THE SPIRITUAL NATURE OF GOLF
I have been asked by a good friend to write a hub on the above subject. I have no claim to fame in spirituality or golf, though am drawn to both activities. Regardless, I cannot not answer Storytellersrus’ question. So let me try putting my thoughts into words. But read at your own risk: There is no guarantee that this hub will make much sense to non-golfers who might peruse it.
I started playing golf in 1996. Till then I had viewed it with disdain as a recreational activity for physically unfit corporate honchos and old retirees. It’s a different matter – and no fault of golf - that shortly thereafter I too sought early retirement from the Army.
Coping with hitherto unknown complexities and learning the ropes for survival on civvy street left little time for golf. But I found two good friends who had also just begun playing this game. Much like Jerome K Jerome’s three men in a boat, we came together to commence our journey. The standard of our game, all of us being novices, was akin to the boating proficiency of the said three men. Unlike them, local golf rules forbade an accompanying dog. But, we always had a great time, and looked forward to whenever we could find a few hours for nine or eighteen holes at the Air Force Golf Course.
While on the course, I would completely forget the tension and worries caused by a chaotic marital situation and the stresses of living in disorganized and unruly New Delhi. These outings would help me get rid of useless but heavy mental baggage of past events, stop the niggling worries about imaginary problems, and would smoothen out the jagged nerves and roughed up edges of my mind and soul. My friends and I would be completely engrossed in the paradoxes of the game and in enjoying the beautiful course and our lighthearted banter. They helped me become more accepting of what I could not change and to even see humour in what would normally have been petty but provocative actions or situations.
As our game improved, it started dawning on me that golf was quite like a spiritual journey: A complete get-away from the humdrum of the daily grind, a meditation, a blissful relaxation and a rejuvenator for the heart, mind and soul.
I suppose, to an extent, the same could be said of most other games. But not quite. Let me illustrate.
Unlike football, tennis, basketball or most other sports, your game does not depend on what your opponent or partner is doing. Anyone else’s shot or where it has landed has no bearing at all on how or from where you take your shot. In a way, a round of golf is like a pilgrimage that one might undertake. One leaves behind the family, joins up with others of varied mind and nature and commences on the journey. The aim is to complete it with the least number of strokes and penalties. Often, during the game, you are not even aware of the opponents score. Their actions can only have a psychological or spiritual effect. The thought that they are playing better and are in the lead, might induce self recrimination or a feeling of inadequacy or spur you to hitting harder (which is never a good thing) and taking other foolish risks. Your partner is there but he cannot help much. If you have a caddy, he might give some advice or moral support, much like a guide might. But each player is on his own solitary pilgrimage and it is for you yourself to remain strong in spirit and blossom to your full potential.
As golfers we commune closely with nature, which is a spiritual and primal need for us city dwellers. We play in superb natural surroundings spread over a hundred or more acres of beautifully landscaped real estate. This is not the case say with a tennis court, football field or a gymnasium. Compare their dull and monotonous settings to the natural beauty, the flora and fauna, the gurgling streams and other water bodies of a golf course. Each course is so different from the other, located in a variety of habitats – along sea coasts or rivers, in woodlands or prairies, or around hills and mountains. So there is ample variety. Even if for some reason you are consigned to always playing the same course – something no true golfer likes to do – you would still not get bored. Every course offers a different challenge in each different season, with change of weather, and even with subtle changes in the local flora and fauna. One day, if in India, you might be plucking ripe mulberries, and on another it might be guavas or plums, or the tender newly sprouted leaves of a neem tree, said to have excellent dermatological qualities. One day, you might spot a peacock in full plumage dancing to seduce a peahen and on another you may be subjected to a cacophony of angry birds chasing out vagrant crows who have raided their nests.
No matter how enticing the scenic beauty and how smooth the sailing, any spiritual journey often puts one to the test … retribution and penance may follow … and the pilgrim advances in his journey that much stronger and wiser. So too in golf. Despite clear fairways and beautifully laid out greens you will at times venture into out-of-bounds areas or hazardous terrain and obstacles like bunkers, water bodies, rough foliage and rocks. Getting out of them requires humility of mind, a strong belief in the Almighty, and often some penalty strokes.
As with any spiritual quest, there is mystery and paradox. Things happen which are beyond our comprehension … realisation dawns that we are but pawns. We give our best to each shot, but the result might not always be what we desire; we learn to gracefully accept whatever is the outcome of the confluence of our actions and other mystical forces which are beyond lay human understanding. Let me illustrate with some personal examples – any golfer you meet will have similar stories to narrate.
Just a week or so ago we were at the 9th hole of the Air Force Golf Course. It’s a par 3, and the temporary green that morning was at about 100 yards. I swung my pitching wedge after a proper pre-shot routine including meticulous lining up. For no reason at all, the ball hooked left and was heading towards the adjoining polo ground which is out of bounds. My heart sank. But some divine force intervened, the ball brushed a branch of a tree and deflected a bit, then it hit an electric pole, bounced off it and landed on the green barely six feet from the pin! We were all left gaping in wonder. On a previous occasion, teeing off at the 6th, a par 4 at the Army Course, I carried out my usual pre-shot routine, took a practice swing with the driver and then confidently went for what I wanted to be a long and straight drive. For some unknown and unfathomable reason, the club head topped the ball and it skidded along the ground to stop near the ladies’ tee. Feeling humiliated, and in utter disgust, I took out another ball from my pocket, teed it up, and cursing under my breath, let go at it with all my anger powering the shot. I had not lined up nor taken a practice swing. But, lo and behold … the ball sailed majestically to land at 260 yards, bang in the centre of that narrow fairway. The first shot had been a well planned, rehearsed and calculated one and should have gone the way the second did. The second was hit in frustration and anger, and could have gone anywhere but where it actually did! That’s golf ….
However, the spiritual discipline required on the journey is intense. In no other game are there so many opportunities and so much temptation to cheat. Excepting in major tournaments, there is no referee. It is a gentleman’s game and you are expected to call penalties on yourself. You are also expected to count your own shots, and not go wrong in their totaling. There are times, especially in the rough, when no one except God can see you. The devil in the mind is taunting you to nudge your ball to a more amenable position. This is where your spirit is being tested and it is for you to learn how well - and whether at all - you are progressing in your spiritual quest. But, beware, sometimes, somewhere, intentionally or otherwise, someone else will also notice…
One of the characters created by PG Wodehouse in a short story was called The Oldest Member (of a particular golf course naturaly.) He was believed to have attained enlightenment and peace beyond understanding. One piece of advice given by him to another member is hard to forget, “The only way of really finding out a man’s true character is to play golf with him. In no other walk of life does the cloven hoof so quickly display itself.” Grantland Rice echoed similar thoughts when he said, “Eighteen holes of match play will teach you more about your foe than 18 years of dealing with him across a desk.” As you may have gathered, golf not only offers great opportunity to progress on the spiritual journey, but it also weeds out those who are weak in spirit or character.
Despite all that I have written, I would accept the view that it is not enough to own a set of clubs and to play a game of golf to be enlightened. And I would also agree that proficiency in golf does not give any indication of spiritual advancement. If that had been the case then Tiger Woods would be the most spiritual of all. All that I would say is that golf presents a great opportunity – much more possibly than any other sport or human endeavour - to observe oneself and the mysteries of a deeper life, to become stronger of spirit, and even catch fleeting glimpses of nirvana.
Let me end this rather verbose hub with a poem that I received many moons ago from a friend in a forwarded email. In that email, the (presumably) anonymous author did give due acknowledgment to Mr Rudyard Kipling’s more famous 'IF'.
If you can play one day with skill and science
And find the next your game has gone to pot,
And yet plod on with sturdy self reliance
And play to win with every shot;
If you can take the turf and open airway
To clear the cobwebs from a worried brain;
If with a lie in rough or on the fairway
You simply do your best and don’t complain;
If you can see your faults and toil to mend them
Knowing the only mender must be you;
If you can try the wrong ways and transcend them
And when you’ve found the right one, follow through;
In short, if head and heart do all the ruling,
With temper left discarded on the shelf,
You’ve got the basis of a golfers schooling –
And not so bad a stance for life itself!