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Perception and Putting: How Does Tiger "See" Augusta?

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I'm a huge Tiger Woods fan, and I've never wavered, even as he has suffered through one of the worst slumps in the history of golf. Tiger ruled the sport for more than a decade, before a sex scandal and injuries derailed him in 2009. He's never regained his form or confidence, but I haven't given up on his redemption.

There's a glimmer of hope. In late March, Tiger won his first PGA tour event in 30 months, offering a glimpse of his former dominance. But the real proof that he's the same old Tiger will be winning a major tournament, and the major of all majors is taking place this week, as golf's elite meet in Augusta, Georgia for the Masters.

Every part of Tiger's game has suffered during his drought, but no part more than his putting, once his greatest asset. More than any other aspect of golf, putting relies on one's eye -- how one reads the undulating greens and finds the true path to the hole. Perception and sight are so crucial to putting that one has to wonder: What does the slumping Tiger see? Is it something different than the dominant Tiger saw in his heyday?

New research may offer some insight on this question. Purdue University psychological scientist Jessica Witt studies basic visual perception, and she has some interesting ideas about the link between perception and athletic performance. Indeed, she believes that manipulating perception may hold the key to improving performance -- and perhaps even ending slumps.

Perception is not the same as vision. Vision is what the eye projects on to the retina, but perception is more psychologically complex. Witt believes that we perceive the world through our ability to act in that world. Our emotions and thoughts and motivations shape what we "see," and what we see in turn influences our thoughts and emotions. So in golf, for example -- and especially with putting -- the perception of the hole may both influence and reflect one's psychological state. Here's how Witt studied this provocative idea in the laboratory:

She set up a simple putting green, and recruited men and women to try their hand at putting. The hole was smaller than a regulation golf hole, and the putters took aim from a distance of 3.5 meters -- so challenging enough to require precision.

Before the putting exercise began, Witt used an overhead, downward-facing projector to project images of circles around the holes. In some cases, she projected 11 small circles around the hole; in other cases, five large circles. In doing so, she was creating a well-known illusion: The smaller circles encircling the golf hole make the hole appear bigger than it really is, while the larger circles make the hole look smaller. This distortion of reality -- called the Ebbinghaus illusion -- has been well documented, and Witt confirmed that the volunteers' perceptions were indeed distorted as one would predict.

Then they putted. The idea was that those who saw the hole as larger than reality -- those laboratory golfers would also perceive the putt as easier to sink, giving them confidence and thus improving actual performance. And those who saw the hole as impossibly tiny would also see their task as impossibly difficult; such thinking would deflate confidence and performance.

And indeed, that's what happened. The golfers hit 10 putts, and as predicted, their perception of the hole's size influenced their overall putting accuracy. Previous research has shown that when golfers are putting well, they see the hole as bigger. This study, reported in the April issue of the journal Psychological Science, demonstrates the reverse: Seeing a bigger hole actually leads to better putting.

Obviously, this laboratory manipulation cannot be exported to Augusta in any simple way. But Witt does believe that this reciprocal relationship between perception and performance may be the psychological mechanism underlying both slumps and streaks. The unanswered question is whether perceived hole size and putting accuracy continually influence each other, in cycles that can be either broken or reinforced -- ending slumps and reinforcing hot streaks.

But that's for the future. This week, Tiger will have no gimmicks to help him psych out Augusta's famously trick greens.