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Jordan Spieth’s secret weapon at Birkdale? Gum-chewing. Can it help your game, too?

July 21, 2017

The first two rounds of the British Open have given us a lot to chew on, including this question: Are there golf-related benefits to chewing gum?

Believers in the upsides of mastication gained ammunition Thursday after Jordan Spieth delivered a post-round press conference that could have passed for a Wrigley’s commercial.

Spieth told reporters that he’d teed off that morning while chomping on mint gum that his instructor, Cameron McCormack, had given him on the practice range.

“I was one under through two, and I thought I better keep it in and it’s still in now,” Spieth said. “It’s probably time for a new piece.”

Spieth was chewing gum again when he teed off on Friday.

So gum has that going for it, which is nice.

But do positive claims about gum-chewing stand up to closer scrutiny?

In a scientific world that leaves few stones unturned, the effect of gum-chewing on physical and cognitive performance has not escaped study. But the collective findings fall shy of consensus.

On the one hand, there’s a  2011 study from the Tokyo Dental College, which found that “fourteen days’ gum chewing may improve the levels of anxiety, mood and failure.”

On the other hand, that same study also found that after four weeks of gum-chewing, any positive impact was negligible.

Sifting through the literature, it’s hard to know exactly what to think. Some studies show that gum-chewing lowers stress levels; others indicate that it promotes clear-thinking, but only if you time it right. Witness the discoveries made in 2011 by researchers at St. Lawrence University in New York, who found that student test scores improved if they chewed gum just prior but not during an exam.

In the annals of sports, there are plenty of examples of great athletes with persistent gum-chewing habits. Michael Jordan, who favored watermelon Bubblicious, often blew bubbles while abusing opponents. Shaquille O’Neal was big on Big Red; more than once he was spotted leaving wads of it under the team bench before heading onto the court.

And don’t even get us started on baseball players.

But what about golf?

Joe Parent, a noted mental game coach who worked with three-time major champion Vijay Singh, believes in gum-chewing’s potential as a stress-reliever.

In his experience, at least, anecdotal evidence supports the practice.

“Think about what you do under pressure,” Parent said in a phone interview Friday. “You get stressed and tense, you clench your jaw. When you’re chewing gum, you can’t keep your jaw clenched. You’re opening and closing. So releasing that tension could calm you down.”

The fact that Spieth was chewing mint gum has made some wonder whether flavor matters. In some cultures, mint is seen as having a calming effect. But, as Parent points out, “the FDA does not make that claim” about mint.

In Parent’s view, the true power of gum, mint-flavored or otherwise, likely lies in its role as a placebo.

“It has worked for (Spieth) because he believes it works,” Parent says.

That view is seconded by sports psychologist and former collegiate golfer Jared Tendler.

“Classic placebo,” Tendler says. “And once it stops working, (Spieth) will look for a new one.”