sure, I do mark heads up. And, yes, I always start the first round with a No. 4 and work my way down, playing the final round with a No. 1. But you’re not counting that are you? Those are just habits, really.”

Habits. Sure. So if for some reason, Goosen had only No. 3s left for the finale, that wouldn’t be a problem?

“Well, of course it would,” said Goosen, finally warming to his own eccentricity. “Threes are for Fridays. They might not go in on Sunday.”

Sweden’s Henrik Stenson, who eventually defeated Ogilvy in the Accenture finale, always rotates his rocks in the opposite order from Goosen, starting with No. 1s on Thursday and finishing with No. 4s. Ireland’s Padraig Harrington goes through change like a toll teller, constantly searching for a coin capable of blessing his blade with good luck. Phil Mickelson discards bogey balls, removing even a brand new rock from the rotation once it has betrayed him. And South Africa’s Trevor Immelman carries exactly three tees in his pocket, never two, never four.

“I always have two long tees for drivers and a short tee for par-3s and 3-woods,” Immelman said. “Some guys will use long tees or a broken tee on par-3s, but that always made me feel funny. I mean, why waste a long tee, because you’re going to break it with an iron? And with broken tees, I always got a negative vibe. The last thing you need to worry about standing over the ball on a par-3 is whether your ball is going to fall off some chipped-up little castoff.”

Even Olazabal, one of the sample’s three nonbelievers, might crack under interrogation. But the two-time Masters champion dismisses the entire line of questioning with an Ash Wednesday joke while striding quickly away from further prodding: “Superstition? No, I gave it up for Lent.”

Our favorite respondent, however, is England’s Paul Casey, who packs his bag with things he knows will make he and his mates laugh if things turn ugly on the scorecard.

“Right now, I do have a secret weapon in my bag,” said Casey, digging into the pockets of his massive Ping staff bag and producing a key. “It’s this golf cart key. It’s a closely guarded trade secret that they all fit, don’t they? Any key, all their carts. You just never know when you might need to hijack a buggy.”

Or your own psyche.

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