Taxpayer-funded study about golf is not about golf, except it is

Robby Soave Reporter
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A taxpayer-funded study that purports to help golfers sink their birdie putts was criticized as wasteful, prompting its head researcher to bury the golf aspect.

The $350,000 study is being conducted by Jessica Witt, an associate psychology professor at Purdue University, who researches how the brain visualizes a person’s surroundings.

Recently, Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman derided Witt’s work in his monthly email about government waste.

“I re-read my copy of the U.S. Constitution, and I still cannot find the section empowering Washington to spend tax dollars on golf tips,” wrote Portman. “While $350,000 may not seem like much money in Washington, there are families, businesses, and higher-priority government programs that surely could have used that money.”

Witt, however, disputed Portman’s characterization of the study as all about golf.

“The description of the work in terms of athletic performance (e.g., in the abstract) was an attempt to put the work in a context that would be accessible to the general public,” she said in a statement to The Plain Dealer. “Using athletics as an experimental setting is not intended to improve athletic performance.”

Instead, Witt suggested that her research would benefit the elderly, veterans and obese children.

“Many injured veterans have lasting compromised physical capabilities,” she said. “If your physical ability changes your perceptions of the world, then engineers could construct technologies to exploit or compensate for these differences. Such strategies could also encourage physical activity in our increasingly sedentary population by making goals appear closer. These changes could be especially impactful for people who are obese, including those who struggle with childhood obesity.”

Purdue certainly marketed the study as golf-centric, however. A press release described Witt’s work as follows:

Golfers looking to improve their putting may find an advantage in visualizing the hole as bigger, according to a new study from Purdue University. …

In this golf study, 36 participants putted to two different-sized holes while a projector displayed a ring of smaller and larger circles around each hole to create an optical illusion. The smaller circles around the hole made it look bigger. Before putting, the person’s perception of each hole was measured by having them draw the estimated size of the hole. Their perception was correlated with their scores, and those who saw the smaller hole, which was 5.08 centimeters in diameter, as bigger putted about 10 percent more successfully.

A picture accompanying the press release depicts Witt on a putting green, holding a golf club.

Witt did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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