Posted by: Bob Fisher | April 9, 2012

Golfing by the Book: A Philosophical, Anthropological, and Literary Look at the Game

Travel and golf

Increasingly the travel industry has become one of the most diversified on the planet. Thanks in part to the whole new world of electronic communication, travel suppliers can now reach niche speciality markets, and consumers themselves are also much more in control of their travel “destinies”; defining and shaping the world of travel as they want it.

The golf travel market is one such specialty travel market that injects substantial sums of money into a local economy. In the United States alone, golfers spend in access of $26 billion a year on golf travel. Of the golfers who travel to enjoy the sport 43 per cent are over the age of 50; one of the most important demographics in the travel and tourism industry

Why are so many people so passionate about the “game” of golf? Why will they travel just to play golf? Metaphorically, golf is all about travel; all about reaching that ultimate “destination.”


Golfing by the Book

In this town’s outer orbit, life has begun anew. The land is green and for golfers, the hibernal hiatus in the game of life has ended.

I am, of course, stating the obvious when I say that golf is a metaphor for life. As a relatively recent convert to one of the more curious games people play, I think I can speak with some detachment and objectivity about the inherent meaning of golf. In my brief life on the links, the thought has occurred to me several times that golf may actually be a vestigial behavioural ritual left over from our hunter-gatherer days, with – despite a somewhat skewed timeline – a touch of the Age of Enlightenment thrown in for good measure.

Consider all the golfers on the planet, year after year, following what is essentially the same migratory route, completing the same timeless trek, with no turning back. In search of what? Sustenance and survival, that’s what. A way of life. The necessities of life, of which a glimpse of the ideal is paramount. Constantly chasing a vision, the golfer pursues the elusive but perfect swing, the consummate shot, the heart-stopping putt – a sense of the self and of the absolutely perfect day of golf. And this doesn’t even take into consideration the implications of the mystical hole-in-one, that rare event that really is a consequence of fate rather than skill.

Consider also the aesthetics and the psychological-philosophical impact of golf on the human psyche. Picture yourself on the tee of your favourite hole. You calmly and resolutely address the ball, you swing, rotate, connect. The ball lifts, soars, lands just where you envisioned it would. What a sustained and total feeling! What brilliance! What self-determination! What an existential moment!

And then there are the flubs, the struggles for control, the disillusionment in the self – and the loss of faith in the game itself. “Why do I put myself through this?” Because you have no choice. Once you’ve felt the club in your hand and even an approximation of that exquisite click when the clubface meets your dimpled friend squarely and absolutely, you can’t go home again until the day is done.

I know. I’ve been there. And I’ve taken the lessons, read the self-help manuals, watched the videos, confided in friends, and experienced the momentary thrill of oneness and the too oft-repeated descent into golfing chaos.

So this year, I’ve decided to play by the book, two books actually. And they are: Golf for Enlightenment, by Deepak Chopra and Life of Pi, by Yann Martel.

Another in a long list of books by Deepak Chopra, the pop guru of health and spirituality, Golf for Enlightenment is a user-friendly fable of an ordinary guy having a bad day at golf.

He is destined to meet Leela. (In the ancient scriptures of India, leela refers to the divine game of life that was “played” for the sheer joy of it.) Leela is the ultimate golf pro. She teaches him about the true mind-body connection in golf, and in seven mystifying lessons our hero learns that he and the ball are one. He learns to let the game play him, to play from the heart to the hole. He learns again how to live – especially on the links. He rises above intrusive emotion and hollow ego. He transcends the banal and bothersome in golf. He rediscovers his real self. He becomes a master of the game of golf.

This is my idea of New Age!

Life of Pi, the Man Booker award-winning novel by Canadian Yann Martel, is another fable about life in the wide open spaces, about meaning, and about survival.

Raised in Pondicherry, India where his father owns the local zoo, Pi Patel begins his true journey through life when the family leaves for Canada aboard a freighter on which a number of the zoo animals are also travelling to their various new homes. A storm, a shipwreck, and whimsical chance result in Pi drifting across the Pacific for 227 days in a lifeboat with, initially, the strangest foursome you can imagine: a zebra, a hyena, an orang-utan, and a magnificent Royal Bengal Tiger called Richard Parker. (Don’t ask; read the book.)

Eventually, this party of dissimilar species in dire circumstances is reduced to two, Pi and Richard Parker. Pi’s determination to survive is best expressed when he says, “I will turn miracle into routine. The amazing will be seen every day.” (Hands up those who watched the Masters this year.)

Making the miraculous routine is a touch easier said than done, but for a young lad alone with a tiger in the middle of the Pacific, Pi develops amazing survival strategies. Constantly struggling with the delicate balance of life in a literal ocean of possibilities, Pi profits from earlier lessons from a mentor who taught him “to take the pulse of the universe” and to respect both winning and losing as part of the same process. Pi’s most important survival technique is to suspend the usual predator-prey relationship and achieve integration and interdependence with the tiger who, in this reader’s opinion, is the embodiment of the ideals at the core of Pi’s psyche.

Like the game of golf, I daresay Richard Parker is a magnificent and formidable companion on this journey but one that will never be tamed – nor should he – because he is the essence of freedom. Golf, and all it entails, is the benefactor of life on the links, not the foe. Of course Life of Pi has a happy ending – of sorts – although Pi continues to have “nightmares tinged with love.”

Ambivalence, it seems, is also the name of the game.

Therefore, I have decided that these two books will serve as my point de départ and metaphysical guides throughout another golfing season. But, please don’t get me wrong. I’m not searching for epiphanies on the golf course, I will be happy just playing bogey golf consistently. I know that life (like golf) is not an event; it is a process. I would just like the process to be a little more … coherent … a little more consistent.

So I will start with the broad strokes.

From Deepak Chopra (the man is a humanist in every sense of the word) I have learned that golf is a game of collaboration as opposed to a life or death experience. In that sense it is a truly non-aggressive game; a game in which I must find oneness with the ball, my clubs, my surroundings, my self.

Supporting this key strategy is a lesson I have learned from tempest-tossed Pi; that like golf, life is … um … a life and death experience. You win some; you lose some. But you always win by respecting failure. Chopra says that respecting failure as well as success is the only way to become a master. Pi learned very quickly that he had to endure sacrifices (I will spare you the gory details) in order to provide for the tiger and thus for himself, because they were on the same journey – in the same boat so to speak. So I will laugh at the bad shot, overcome my frustration at my perceived ineptness by admiring someone else’s skill, step outside the complexities of the game, at the same time looking inward, thus diffusing any feelings of self-importance, and transcending my limitations. I will focus on the now, be in the moment (where “the whole” already exists), and permit my subconscious and muscle memory to play the game for me.

This shouldn’t be too difficult.

In terms of specifics, I have learned from Pi’s experience the role that imagination plays, in life as in golf. If I imagine – some would say visualize – what is really happening in my body and my mind, I will discover what I really need to do as opposed to what my vainglorious self is urging me to do. And in this way, the tiger and I will go a long way together in this symbiotic existence. Being in a timeless and out-of-time existence on the ocean (the mundane in life is equally distant on a golf course), Pi has lots of time to imagine, to dream, and to focus his mind. Essentially he applies the same plan of action that Chopra encourages us to follow: to stop, calm, rest, and then get on with it. It does require work of a sort, and of course a willingness to experience the hazards of life, but whether you are in the middle of the Pacific or en route to the next hole, the moment is now.

So now I’m ready to find my (golfing) self again as Chopra recommends. I will find my higher self, the one that child-like took up golf in the first place – because it’s fun. And I will learn the hard lessons of Pi, that whatever you do in the moment changes the whole future. Chopra would say, “Every swing happens a certain way because of the one that came before.” My life on a golf course – as it is in a lifeboat – is an accumulation of karma, the sum of my actions in previous states of existence, in previous games. Que sera, sera. I will do what I can but I will do it by enjoying the moment. Carpe divot.

Chopra says that golf is all about perception; it begins and ends with seeing the ball. “A clear and concentrated perception” sees and understands “the force of inevitability.” I’m not sure whether Pi was aware of this force adrift in his watery world, but by the end of the novel the reader is certainly aware of it – as is Pi, in hindsight. Hindsight of course is easy but also necessary.

A related quote that is still a favourite of mine is the Swahili saying “Wayfarer, keep looking back.” This is most appropriate and meaningful for the protagonists in both Golf for Enlightenment and Life of Pi, as it is for any golfer. Seeing the ball, the course, the game, the self with the kind of clarity that Chopra seems to have and that Pi gained is something I’m going to try harder at without falling into the trap of retrospective obsessionality. I’m not going to relive the bad times nor the good times in my memory, especially that game last fall when I just couldn’t seem to hit the ball straight no matter what I did. This year, I plan to apply the kind of mindfulness that golf is really all about. I’ll talk to the ball as Chopra recommends, as Pi did to Richard Parker, and I will strive to silence my chattering mind. I shall adopt the soft, laser-like gaze of a Tiger Woods or a Mike Weir, a sure sign of an inner state where the spirit of golf is exalted not confronted. And from time to time I will take Chopra’s advice and just play golf without keeping score. I’ll go for the big picture – not sweat the small stuff – I’ll eliminate all judgment.

Already I can imagine myself becoming a better golfer, letting my vision become my game, as I allow my inner person to be played by the game itself. I will be an enlightened golfer, immune to mental chaos, and like Pi, I will become part of the game’s wordless beauty and harmony.

You know, when you think about it, golf is really quite simple.

More on the Man Booker Prize and Life of Pi

One of the world’s most famous literary competitions, “The Booker” is The Masters of contemporary fiction. Canadian author Yann Martel’s surprising win in 2002 was the second time in recent history that Canadians have captured this important award. (Margaret Atwood won in 2000 for her novel The Blind Assassin. And how about that Mike Weir!) For more information on The Booker and Yann Martel go to The Man Booker Prize.

Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Deepak Chopra

Deepak Chopra is a one-man spiritual industry. For information about his extensive list of books and the Chopra Institute at La Costa Resort and Spa in Carlsbad California, go to www.chopra.com.

See also…

“Finding the meaning of life at the end of an eight iron”

… in which Golf Pro Gil Anderson confirms that golf is indeed a philosophical sport.

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Responses

  1. hmmmm, nice blog !


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