The golfer's ring of confidence examines the phenomenon


It stains the skin an unbecoming, mould-like green, but even if the wearer happened to have an aversion to jewelry, they wouldn't dare be separated from this particular bracelet. As it happens, Seve Ballesteros is among the more notable devotees of what is actually an Irish-made product.

The number one producer is Sabona, a London-based company, which claims to have sold seven million of these copper bracelets worldwide. And according to sales manager Robert Hackman, each unit emanating from their manufacturing base in Dublin, carries a "Made in Ireland" stamp on the inside.

These are so-called rheumatic bracelets which have been on the market for 37 years. Their supposed efficacy is based on the premise that copper is an essential metalloelement which the body requires in order to function, yet which cannot be produced by the body itself.

Sabona claim there was a time when our copper intake was done orally, through the food we ate. With today's intensive agricultural and food processing, however, this is no longer guaranteed. So, the bracelet offers an alternative supply.

"It seems to work," said former USPGA Championship and British Open winner Nick Price, who was so severely affected by tendonitis of the wrist that he was forced to withdraw from last year's Byron Nelson Classic. "Eight months ago, it was suggested I should wear the bracelet and I feel certain that the copper relaxes the problem," he said.

"If I play with it on, the wrist doesn't hurt. As far as I can see, it works just like an anti-strain mechanism."

The principle of the bracelet is that the copper dissolves through a reaction with the skin's moisture components i.e. perspiration. This forms copper complexes which, when absorbed, leave a light to dark green skin colouration, so indicating that the transference has taken place.

This copper is then absorbed through the skin and enters the blood stream which carries it to all areas of the body. And we are assured, categorically, that these copper complexes have anti-inflammatory properties, which help to ease aches and pains.

But it seems that the medical profession are not convinced. For instance, the American Arthritis Foundation describes copper as "an unproven remedy."

This view also applies to another form of armlet worn by golfers. The magnetic bracelet takes the form of twisted gold and silver with two round knobs, called terminals, positioned on the top side of the arm. It is reputed to soothe pain throughout the body by harmonising yin (negative ions) and yang (positive ions).

According to the American manufacturer, more than 135 professional men and women golfers wear the QRay bracelet. Its power allegedly comes from its metallic composition and a special treatment used during the manufacturing process.

The terminals must be on the topside of the arm and they must never touch. Another requirement is that they be worn on a right wrist naked of other jewellery and watches. They cannot be worn around microwave ovens, high-voltage equipment or electric blankets. They should never be taken off but if they are, the bracelets should not be left on televisions or other electronic equipment that might sap their power.

Olin Browne, a journeyman campaigner on the USPGA tour, is a strong devotee of magnetic devices, to the extent that he sleeps on a mattress pad which contains 265 (magnets and costs $499). And when travelling long distances, he wears magnets at the base of his skull, apparently to keep his joints supple.

"It just keeps me loose," said the player, who has been using magnets since 1991. "It's supposed to increase circulation and flush inflammation. I don't have the aches and pains I normally would."

Still, the 38-year-old Washingtonian who lists "some politics" among his special interests, insists: "I think it is wrong to assume that only surgeons and people who hand out pills, can help you. The Egyptians knew many things that mankind has since forgotten."

Against that background, it is interesting to note the views of a leading orthopaedic surgeon. "There is not a great deal of scientific proof to the effect that it makes a tremendous difference," he said. In fact he suggested that standard stretching and muscle-strengthening exercises offered a greater prospect of relief than alternative therapies.

But he added: "There are a lot of things used by athletes and they swear it makes them feel better. If they actually feel better, that's good - if they can afford it. As a general principle, I wouldn't recommend them but if somebody came in and said it was helping them, I wouldn't tell them to take it off."

It would certainly be difficult to convince Ballesteros that his bracelet was no more than an oxidising ornament. He has been wearing one for more than 16 years and now endorses the Sabona product. "Since he was already a convert, it struck us as entirely logical to get him to endorse our product eight years ago," said Hackman.

Ballesteros was, in fact, the first prominent golfer to be seen with a copper bracelet. But others have since followed suit, among them Beth Daniel, David Frost, Vijay Singh and the reigning British Open champion, Justin Leonard, who won the prestigious Players' Championship at Sawgrass last month.

"I had a couple of little aches and pains in my wrist, so I thought I'd try one," said the Texan, who began wearing the bracelet two years ago. "I talked first to a couple of guys who were wearing them. After about a week, I didn't have the aches and pains."

Then he made the crucial point. "I don't know if what I had just went away, or if it's the bracelet. I don't have an explanation. But I haven't taken it off."

John Huston, who eagled the 18th in the first round of the last year's US Masters and gained a record-breaking victory in the Hawaiian Open two months ago, is another convert. He found himself sidelined with back pain and bursitis in his right shoulder last year, causing him to make only 12 out of 28 cuts en route to a dismal 141st place in the US money list.

He has since become a devotee of magnets which, incidentally, are available in insoles, neck braces and back vests, quite apart from bracelets. As part of his recovery, Huston sleeps under a special mattress cover, he occasionally wears magnet insoles and rubs round, metal marbles on his sore joints.

Try to convince him that he is engaged in self delusion and he would scoff at the notion. As would Price, where the copper bracelet is concerned. Like Leonard, the Zimbabwean is content that the tendonitis in his wrist doesn't hurt him any more. In fact the copper bracelets are said to cure a range of ailments, though nobody seems to be able to offer a convincing, scientific explanation.

The element, which was discovered thousands of years ago on the island of Cyprus, is supposed to act as an anti-inflammatory agent, so helping with rheumatism and arthritis. It is also supposed to stimulate the immune system, improve the body's oxygen supply and help skin, hair, tendons, ligaments and cartilage in joints.

Meanwhile, one well-publicised scientific study in the US claims that magnets are pain relievers. Dr Carlos Vallbona, who works at a post-polio clinic at Baylor University's Institute for Rehabilitative Research in Houston, Texas, came to this conclusion after carrying out extensive tests.

It was a so-called double-blind study in which neither the patients nor the doctor knew who was being treated with a real magnet or an imitation one. The findings, reported in The Washington Post and The New York Times, claimed that 22 out of 29 patients treated with magnets, experienced significant and quick pain relief. Dr Vallbona couldn't explain why this was so.

Meanwhile, it is claimed that up to 42 per cent of tournament golfers are currently wearing the copper bracelets which have gained hugely in popularity over the last two to three years. And in response to demand, Sabona also produce copper bracelets coated in silver and gold - on the outside only.

The manufacturers are careful not to make any medical claims for the product. And as soccer manager, Glen Hoddle, pointed out while explaining his use of a faith-healer for his England players: "If they think it is helping, then it's certainly worth trying."

As one observer put it: "Golfers must believe in magic. Why else would they trade in their clubs for new models in the belief that the change would solve their problems?" Why indeed.

The Sabona copper bracelet costs about £6 Stg while the gold-plated model is about £26 Stg. Their Irish agent can be contacted at (021) 892297.