The Secret of Golf

‘To succeed in keeping the eye unswervingly upon the ball is the one and only real secret of success in golf.’ — So says J. H. Taylor, Professional, Champion, and Author of a big book on golf. This is a notable and an important utterance by a noted and a practical golfer. But here Taylor leaves us. How can we keep our eye on the ball ? And why must we keep our eye on the ball? Whence arises the necessity? Wherein consists the peculiar efficacy of fixing the gaze on that humble little sphere at our feet — or at its top — or at its back — or at the turf behind, as the case may be? What happens if we do look? What happens if we do not look? These be important problems. (Such niceties as whether you should look rather at the grass behind your ball than at the ball, or at what particular part of your ball you should look for a particular kind of shot, I do not discuss here; are they not all written in the book of The Complete Golfer?)

I attempt here a brief analysis (1) of the ’How,’and (2) of the ‘ Why.'


This little puzzle, how to keep one’s eye on the ball, may be said to possess a little psychology all its own. We ‘perceive’ an object, say the psychologists, when not only ‘ our attention is drawn ’ to that object, but when ‘all the other impressions that are exciting sensations at the same moment fall into the field of inattention’; in plain words, when we are oblivious of everything but the thing perceived. It is this inattention or oblivion that the golfer has most carefully to practice. If, during that infinitesimal period of time which elapses between the beginning of the upward swing of the club and its impact with the ball, the golfer allows any one single sensation, or idea, to divert, his attention — consciously or unconsciously — from the little round image on his retina, he does not properly ‘ perceive ’ that ball; and of course, by consequence, does not properly hit it. Unfortunately, always and in all circumstances, a multiplicity of sensations and feelings and ideas are clamoring for attention. There are nerves all over the body, — and inside the body,—and the mind is ceaselessly, not only receiving impressions from these nerves, but issuing orders through other nerves. If, for example, I, at this moment, while trying to write this sentence, were to attend to, say, my paper, or my pen, or my ink, or even the feel of my clothes or my boots, or the temperature of the room, or the unsteadiness of the table, or the presence of my companions, why I should never get the sentence written — and the writing of it is child’s play compared with keeping one’s eye on the ball. Luckily, I could re-write the sentence if I made a mess of it. But alas, the golfer can never re-hit his ball. And he, poor soul, the while he is addressing himself to that exacting task, is beset with as many sensations as am I. So it comes to this, that to play golf well, to play golf at all, one must school one’s self to be absolutely blind to unnumbered sensations and impressions, and to concentrate one’s whole undivided attention on that meek little object at one’s feet.

There is one simple anatomical reason for this inability to see your ball when you are thinking of something else instead of looking. Everybody has heard the phrase ‘ a vacant stare.’ When one’s thoughts are absorbed in something other than the object looked at, the eyes lose their convergence; that is to say, instead of the two eyeballs being turned inwards and focused on the thing, they look straight outwards into space; with the result, of course, that the thing looked at is seen indistinctly. ‘We must will to see,’ says the great psychologist Höffding, without the remotest cognizance of the extreme applicability of this maxim to the game of golf, — and without apparently, we may add, the remotest cognizance of the extreme corroboration which the game of golf gives to this maxim, ’We must will to see, in order to see aright.’ As a matter of fact, golf is the most rigid tester of will-power in the world. It is this that makes it so interesting. It is this that makes it so important. It is this that makes it so educative, so edifying. For it does edify: that is, build up; it builds up character, because it strengthens willpower; for will-power is the foundation of character.

Which little fact leads to another curious little fact. Often I have heard a man say, ‘ There! I was afraid I should do that.’ Precisely. He was not ‘ perceiving’ his ball; his mind was in reality wandering; and, such are the intricacies and profundities of the human mind, — so little do we seem to be masters of our own minds, — that this, that, or the other little, vague, inchoate, and recondite notion or suggestion, of the very existence of which the mind is not aware, rises to the surface, proclaims itself supreme, and dominates and tyrannizes over the entire man. Truly, we are fearfully and wonderfully made, and the physiological and psychological structure of the so-called rational human being is past finding out. The whole thing seems so childishly simple; yet the achievement of that whole thing is so abominably difficult. No wonder we make mistakes in golf. We make mistakes in every department of life: we bet on the wrong horse, or the wrong cards; we buy the wrong stock; we back the wrong friend; we marry the wrong wife. Is it any wonder we make the wrong stroke? And golf is more exacting than racing, cards, speculation, or matrimony. Golf gives no margin: either you win or you fail. You cannot hedge; you cannot bluff; you cannot give a stop-order; you cannot jilt. One chance is given you, and you hit or miss. There is nothing more rigid in life. And it is just this ultra and extreme rigidity that makes golf so intensely interesting.

But ‘ interesting ’ is hardly the word by which to describe the lure of golf. The human masculine mind loves to assert itself, to show itself supreme, to prove to itself—and to others — its mastery over circumstance, its domination over the things or persons by which or by whom it is opposed. Well, here on the links it is opposed by a quiet little ball lying within a known distance of a quiet little hole, and the thing to be done is to put one into other. You have not to pore over turf news, or remember long or short suits, or scan the city article, or make yourself agreeable at afternoon teas. You have to hit. But ah, that hit! that one precise and particular hit! How it taxes the human soul!

What takes place, or what ought to take place, in the human soul at every stroke, is, I imagine, a seven-fold process : —

1. Sensation—a clear image of the ball on the retina;

2. Perception — the cerebral reception and recognition of that image;

3. Cognition — a clear understanding of what you wish to do;

4. Imagination —a picturing to yourself of how to do it;

5. Attention — the concentration of the whole self on the ball;

6. Volition — the issuance of the orders to strike; and lastly,

7. Action—the resulting movements of the arms, legs, and trunk.

Now, the most important of these seven processes is Attention; for, unless you attend, (1) the image is blurred; (2) the mental recognition dim; (3) the understanding vague; (4) the imagined movements obscure; (5) the attention diverted; (6) the orders to the motorcentres confused; and (7) the stroke ineffective.

Attention! — I do not know whether you are aware of the fact, my dear reader, but it may console you to know that if this little question of how to attend has puzzled us unlearned and untechnical golfers, it has puzzled a great many very learned and very technical men also. To the problem of ‘ attention ’ psychologists without number have of late been devoting their attention — and, if all accounts are true, not with much avail: Ach and Bair; Külpe and Kaes; Kohn and Kraepelin and Kelchner; Fick and Féré and Fechner; Czermak and Ziehen; Gürber and Goltz and Geissler and Geiger; Pilzecker, Pentschew, Pflaum; Henrich and Henri and Hammer; Müller, Münsterberg, and Meumann; Wiersma, Kafka, Munk, Wundt, Stumpf (you must not laugh: these are real names of real people); all these and hosts of others have been doing their best to find out what ‘attention’ is, and what the laws by which it works; and, if all accounts are true, they differ not a little among themselves both as to one and as to other.

What, then, is this thing called ‘attention,’ a thing to which whole big books have been devoted? It is very difficult to find anywhere a clear, precise, coherent, and adequate definition. ‘ Attention,’ says Mr. Pillsbury, ‘ means largely that some one element of consciousness is picked out from the others, and given an advantage over them.’ How many elements are there? Who or what picks one out ? And what sort of advantage is bestowed upon this one? In its way, we might say that attention was the concentration of the whole mind upon the particular thing that one wishes to do. But here again, what is the ‘ whole mind ’? and if there are several particular things that one wishes to do, all at one and the same time, how and on which is that whole mind to be concentrated? Who or what is it that ' wishes ’ to do this, that, or the other; and how does this ‘ who ’ or ‘ what ’ differ from the ' whole mind ’ ? Is not my ‘whole mind’ just me? Why cannot I do what I wish to do? How is it that I cannot compel myself to keep my head steady, to keep my eye on my ball, to follow through?

Pillsbury does his best to be definite and precise. Listen —

1. ’The conditions of any act of attention are to be found in the present environment (objective conditions) and in the past experience of the individual (subjective conditions).’

2. ’The main objective conditions are the intensity, extent, and duration of the stimulus.’

3. ’The subjective conditions are to be found in the idea in mind at the time, in the mood of the moment, the education, previous social environment, and heredity of the individual.’

This is a large order! But every golfer has found himself compelled to book and ship this order at every stroke in the course.

Professor Edward Bradford Titchener, in his Lectures on the Elementary Psychology of Feeling and Attention, points out ' the labile, instable character of attention.’ In plain language, it is extremely difficult to keep the mind from wandering. ' I have caught myself,’says Titchener, ' time and again, slipping from the prescribed object of attention to some secondary circumstance.’ It needed no learned psychologist to tell any golfer that! Lastly he asks, almost in desperation, ‘Is attention intrinsically intermittent, and is it impossible to hold a single, simple content [he means a thing that the mind knows has to be done or attended to] steadily in the focus of consciousness?’

But let us try to come to close quarters with the thing.

Mr. James Sully has pointed out that there are two kinds of attention: (1) that which is turned to outside objects; (2) that which is turned to the processes inside the mind. The division, I think, is legitimate, even obvious. For example, when one is reading proof-sheets, one’s attention is concentrated upon the printed words and one pays little heed to the meaning of the words; but when one is reading an interesting novel, one pays little or no heed to spelling or punctuation, but very much heed to the story and the characters. Now, golf, it seems to me, makes demands upon both kinds of attention at one and the same moment of time: it calls upon you to concentrate your faculties on that little external object, your ball; but it also calls upon you then and there to concentrate all your faculties upon how the stroke shall be played. It is here that the difficulty lies. Every proof-reader knows that it is next to impossible to follow the thread of the author’s argument when he is attending to commas and semi-colons; and few novel-readers could pass an examination in the peculiarities of their author’s punctuation and spelling. And yet the golfer is expected to do both! He simply cannot hit if he does not attend to his ball; and yet also he simply cannot hit unless he pays attention to his stroke! This is the difficulty in golf. But I doubt very much whether this thing called ‘attention’ can be exercised upon more than one thing at a time. It is probably just because you try to make your consciousness exercise itself upon two, three, four, or five things at one and the same time that you fail to do one or other of them.

But if only one thing can be ‘attended’ to at a time, what precisely ought we to attend to at the moment of impact of club with ball? Well, if you ask me, I say, the image of the ball. I firmly believe that what is necessary is the external, not the internal, the sensorial, not the ideational, form of attention. I firmly believe that if you can keep your eye on the ball — keep it there, mind you—and ‘attend’ to that one thing alone at the moment that you hit, the hit will ‘coom aff’ as a Scotchman said to me once. Indeed a noted psychologist bears me out in this: ‘“Keep your eye on the ball" in golf,’says Mr. Pillsbury, “is a familiar statement of the fact that the movement of the arms is controlled immediately by attention to some object in the field of vision. There is little or no thought of the movements to be made, or of anything else except the place upon which the blow is to be delivered.' All of which merely means that the attention to ‘the movements to be made’ must be finished and done with before the attention is fixed upon ‘the place upon which the blow is to be delivered.'

And now to sum up on this problem of attention. I suspect that to concentrate the attention is a natural gift. Some men can do it; some men cannot. If you cannot be utterly absorbed in what you are doing, be it only looking at your ball — well, I can only recommend you to go out day after day — day after day — and attend to nothing else whatsoever but the look at your ball. When you have persuaded some cerebral centre to do that automatically, you can begin to train other centres to do other things.

But apart from all these anatomical, physiological, and psychological theories, I have sometimes thought that there are two simple and especial reasons for this difficulty of keeping one’s eye on the ball: first, because there is nothing to stimulate the attention; secondly, because one has to attend so long. In cricket, tennis, racquets, the stimulus is extreme: by consequence your eye follows the ball like a hawk. In billiards there is no stimulus, but you never or rarely take your eye off your ball in billiards. Why? I think because (1) the ball is much nearer to your eye, and therefore the image is clearer and the stimulus stronger; and (2) because the period of time requisite for the stroke is so short. In golf the stimulus is weaker and the period longer. In all probability the intensity of the attention very soon tires the delicate cerebral cells so attending. I imagine these cells to be in a state of tremendous tension, and that this tremendous tension can be kept up for only a very short period of time. No doubt the tension depends upon the bloodsupply. Well, there are about seventytwo pulse-beats in the minute. One fraction of a second, therefore, may alter the character and the intensity of the tension.

‘But what will make me attend?' you ask. Ah! now we strike real difficulty. Difficult as the psychological analysis of the stroke has been, it is child’s play compared with the problem, how to make one’s self attend. One has to put a force upon one’s self. One has to be determined. And how is this to be done? Well, Aristotle held that virtue was a ϵξις, a habit; that we became virtuous by practicing virtue, as we learned to play on the kithara by playing on the kithara. There is a profound truth in this. Nemo, says an old Latin adage, repente fuit turpissimus: no man is a blackguard all at once. Neither is a man a saint all at once. Neither is a man a good attender all at once. To attend, one must practice attention. It is not a thing to be come at in a day, or a week, or a month. Some men are more moral than others. Some men have more ‘will-power.’ Attention is a virtue. To be acquired, it must be cultivated. So culpable an entity is the mind of man that only by constant and rigorous practice and discipline can it be brought under subjection and made to attend to one thing only when many things claim attention.

How culpable an entity the mind is, and how often it disobeys the simplest of injunctions, the following narrative will show. I had a little conversation recently with one of the most scrupulously careful of players; a gentleman who, during his pupilage at all events, read book upon book on golf, and laboriously endeavored to carry out the precepts therein contained; who at every tee spent an interminable period of valuable time in planting his feet, measuring his distance, making sure of the grip of each particular digit of each particular hand; in waggling, and considering, and taking thought with himself before actually making his stroke. (There really ought to be a time-limit for the address.) I had a little conversation with this gentleman. He had been last year somewhat off his game, and had been taking lessons. ‘And what,’said I, ‘does your Professional say is the matter?’ ‘Well,’ was the answer, somewhat hesitatingly enunciated, ‘he says I am taking my eye off the ball.’ If these things are done in a green tree, what shall be done in a dry?

And this leads to yet another point. My friend Mr. Kenyon-Stow, in an interesting conversation I had with him, averred (and I partly agree with him) that the whole and sole virtue of the follow-through depends upon the fact that that follow-through is the result of keeping your eye on the ball. If you don’t keep your eye on the ball, your stroke is cut short the moment you take your eye off, and you do not follow-through; if you do keep your eye on the ball, your stroke is not cut short and you do follow-through. I think that this is incontestable, though I very much doubt whether that immortal genius who crystallized this diamantine axiom into a sexiverbal maxim quite understood what portentous though elemental truths he was consolidating into a single sentence.

Mr. Kenyon-Stow’s theory seems to throw a light and to be an advance upon the theory of Braid. Braid thinks the optic nerve works faster than the arms, and that therefore the eyes look up before the arms have finished their business. The fact probably is that if the mind is really attending to the retinal image of the ball, the orders issued to the motor-centres of the arms will continue just so long as the image of the ball upon the retina continues; and as the retinal image remains for about one-fortieth of a second after the object has departed, the stroke is continued for that one-fortieth of a second, and the follow-through is established. This, at all events, is indisputable: any photograph showing a good followthrough shows the player looking at the spot where the ball was, long after the ball had left it.

But above all, you must address the ball in the imperative mood, not in the subjunctive or interrogative. Remember this. You must say to yourself, ‘Do it’; not, ‘How shall I do it?’ or ‘I wonder whether I can do it.’ That way failure lies; for it proves that you are not sure of yourself, and never upon this earth was anything done by any one who was not sure of himself. In fact, your theorist is not apt to make a good golfer. He has not enough steadiness of purpose, his temperament is not equable enough. I would back Horatio against Hamlet on the links. Perhaps of all the dramatis personœ of Hamlet the best golfer would be the First Grave-digger,that absolute knave, so precise, so sure, so slow, so careful; and the worst assuredly would be that water-fly Osric.

Nor does even this exhaust the list of obstacles to be overcome if one wishes to look properly at one’s ball. A host of psychological experimenters have tried to find out how long the act of attention can be kept up without fatigue. We must remember that the act of attention is performed by a cell or cells in the brain, situated somewhere in the frontal lobes, I believe. Of course these cells, like muscles, easily tire. Well, if the novice or the duffer knew that these psychological experimenters had come to the conclusion that ‘the duration of a single act of attention is from three to twenty-four seconds; most usually five to eight seconds,’he would be extremely careful not to tire out those cells in his frontal lobes by prolonged and futile fidgeting before he strikes. The fact is, as Stout has pointed out, ‘attention is mental activity.’ Of course. The mind never stands still, never stops working — except in sleep. All consciousness, all thought, is a flux of ideas or feelings. We cannot hold any one single isolated idea in the field of consciousness for any length of time. Yet this is precisely what the golfer, when he sets himself to keep his eye on the ball, is called upon to do.

If I am right in this, we may say, not that the optic nerve works faster than the arms, but that the flux of ideas in the mind is more rapid than the swing. This, you see, is why that slow, sure, careful, absolute knave, the First Grave-digger, would play well, and that volatile, shallow-pated, feather-brained water-fly Osric would not. Archimedes would have been a good attender (and, therefore, looker-at-theball), he who — so the legend goes — was, in the siege of Syracuse, slain by a soldier while intent on a mathematical problem. Socrates would have been a good attender, he who—so Plato tells us through the mouth of Alcibiades — could stand fixed in thought from dawn till dawn. Izaak Walton would have made a good attender, he who studied to be quiet, and angled and wrote of angling while England was torn with the conflict between Royalist and Roundhead. Hegel would have been a good attender, he who composed the concluding pages of his Die Phaenomenologie des Geistes while the artillery of Napoleon thundered on the field of Jena.

So much for the ‘How.’ Let us now discuss the ‘Why.'


It was left to Mr. Walter J. Travis to hit the nail of the ‘ Why’ on the head. ‘The time-honored injunction laid down by all writers and teachers to “keep your eye on the ball" — which eye, by-the-way?—would be more aptly expressed by insisting upon the head being kept absolutely still and in the same position as in the address until the ball is struck — or even a moment after. ... If the head is kept in the same position throughout the swing, the player may even go so far as to absolutely shut his eyes and be reasonably certain of getting the ball well away, provided no jerk is introduced.' So says Mr. Travis. Mrs. Gordon Robertson, Golf Professional at Princes’ Ladies’ Golf Club, Mitcham, England, goes, indeed, further still: ‘Before a beginner attempts to handle her clubs there is one thing which she is always told, and that is, “Keep your eye on the ball.” In the course of my teaching I have noticed something which, in my opinion, is even still more important.

. . . It is this: “Keep your head still.” By doing this it is impossible to take your eye off the ball.' (But Mrs. Gordon Robertson will permit me to point out that one could, by rolling the eyeballs, keep the eyes on the ball, yet move the head.)

Both would be absolutely right if it were not that, to ensure that steadiness, and to ensure the proper swing of the arms, it seems necessary to look. This, with great deference to such eminent authorities, I believe to be the case. Ophthalmologists tell us that it is through the two organs of vision chiefly that we form an idea of solidity, of distance, of the spaces between things, and of the number of inches, feet, or yards at which objects are situated from our bodies. They say that the image of an object in one eye is slightly different from the image in the other eye; and that it is somehow owing to this difference that we get an idea of distance. To look at a small object near you, the eyeballs have to converge or point inwards. If you look at your nose, the right eye sees the righthand side of the nose, and the left eye sees the left-hand side— and you conclude that your nose is very near your eyes. Well, when you look at your ball, your right eye sees more of the right side of it, the left more of the left — and you conclude that the ball is just so far away — how far, only long and persistent practice will tell you.

Now, I hold that unless the eyes are accurately taking note of this difference, are accurately measuring distance, not only at the moment of impact of club with ball, but during the whole swing of the arms, during the whole stroke — the arms will fail to swing accurately. The arms do not judge distance (save when we are actually touching something), nor does the body, nor does the head. The judging is done by the eyes, and the judging must be done during the whole act of striking, otherwise the arms will strike, literally, blindly. The muscles obey the eyes. If the eyes look up before the ball is hit, the muscles do not receive the proper orders to hit, and the most important part of the stroke is done blindly.

But surely almost every movement of our bodies proves that the muscles are obedient to the eyes, cannot act properly unless guided by the eyes. Why, at this very moment I may be said to have taken my stance and be ‘addressing’ my ink-pot. (I address it for hours every day.) I know exactly where it is, and I am keeping my head steady. Yet every time I want ink I have to look at that ink-pot. Could one even light a pipe blindfolded? 1

However, it matters precious little why one must keep one’s eye on the ball: the golfer who does not keep it there soon enough finds out, empirically as the philosophers say, that unless he can and floes, the ball never goes right. It is extraordinary how extremely difficult to many men this extremely easy thing is. The novice, of course, knows nothing about the difficulty. He is so intensely interested in the business—so new to him — that he stares hard at the ball, and very often, accordingly, plays (for a time) remarkably well. When he arrives at that dangerous stage of the game at which he begins to be anxious about his stance, and his grip, and his stroke, when he wonders what he ought to do and how he is going to do it — ah! then to fix his attention on fixing his eyes (or his head) becomes not so easy a matter. Then perhaps he will think upon this, otherwise, I admit, intolerable, disquisition. As to the layman, he to whom golf appears to be a pastime most puerile, he will consider that this disquisition is a waste-time most pitiful.

It is a pity that so many literary elucidators and explicators of the game of golf devote so many pages to the subsidiary circumstances connected with the game. They descant, most learnedly and delightfully I admit, on how you should stand and how you should strike, on the kind of club you should use and on the kind you should not. I wonder if they would pardon me if I said that, as a matter of simple fact, if one attended to the game (with all that that means), almost one could stand and strike as one chose, and almost with any kind of club. If one never, never transgressed any of the primary rules of golf, almost one could play with a pole-axe!

But, after all, are psychological analyses such as these of any practical avail on the links? Probably not, unless they impress upon the reader thereof the necessity of looking at his ball. But if they do impress upon him that necessity — with all that it entails — it is quite possible that these analyses will be of use to him. But, I beg of you, golfer, think on these things when you are dressing, when you are shaving, when you are putting on your boots. Think not on them when you are on the links. On the links you must will, not think. But will-power is either a natural gift, or an intellectual trait, or a moral attribute, or a mental habit, or an inherited temperament. It is probably all five. Whatever it is, in golf it is necessary and supreme.

What a piece of work is man! And how golf intensifies our amazement at that piece of work! Extraordinary, indeed, it is to think that a natural gift, an intellectual trait, a moral attribute, a mental habit, an inherited temperament, will determine the nature of the game you play. In a sense, of course, a man’s character will always determine the manner in which he will play any game; or, to put it conversely, the way a man plays any game will always be an index to his character. Well, is there any game so indicative of character as is golf? At bottom, perhaps, the secret of golf lies somewhere imbedded in character.

  1. Not, I think, unless one hand helps to guide the other by holding the bowl, however steady the head. — Try it, reader.