The Spirituality of Golf

Every sport gets saddled with a metaphor or two. Baseball is pastoral and embodies all that is American. The improvisational component of basketball always evokes jazz music. Football, as George Carlin so aptly explained, is war -- filled with bombs, blitzes, and field generals.

Then there is golf, which, some folks will tell you, is a metaphor for life. And even more, they will explain that it is a valid path to enlightenment with links to Eastern spirituality -- particularly Buddhism.

If you doubt this, check out the list of best-selling golf books on Amazon: Zen Golf almost always tops the list, while amongst the most popular sports novels are The Legend of Bagger Vance (a literal retelling of the Bhagavad Gita set against a golf match) and Golf in the Kingdom by Esalen Institute founder Michael Murphy, in which a fictionalized version of the author sets off for an Indian ashram but is waylaid on the links of Scotland, where he meets his own Zen master in the form of a golf pro named Shivas Irons.

During the past few months I have been interviewed several times on the subject of golf and spirituality, and nearly each time I am asked, "Why golf?" Which is a damn good question to which I think I have found the answer.

The difference between golf and most other mainstream sports is this: the ball doesn't move unless you make it. There is no action to anticipate. No physical event to react to. No one is passing to you. Nobody is going to chase, tackle, or tag you. You never have to fight for the ball. And all of those are things that put you in a reactive state, where you are pulled from your thinking brain into your body -- which has no thoughts. It's easy to feel grounded when you don't think.

In golf, however, there is almost nothing that makes you react other than your own actions. It's just you, the ball, the course, and -- perhaps most harrowing of all -- your thoughts, which are often the single biggest obstacle standing between you and par. You see golfers implode on the course every day. Sit on any hole on any course and several times each day you will see one lousy shot send a seemingly rational, educated, and composed human being into a self-hating rant with a chorus of "YOU IDIOT!!! YOU SUCK!!! HOW CAN YOU MISS THAT PUTT!!! IDIOT!!! IDIOT!!!" Then think about the thousand free throws Michael Jordan missed (all more consequential than whether you bogey the 5th one Sunday morning) without even so much as a single: "Jordan, you're awful."

And in this way, golf is about something more. It's about staring down what is often our worst self-defeating behavior in a quiet setting, which ought to be meditative and so seldom actually is. This is where the Buddhism comes in. It is through the undoing of these negative thought patterns that golfers find their way towards nirvana and from which even non-golfers can learn at least two lessons.

The first is to stop keeping score. I tried this one cold spring afternoon a few years back after an instructor had suggested I play one round without writing down the results of a single hole. Keeping the card in my pocket that day tested my willpower in ways that you cannot imagine. I have never wanted a drink or a late-night slice of cold pizza as much as I wanted to write down my bogey five on the first. But, I didn't.

What I learned from the experience was liberating. It was inevitable that I would care about score, just as we all care about how much money we have in the bank or whether we'll get that promotion at work. But, by detaching from the results and engaging with the journey (or in this case the game) you take an enormous amount of pressure off of your shoulders. You place yourself squarely in the moment. You take care of what is in front of you without scars from three-putting the last green and without thoughts of whether you'll hit your next drive in the fairway. And the result is that you are free, you are present and -- in typically Buddhist fashion -- your scores actually improve the less you care about them. The same applies to just about anything that you do in your everyday life.

The other thing I took away was the related idea of loosening your grip. No less a spiritual figure than Johnny Miller, then NBC golf analyst and former U.S. and British Open champion, once said that only one in a thousand golfers grips the club lightly enough. After years of strangling my Callaway irons and swinging them like hell, I learned that he is absolutely right. The less grip pressure, the longer and more accurately your ball usually flies. It is a terrific lesson for Westerners (like myself), who so often seek to exert their will on things more important than golf, things like our children, our careers, our marriages, traffic, and just about anything else that engages us and that we care about. We think that the harder we try or the more force we apply -- be it physical or mental -- the better the result. Yet, so often the absolute opposite is the case. When you do less, loosen your grip, and give up the elusive need to control both actions and outcomes, you become free as well. It is the reason that people have faith in god, Christ, and other higher powers. It is something I thought that I'd never learn, yet I came to it through a sport I'd always associated with plaid pants and Pat Summerall.

Ultimately, the way we live today is best summed up by something Shivas Irons tells Michael Murphy during Golf in the Kingdom when the latter has just double-bogeyed and is disconsolate: "Ye try too hard and ye think too much." We can all probably learn something from that.