Trial and Error in Golf
The 22nd Secret
There are certain broad principles of golf which are useful in the rapid development of a sound swing. Such
principles have been ably expounded by Bobby Jones, Tommy Armour, Percy Boomer, Ben Hogan and others. I once
witnessed how quickly they can be taught. Beginning with a 34-year-old woman who had never swung a club, Harvey
Penick set up for her a mechanical pattern which in thirty minutes produced a very good-looking golf swing
resulting in many good shots. She began to play almost daily and in three months shot a 39 for nine holes from
However, the fine tuning of golf can take a lifetime and is mostly trial and error.
Thorndike and others discovered that cats, dogs, chicks, monkeys and other animals, when attacking a new problem,
first tried a number of hit and miss solutions. Those things which failed they gradually abandoned. Those which led
to success were "stamped in" and retained. What this emphasized was that a successful performance is not
necessarily the result of conscious thought, but is rather caused by associations produced by subconscious
mechanisms of the body. It is significant that when Snead was asked how he did it, he said that he really did not
know. Hogan, on the other hand, has been credited with being able to take his swing apart and put it back together
again. This is to some extent true on a broad scale, but how each muscle learns its duties no one knows
We must assume that this trial and error process is gone through by an infinite number of our bodily mechanisms and
hence can only come about by much previous trial and error. Gross skills come first, then skills within the correct
gross skills, and then skills within these skills, until we come to the fine tuning required for a long side hill
putt, breaking to the right on a fast green.
Trial and error learning is most important in learning the short game. So much attention has been focussed on
proper form in full shots that we tend to forget the extreme importance of being able to hit the ball varying
distances in approaches, trap shots, chips and putts. The inability to gauge these distances accounts for the loss
of most of our strokes. In this department of golf form seems relatively unimportant, and trial and error learning
all-important. Hogan's recent difficulties around the greens has hardly come about because of any deterioration in
gross form. There has simply been some muscular forgetting where distance is concerned, and considerable trial and
error relearning is the remedy.
The three necessary elements, then for efficient learning in golf are the mechanical fundamentals, the application
of psychology, and considerable trial and error learning. The latter requires time.