The idea, prettymuch, was that I would attend this kooky-sounding, three-day seminar, meet awide range of well-meaning, highly earnest people, drink their Scotch and thenmake fun of them. The first annual Deepak Chopra/World Business Academy/Golf inthe Kingdom Invitational, held this summer, was described as "yourinvitation to explore the linkage between mind and body in golf, in businessand in life." With its mystical-spiritual bent, with Chopra riffing on"finding the now" and "letting the game play you," there wouldbe New Age jargon to send up, and touchy-feely moments at which to roll one'seyes. Plus, it would take place at the Ojai (Calif.) Valley Inn & Spa,where golfers partial to guacamole could treat themselves to something calledthe Avocado-Oat Body Treatment. (The Pumpkin-Melon Scrub, alas, would not beavailable until the fall.) It was an easy mark, is what it was. But a funnything happened on the way to my laptop. I got my mind opened. I hit golf shotsI'd only dreamed of hitting.
Sure, it was coolto brush up against celebrity, whether it was discussing course design andpoetry with Robert Trent Jones Jr. or eating barbecue with Thomas (Hollywood)Henderson, the former All-Pro linebacker and recovering drug addict who toldme, roughly one minute after we'd met, "Golf is hard, but so is life, andso is getting off crack." Hollywood doesn't do small talk.
I would share anintimate moment with Courteney Cox, who happened to be at the Inn the sameweekend. (I smiled at her; she, in turn, did not call security.) And I would beintroduced to Malcolm McDowell, who was gone before I had a chance to tell himhow much I enjoyed his work in Caligula.
I would bondbriefly with McDowell's friend, Michael Murphy, the alter ego of Shivas Irons,the gonzo golfing philosopher animating the pages of Murphy's wildly popular1972 novel, Golf in the Kingdom. He's also the cofounder of the EsalenInstitute in Big Sur, Calif. "I think they have seminars there on tantricsex," my wife would later observe. "Did you get his card?"
October 15, 2006
The participantsin this afternoon's round-table discussion in the Shangri-la Pavilion areseated at a long, rectangular table. Oh, well. I am at a smaller table withClaudine, a Deepak disciple, and a fellow writer, Joe Queenan. All of us hadbegun the day with a yoga session in the spa's Mind & Body Studio. SaysQueenan, "I don't trust any sport where you don't keep score."
"Andthat," rejoins serene Claudine, "is why you need yoga."
I would like topoint out, for the record, that it is only after Jones reads to us from hisgolf poetry that a pair of older "explorers," as we are called, nod offat their tables. (It is rather warm in the pavilion.) Later, another elderlygentleman shares this lament, "I used to envision myself driving a nailthrough the ball, but I've lost that capacity." I make a mental note tointroduce him to the urologist I'd met in yoga.
Still later,Joseph Parent, author of Zen Golf, drops this koan on us: "Golf is 90percent mental and 10 percent...mental." Even as we laugh, we struggle toreconcile that kernel with what Fred Shoemaker had told us that morning. TheShoe had counseled us to not "get stuck in our heads," to "be inour bodies."
Citing theapparently mixed message, Queenan challenges Parent and Shoemaker, "Whichof you is right?"
Parent adroitlyfields the question, noting that "in the Buddhist tradition, the word formind--citta--is also the word for heart." His advice: "Plan from yourhead, but when it's time to execute the shot, play from your heart."
I, too, hadflagged the conflicting advice but am in no mood to bust the instructors. Bynow, my inner cynic is wandering lost among the eucalyptus bordering the 15thhole, where I'd banished it that morning during a group stroll. Following yogaand breakfast, my fellow explorers and I had formed a circle around Shoemaker,the slightly built, slightly mysterious former golf prodigy whose kind eyes andpuckish humor belied the ruthlessness with which he stripped away ourmisconceptions.
What goes throughyour mind, he asked, when you're standing over your ball on the 1st tee?
"I never seemto have a positive thought," one man volunteered.
"Scared,"added an honest fiftysomething.
"What part ofyour anatomy are you in?" replied the Shoe. "You're in your head. Andon the 1st tee, that's a bad neighborhood. The next time you're worried abouthow you'll look on the 1st tee, ask yourself, If I hit this out-of-bounds, willI really be disgraced and have to leave the club and eventually end up pushinga shopping cart?"
This was hisM.O.--to pull from us knowledge we already had. A sampler of his Socraticmethod: What's the definition of freedom? Do we agree that one definition offreedom is a condition of not being attached or tied to something? Thus, areyou free when you play? After a bad shot, ask yourself, What thoughts displacedyour capacity for freedom? Do you understand, do you really get how much feardoes to your life? The moment you have a fearful thought, and you go sidewaysto it [meaning, rather than face it head-on], your life shrinks a little.
Had this been arevival meeting, I would have been spouting hallelujahs and doing handspringsdown the aisle, like Jake and Elwood Blues at the Triple Rock BaptistChurch.
"I'm notsaying this walk will transform you," the Shoe had told us, before we evenstarted walking, "but it might."
I was a fan ofthe Shoe's even before his wife, Jo Hardy, loaned me their Inn &Spa--issued golf cart. I'd let it drop that my nine-year-old son washalf-crazed with the desire to ride in one. Devin and I sped past the swimmingpool, off the grounds of the Inn, careering through neighborhoods, his facefrozen in a rictus of ecstasy. "That was not a joyride," I fibbed tothe uniformed hotel employee who stood sentinel at the Inn's entrance upon ourreturn. "We were lost." I loved his reply: "I would never doubtyou, sir."
On the rangebefore the shotgun start of today's scramble, I am spraying irons, slicingthree-woods over the 100-foot-high netting that protects innocents on the 9thfairway from public enemies like me. I am dropping internal f bombs, feeling myblood pressure rise, when I hear Shoemaker's voice from yesterday: This walk isabout catching yourself before you become automatic.
He had snuck upon me, on my old self--hit a few crappy shots and regress instantly into themisanthrope with the furrowed brow and the Andrew Dice Clay vocabulary. With adeep inhalation and an act of will, I catch myself. I reflect on the homeworkI'd done that morning after deciding to blow off yoga. I'd written a sort ofmission statement on the back of my notebook. The day before, Shoemaker hadpointed out that most golfers arrive on the 1st tee committed to one thingabove all else: not embarrassing themselves. He urged us to reflect on why weplay and to come up with a commitment deeper and more meaningful than simplyscoring well. To obsess on a number, the Shoe had told us, is to "miss thecreativity, the connection to other people."
I had two goals,the first of which was to "be present to the head of the club"--beaware of where it was facing at impact. The other was to enjoy those momentsbetween shots, which comprise, according to Shoemaker, about 95% of around.
With an act ofwill I get out of my own way, hit a few easy five-irons (straight, at last),then find my cart. I'm sharing it with a guy named Eric Topacio. "That'sthe guy who's engaged to Tina Mickelson," said Jared Wood, who is also inmy foursome, along with Mindy Affrime, the woman who is producing the Golf inthe Kingdom movie. Tina is Phil's big sister, a golf pro who's one of ourinstructors this weekend. "This guy has to be pretty good," Woodreasons, "or she'd dump him, right?"
A fine golfer,Eric proves to be an even better coach, a soothing, upbeat presence. Myapproach on our first hole carries the paved road behind the green, caromingoff a building and flushing a covey of gardeners. "Nice shot!" saysEric. "I think you hit the Wellness Center!"
We use two of myshots on the next hole. (But who's counting?) Mindy, whose preswing routine isa parody of a waggle--a waggle on Dianobol--hits a wedge to within 12 feet on11, and Jared drains the putt. On 13 Jared bombs a drive; I hit a wedge to fourfeet, sink the putt and levitate off the green. Stinking up the range thismorning is a distant memory. "I'm telling ya," says Eric. "There'ssomething magical about this team!"
The magic fadesin and out. My five-iron off the par-3 16th tee is a skulled grotesquerie thatHoyt Wilhems its way toward a barranca left of the green. I am puzzling--O.K.,sulking--over this regression when Eric says, "Man, how pretty isthat?" None of us is on the green, and it takes me a moment to realize he'stalking about the vista beyond the putting surface: the Topa Topa mountainsrising from the far side of the valley, garlanded by cirrus clouds. I do abetter job, and have done a better job since that day, enjoying the momentsbetween shots.
And there areplenty of those. Even by the standards of such events the pace of play isglacial. "I like Deepak," a member of one foursome says about Chopra, afew groups ahead, "but he needs to spend a little less time meditating overhis shots."
Overall, though,Chopra is a useful guy to have around. With the shotgun start minutes away,he'd led a small fleet of hopelessly lost golf carts to the 15th tee. "Howdid you find it?" my friend Barbara asked him. "The universe led mehere," he replied.
I value hispresence for the simple, un-Zenlike reason that it's always comforting to havesomeone around who's worse than you. The first time he swung a club at a golfball, Deepak told us, he hit a seven-iron 140 yards to within a foot of thehole. "I was hooked," he proclaimed. "Since then, it's beenprogressively downhill, but I'm still hooked."
We finish at fiveunder, nowhere near the money but grateful for the time in one another'scompany.
I am stillhumming The Crawdad Song--to which we square-danced, following thebarbecue--when the shuttle drops us off beside the 16th hole. A lone bagpiperis playing. The path to the tee is lined with luminaries, the green isencircled by them. The pin is radiant with taped-on glow sticks. Liveriedwaiters circulate with glasses of Scotch. Don't mind if I do.
Our task: toreenact the nocturnal lunacy of Michael Murphy and Shivas Irons. In perhaps themost memorable scene in Golf in the Kingdom the new friends trespass undercover of darkness onto a fictional links called Burningbush. Using a primitiveclub and balls--a baffy spoon and featheries--they play the notorious 13thhole, an uphill par-3 whose green can be reached only by carrying a field ofgorse called Lucifer's Rug.
"Gowf is away o' makin' a man naked," says Shivas Irons. We handle our nuditydifferently. Hitting glow balls, we have a 150-yard, downhill shot. The clubpro, Rob Weizer, goes first, launching a gorgeous tracer that homes in on thepin. The guy on the green radios up the good news: "Three and a halffeet!" No one comes closer.
Of the 40 or 50people who take a cut, I see only one whiff, more than a few banana slices anda multitude of hooks. "True gravity pulls left," declares one member ofthe Shivas Irons Society, having hooked his ball into the barranca.
Another Societymember, the urologist from Amarillo, Texas, startles us before his shot byhopping on one foot, then the other, while caterwauling at the moon (reprisinga preswing ritual favored by Shivas Irons). "I'm a showman," theurologist explains.
Thirty or sobraver souls have taken their hacks by the time I address my ball. Leaving thebarbecue, the Shoe had told me this: The glow balls don't fly as far, so clubup. I'm holding a six-iron. All I remember is my joy--and relief--at seeing theball soar in a glorious arc toward the green.
Everyone isallowed two shots. Even before hearing the measurement--"Five feet,"crackles the voice on the radio--I know I won't be teeing up a second. Thatunstruck ball stays in my pocket and now rests on my desk, where it no longerglows but retains the power to remind me of the good things that can happenwhen we get out of our own way.
FollowingMidnight Golf a small group of us heads back to Murphy's suite, where we put aserious dent in his minibar, and where, having cracked open a cold one, hesettles into the lotus position on the floor with a sprightliness belying his75 years. "Another day," he exclaims, "another dharma."
Roughly one minute after we'd met, Henderson, theformer All-Pro linebacker and recovering drug addict, told me, "GOLF ISHARD, BUT SO IS LIFE, and so is getting off crack." Hollywood doesn't dosmall talk.
"What part of your anatomy are you in?"replied the Shoe. "YOU'RE IN YOUR HEAD. And on the 1st tee, that's a badneighborhood."
Another Society member, the urologist from Amarillo,startles us before his shot by hopping on one foot, then the other, whilecaterwauling at the moon. "I'M A SHOWMAN," the urologist explains.
Ron Tarrson was one of 50 golfers seeking success throughenlightenment.
Chopra (far left) drew celebrities like (clockwise from top) McDowell, Jones,Mickelson and Henderson.
The DC/WBA/GIKI regimen at Ojai included (clockwise from above) yoga, deepthoughts from Murphy, fearless instruction by Shoemaker, a drill on how to findthe club face and extra time practicing the short game.
A day of golf was followed by a barbecue, Western dancing (above) and anocturnal closest-to-the-pin contest.