The mystery of golf

Golf Things Considered column by John Rogers
JSpencerRogers@msn.com  

What is it about golf that brings out the spiritual, almost mystical side in people?

I remember giving a lesson once with a tall, somewhat disheveled guy. We worked on his grip, alignment and posture, and then I explained to him that when the setup is good, the ball, in a sense, is already at the target. The job of the swing is to let it stay there. The golfer, a bartender in town, got a far-off look in his eye and said, “Oh, man, that’s very Zen-like.”

I wouldn’t know if something was Zen-like if it came up and popped me in my third eye. In this new age, people use different terminology. I don’t know about auras and inner visions and chakras. An energy center sounds like a nuclear power plant to me. And most of the time this silly game of hitting a ball with a stick is little more than recreation and competition. But sometimes golf transcends the usual rewards.

They say that seeing a sunset makes the brain release lithium, which gives people a sense of euphoria. Maybe that’s all it was, but I can remember on several occasions walking down the final fairway … the sun laying on the ridgeline like dying embers, the sky turning a regal shade of purple, and wavy shreds of dark cloud dipped in pink, the troughs and peaks set in contrast by the shallow angle of the last, stubborn beams of light. I said I was walking down the fairway, but it felt like I was hovering. Maybe that’s Zen-like. Maybe I should start selling lithium on street corners.

How many times have I seen golf work its magic on others? A member will walk past my lesson tee wearing a furled brow, weighed down by the troubles of a workday just finished. Off to the Peak Nine, with its tree-lined fairways that are overlooked by Massanutten Ridge. A few hours later he’ll emerge like an apparition from the newly darkened course as I’m packing up my training aids and clubs. I don’t see him at first; I hear the irons clanging in unison with every step, and the gravel twisting under his spikes. But when he gets close enough, he’ll say hello, and I can see that his face has cleared off. Walking nine holes was like doing some kind of mental yoga.

Let’s face it, golf courses are unique places. Where else can you take a four-hour walk through a 200-acre garden, or along the ocean, or across a mountain, and get away with 70 to 130 violent swipes with a stick at the same time? Pure catharsis. Better than meditation. That’s golf.

Sometimes it’s like being in church, only there are no restless babies, no offering, and you get to choose your own hymns. An occasional sunrise service is recommended, when the dew is so thick that it finds its way into your socks, and nobody but your Maker will attest to your score.

But golf in a spiritual or mystical sense is not necessarily a solitary experience. I’ve seen guys celebrate a birthday on the golf course, everyone in a good mood, all in tune. I’ve seen a man suffering marital problems walk 18 holes in silence with a good friend. On the other hand, it’s becoming a tradition for people to play golf on their wedding day. Golf, like no other sport, seems compatible with deeper and loftier things than we experience in everyday living.

Don’t get me wrong. I see people playing golf out of some sort of habitual compulsion. I see people play because they would not know what else to do. I see golfers who enjoy the game without a deeper thought than their club selection, without any soul searching. Sometimes golf means a golf cart, good college buddies and a cooler of beer. Sometimes it’s just a little exercise or an excuse to gamble. But sometimes this game provides an experience beyond the mundane.

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