The Harder I Practice, the Luckier I Get

Gary Player? Arnold Palmer? Jerry Barber? Jack Youngblood? Lee Trevino? Ethel Merman? L. Frank Baum?


Dear Quote Investigator: I am a fan of the golfing legend Gary Player, and the Wikipedia article about him says he: “Coined one of the most quoted aphorisms of post-War sport”:

The harder you practice, the luckier you get.

Is that true? Which golfer said it first? Was it Arnold Palmer?

Quote Investigator: Gary Player is a very fine golfer, but he is not responsible for this well-known maxim. The best evidence that he did not coin the adage is in a book written by Player himself in 1962 where he credits the aphorism to fellow golfer Jerry Barber. Before discussing that book QI will review support for Player and some other claimants to the phrase. The earliest instance of the expression found by QI that uses the word “practice” is not from a golfer. It appears in a memoir published in 1961 by a soldier of fortune during the Cuban revolution.

The saying is a popular motto and different versions can be grouped together in a family that stretches back to before 1900. Here are some examples:

The harder I practice, the luckier I get
The more I practice, the luckier I get.
The more they put out, the more luck they have.
The harder he works, the luckier he gets.
The more you know, the more luck you have.

In an interview in Golf Digest magazine in 2002 Gary Player presents an entertaining story about the origin of the expression [GPGD]:

I was practicing in a bunker down in Texas and this good old boy with a big hat stopped to watch. The first shot he saw me hit went in the hole. He said, “You got 50 bucks if you knock the next one in.” I holed the next one. Then he says, “You got $100 if you hole the next one.” In it went for three in a row. As he peeled off the bills he said, “Boy, I’ve never seen anyone so lucky in my life.” And I shot back, “Well, the harder I practice, the luckier I get.” That’s where the quote originated.

Further below QI presents an excerpt from Player’s 1962 book of golf advice that suggests the story above is inaccurate. Here are selected citations in reverse chronological order.

In 1984 the father of a young woman who is an expert in shooting basketball foul shots credits the saying to another famous golfer [APN]:

“Arnold Palmer says, ‘The more I practice, the luckier I get,'” says Missy’s father, Mike Ayotte. “Some kids spend hours playing the piano or swimming laps. Missy shoots foul shots.”

In 1981 in a letter to Sports Illustrated the golfer Hubie Green is credited with the saying [HGSI]:

Everybody’s talk of Georgia’s being lucky—not good—reminds me of what golfer Hubie Green reportedly had to say about luck: “The harder I practice, the luckier I seem to get.”

In 1969 at the World Cup golf matches in Rome, Italy, Lee Trevino is quoted using a version of the expression [LTWG]:

Lee Trevino hit a magical iron shot, one that appeared to curve around a tree trunk, duck under branches, soar over a bunker and bite a few feet from the pin. “Signor Trevino,” called a Roman from the gallery, “are you always that lucky?” “Signor,” replied the U.S. Open champion, “the more I practice, the luckier I get.”

In 1966 the expression is used by the golfer Billy Casper after he has played a round of golf with his nine-year-old son Billy Jr. while preparing for a tournament [BCS]:

Prior to the tournament, Casper and his Billy Jr. had  traversed the Olympic links by themselves. “The one thing I’ve found out,” said Billy Sr., “is that the more I practice, the luckier I get.”

In 1962 Gary Player tells an anecdote about his fellow golfer Jerry Barber in his book “Gary Player’s Golf Secrets”. Player credits Barber with the well-known aphorism [GPGS]:

Once Jerry Barber, a great sand player, was practicing bunker shots. He hit one ball near the flag. The next shot went in.

A person watching Jerry told him: “Gee, you sure are a lucky trap shot player.”

“Yes, I know,” Jerry replied. “And the harder I practice, the luckier I get.”

In 1960 Jerry Barber does use a version of the maxim during a golf tournament in Yorba Linda, California [JBS]:

The diminutive Los Angeles golfer sank a 15-foot putt on the second hole for birdie-3 and a 20-footer on the eight for a birdie-2.

“The harder you work the luckier you get,” said the 134-pound Barber after his third sub-par round.

But the version that Barber is quoted saying does not contain the word “practice”. Indeed, the version Barber uses invokes “hard work” and that variant appears more than a decade earlier in 1949 as shown further below. It is possible that Barber also used a version of the maxim containing the word “practice”, and Gary Player heard or was told of that version.

Yet, 1961 is the date of the earliest instance of the aphorism that QI has located that uses the word “practice”. It appears in a book titled “The Devil to Pay” and is used by a soldier of fortune. (Thanks to ace researcher Bonnie Taylor-Blake for verifying this citation on paper.) The following passage describes a man being killed with a single shot [DTP]:

He saw me, turned and swung the grease gun toward me. I hit the ground, my .38 in hand. We let fly at the same instant, and my first shot caught him in the chest.

Raul came pounding up. “It’s Gomez!” he cried.

“Who else?” I said.

“One shot,” he muttered. “You were lucky.”

“That’s right. And the more I practice, the luckier I get.”

In 1955 a version in the family of maxims is used by a popular actress and singer in musical theatre. Beyond the world of sports the expression is embraced by some in the world of show business [EMS]:

As set forth in her autobiography, the philosophy of Ethel Merman, a woman with large eyes, good legs and an incredible voice, who is probably the finest musical-comedy performer of the last quarter century, is a homely one and considerably less complicated than the lyrics of Cole Porter, which she has often rendered with absolute felicity.

“The way I get it,” she told Pete Martin, “people make their own luck by putting out everything they’ve got, and the more they put out, the more luck they have.”

In 1949 another instance of the saying in a show business context appears in an anecdote told by the columnist Walter Winchell [WWL]:

J. J. Lerner, owner of the stores bearing his name, met a great admirer of his playwright-son, Alan Jay, who auth’d such delights as “Brigadoon,” “Day Before Spring” and “Love Life.”

“Isn’t it wonderful how lucky your boy is?” said the man.

“Yes,” replied Mr. Lerner, “isn’t it wonderful. The harder he works the luckier he gets.”

In 1937 another version in the family of maxims is used in the Los Angeles Times. This version does not extol practice or hard work. Instead, the key to luck is knowledge [LACF]:

About 2000 years ago Confucius said: “The more you know, the more luck you will have.” And now a man on South Hill street is using it as an advertisement to sell racing tip sheets.

In 1913 the fantasy author L. Frank Baum, creator of the famous World of Oz, uses the maxim variant that hails knowledge [OZP]:

“The more one knows, the luckier he is, for knowledge is the greatest gift in life.”

The last excerpt is a small collection of maxims from the book “The Burman: His Life and Notions” dated 1896 [BLN]:

A mountain is climbed by degrees; property acquired by degrees; wisdom learnt by degrees.

Have regard for a whole family of rats, instead of for one cat.

The more you know, the more luck you have.

A short boat is hard to steer; a dwarf is quick in the temper.

If a cock ruffles up his feathers, it is easy to pluck him. If a man gets angry he is done for.

In conclusion, Gary Player probably did not craft the aphorism that links practice and luck. It appears in 1961 or earlier. The golfer Jerry Barber was credited by Player and did use a version of the maxim linking hard work and luck. But the version linking hard work and luck appears in 1949 or earlier. A version linking knowledge and luck appears in 1896 or earlier. Thanks for your question. QI wishes you wonderful luck obtained through whichever method you prefer.

[APN] 1984 January 20, Nashua Telegraph, “Missy Ayotte: Sharpshooter” by Gary Fitz, Page 19 (GN page 10), Column 1, Nashua, New Hampshire. (Google News archive)

[HGSI] 1981 January 26, Sports Illustrated, “19th Hole: The Readers Take Over” edited by Gary Flood, Time Inc. (SIVault) link

[LTWG] 1968 November 26, The Daily Times-News, “Lee Trevino A Fluke? That’s A Laugh” by Ira Berkow, Page 6B (NewsArch Page 35), Burlington, North Carolina. (NewspaperArchive)

[BCS] 1966 June 22, Charleston Daily Mail, “Casper Enjoys Golf Pressure” by John P. Carmichael, Page 13, Charleston, West Virginia. (NewspaperArchive)

[GPGS] 1962, “Gary Player’s Golf Secrets” by Gary Player, Page 66, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. (Verified on paper in second edition 1966)

[JBS] 1960 January 18, Schenectady Gazette, Barber Leads Field Into Yorba Finals (UPI), Page 20 (GN Page 11), Schenectady, New York. (Google News archive) link

[DTP] 1961, The Devil to Pay by Jack Youngblood and Robin Moore, Page 218, Coward McCann, Inc., New York. (Google Books snippet view; Verified on paper by Bonnie Taylor-Blake at UNC) link

[EMS] 1955 July 3, New York Times, “Don’t Scuff Your Toe” by Gilbert Millstein, Page BR9, New York. (ProQuest Historical Newspapers)

[WWL] 1949 June 6, The Spartanburg Herald, Walter Winchell: ‘Harder Playwright Works, The Luckier He Gets’, Page 4, Spartanburg, South Carolina. (Google News archive)

[LACF] 1937 December 19, Los Angeles Times, On the Side with E.V. Durling, Page A1, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest Historical Newspapers)

[OZP] 1913 The Patchwork Girl of Oz by L. Frank Baum, Page 31, Chapter 2, Reilly & Lee Co., Chicago. (Google Books full view) link

[BLN] 1896, The Burman: His Life and Notions, by Shway Yoe (pseudonym of Sir James George Scott), Page 576, Macmillan and Co., London and New York. (Google Books full view) link