The Spiritual Side of Golf

This Game Sometimes Goes Beyond the Physical

December 15, 2004

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, posture, and alignment, 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 got a far-off look in his eye and said, “Oh, man, that’s very Zen-like”.

spiritual-q1I would not 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 know nothing 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 merely physical, and seems to feed our deeper inclinations.

They say that seeing a sunset makes the brain release lithium, which gives people a sense of euphoria. Maybe it was just a chemical trigger, 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; wavy shreds of dark cloud dipped in pink, a contrast of troughs and peaks painted by the shallow stroke of the day’s last, low-angled light; a distant droning mower, and a much closer smell of grass and earth, and a million distinct living fibers woven into an evening with the soft texture of peacefulness and wholeness. I said I was walking down the fairway, but it felt more like hovering. Maybe that is Zen-like. Maybe I should start selling lithium on street corners.

How many times have I seen golf work its magic on others? A man walks past my lesson tee wearing a furled brow, weighed down by the troubles of a workday just finished. Off to the Peak Nine without a caddie, or a Sherpa, but led hole to hole by the steady tree line and the faithfully watching Massanutten Ridge, the prominent local landmark that helps guide over-passing pilots to their east-coast destinations. A couple hours later the man emerges like an apparition from the darkening course as I pack up my training aids and clubs. I do not see him at first; I hear the irons clanging in unison with every step, and then the gravel twisting under his spikes. When he gets close enough, he says hello, and I can see that there is no more tension in his face. Walking nine holes is like doing some kind of mental yoga.

spiritual-q2Golf 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, or medication. That is golf.

Sometimes it is 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 have seen guys celebrate a birthday on the golf course, everyone in a good mood, all in tune. I have seen a man suffering marital problems walk eighteen holes with a good friend when no conversation, but only companionship was needed. On the other hand, it seems to have become a common practice for people to play golf on their wedding day. Golf, like no other sport, seems compatible with the deeper and loftier things we experience in life. This is a game that makes the best of times better, and softens the edges of darker days.

It is true that 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, rowdy college buddies, and a cooler of beer. Sometimes it is just a little exercise or an excuse to gamble. But sometimes this amazing game provides an experience beyond the mundane.


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