The 3rd Secret

The greatest pleasure in golf comes from continuous improvement. This can only come about through correct practice. For those who aspire to creditable play, practice is doubly necessary. “Creditable play” implies a competitive element, in that one’s ability becomes “creditable” if it is more skillful than that of others. Other things being equal, the practicer has the advantage.

In general, the great practicers have led the field. This is a comparatively recent development in golf. Although much practicing was done by a few individuals prior to the modern era, it was generally believed that golfing ability was rather like musical talent and that it could not be acquired by concentrated, conscious effort. In fact, during the twenties, many professionals thought that practice beyond a good warm-up might even be injurious.

The change in attitude was first heralded in the golfing world by the phenomenal success on the American circuit in the ’30s of Torchy Toda. His excellent play was a reflection of the determination of the Japanese government to obtain world recognition in sports. The first step was to select from their young men those who seemed to have golfing talent.

Instructors were imported from the United States. Practice was instituted as a full-time daily procedure. At the end of only two years, Japan had produced golfers of world renown. Among American golfers, the practicing trend seems to have been started by Henry Picard. A generation ago he practiced iron play from dawn to dusk, until he achieved such confidence with second shots to the green that he confessed to Orville White that he had the feeling that each shot might go into the hole.

I had the opportunity to see him in practice prior to playing in an open tournament at Thomasville, Georgia. His shots with a four iron were so accurate that the caddy hardly moved a step in catching balls on the first bounce. I have seen only one other golfer with such accuracy with irons—the greatest practicer of them all—Ben Hogan. It is significant that Picard was Hogan’s closest golfing friend.

Hogan’s meteoric rise convinced the golfing world that, even though good golfers might be born, it was also possible to make oneself good. The story is told that on one occasion when Hogan sought the advice of a prominent professional, his swing was so unimpressive that he was advised to abandon the game. The substance of Hogan’s answer was that the would show him.

We now have “practicers” in great profusion. Golf achievement at the highest level is virtually impossible without it. It is a necessity at the amateur level even if one’s ambitions are relatively modest.

Since this is true, it is to the advantage of the would-be champion gradually to build up the length of his practice sessions. If he is aiming high, the amount should compare favorably with the hours found necessary in other sports or enterprises involving expert use of muscles. Many singers, violinists, pianists, and other musicians must devote several hours to practice each day, year in, and year out. Ice-skating, ballet, basketball, dancing—in short, anything that involves the training of muscles to a high degree of expertness requires daily practice over a considerable period of time.

Since much of the time in the playing of a round is consumed with walking, talking, and waiting, very little can be learned by playing 18 holes. In a par round of 72, there are 14 drives, perhaps 4 other wood shots, 18 iron shots, and some 36 chips and putts. This requires a time investment of about 4 hours. During practice, a similar number of shots can be hit in 30 minutes. It is thus considerably less time-consuming to learn through practice than through play.

There are some golfers who have become good players without devoting much time to concentrated practice. However, if their golfing career is examined, it will generally be found that they did considerably more playing than the average person. It must be admitted that shot for shot, one can learn more golf by playing 85 separate shots in a round than by practicing an equal number. This must be true psychologically because, in playing, we are “practicing” precisely the shots the game re¬quires, whereas when we putt on the practice green there is a great danger that we are not duplicating true “playing” conditions. Still, if we are careful to practice the shots called for in the analysis of our mistakes, much more can be learned in four hours of practice than in four hours of play.

The ideal would be to have four hours of practice that exactly duplicated four hours of play. I know of an amateur who did almost precisely this. He lived in a city that had a municipal course that was not kept in good shape, and hence rules about the practice were non-existent. The golfer got two caddies, eighteen balls, and an electric golf cart. For 30 mornings prior to the tournament he was entered in, he played eighteen balls for nine holes. In the tournament, he made the best showing of his golfing career.

What practice can accomplish is indicated by the following: I have heard of two instances of exceptionally good first rounds. One young lady shot an 85 from men’s tees on a demanding course. She had taken lessons and practiced for two years before ever going out on the links. A young man who had a job at a driving range shot a 76 on a standard course on his first round, after having practiced for a little more than a year. It is not likely that either one of them would have done nearly as well if the same amount of time had been spent in play that was 99% waiting and walking and 1% hitting the ball.

One of the earliest of the hard practicers was Joe Kirkwood, Sr. who, in the 1920s, concentrated on trick shots. This was still the day of the stymie when it was occasionally necessary to hop over an opponent’s ball to make a putt. At four feet, Joe Kirkwood could use a lofted club and put the ball in the hole on the fly!

Although Betsy Rawls, the great woman golfer, is endowed with considerable natural talent, much of her success is due to her early attitude toward practice. While the rest of us would be playing at the old Austin Country Club, she would take her habitual stand under a tree on the 13th hole and hit balls by the hour. It was only on rare occasions that she would play with us, even though she was already the equal of most male golfers. Before we realized it, she was an Open Champion.