Johnson: On being the target, the arrow, and the ball

“Certain events may reflect the significant dimensions of all your life, mirroring your entire history in a passing moment.” I recently enjoyed Michael Murphy’s early ‘70s novel, “Golf In The Kingdom.” Murphy penned a “Bible,” of sorts, with enough Zen, philosophy and parable to get you through life, not to mention a lifetime of golf. It’s certainly not a “manual”; there is scarcely a mention of mechanics and form. Instead, “Golf In The Kingdom” focuses on the mental aspects of the game — Sports Psychology, if you will. It has meditative overtones — an amalgam of Eastern religion, spirituality and mysticism — and a recurrent theme aligned with an old golf adage that proclaims, “The mind messes up more shots than the body.”

In “Golf In The Kingdom,” Murphy is reminiscent of a modern day “Siddhartha.” In “accidental tourist” fashion he crosses paths with Shivas Irons, a magical Scottish golf pro who enlightens select “subjects” to the allegorical relationship between Life and Golf, using it as a tool to not only better their game, but Life. Off the reader goes, on an odyssey-turned-spiritual-journey of self-discovery. Murphy’s novel is not without a few “Caddy Shack” moments. I was reminded of the scene where golf Master Ty (Chevy Chase), tried to enlighten his caddy, Danny, about the “inner game”:

Ty: I like you, Betty.

Danny: It’s Danny, sir.

Ty: Danny…Danny, I’m going to give you a little advice. There’s a force in the universe that makes things happen; all you have to do is get in touch with it. Stop thinking…let things happen…and be…the ball.

Murphy makes a compelling point — that in no other game but golf is the ratio of playing field to goal so large. Soccer nets are veritable black holes by comparison. For those who would argue that there’s no defensemen lurking on a golf course, four words: water, trees, sand and rough. The great Bobby Jones suggested that golf’s popular appeal is because it reflects the human condition, “a comedy, tragedy, hard work and miracle — the agony and the ecstasy — one moment an episode out of the Three Stooges, the next, 'King Lear.'  You are not playing a human adversary…you are playing old man par.” I would add that we are also playing ourselves, our temperaments. You really want to know someone, yourself included? Go play a few rounds of golf.

Golf is a complex game, harder than it looks. There are external variables like trees, ponds, roughs and traps — humidity, wind and moisture; even the grain of the greens, their imperceptible slopes and ball-stalling mounds. But Shivas instructs his “Grasshopper” to master internal variables, the nuances confidence, concentration, visualization and temperament, for they are the keys that unlock success. In that regard, women are more suited to golf than men. A man’s temperament is an inevitable disaster waiting to happen — a strange brew of greed, arrogance and testosterone (and the occasional Super Sized Snickers Bar chased with 32 ounces of high fructose, caffeinated beverage — spiked with Jack Daniels). Clearly, a few thousand years of suppressing our inner Cave Man’s instinct to club something to death has undermined our game. In lieu of clubbing saber-toothed tigers we are now forced to club little white balls…attempt to crush a one-shot shortcut over a lake to the 14th green — a 285-yard par 4 dogleg — instead of staying on the lawn where we belong. It seldom works, but when it does it’s the next best thing to killing something. Nothing feels nor sounds better than a golf ball exploding off the sweet spot of big wood. Whack! What sweet release…to crush a little white ball with all one’s might and watch it rocket into the blue — a graceful arcing arrow that finds its target. “Saint” Nicholas (Jack) believed that a perfectly straight shot with a big club was a fluke. He was probably right, but real men don’t believe in flukes. “History” is for sissies, ergo, “Disaster.” If alone, no problem — we just tee up another ball. Funny how much better one’s score after a solo round.Golf truly is a metaphor — every round an allegorical microcosm of life — a place where “player” is alternately King Lear and Court Jester. Of all the hazards in Life and Golf, fear is the most crippling. Life is a circle; we end where we began — “dust to dust.”  Analogously, a round of golf is also a circle, ending where it began. In Shivas Irons’ metaphysical, metaphorical world, as “players” on Life’s stage as well as on the “Links,” we are both target and arrow.

Mark Johnson is a restless soul who lives in Ouray, Colorado with his wife, Bobbie. He is happiest when exploring the West's nooks and crannies, hiking, climbing and moun- tain biking. He authors two "wanderlust" based blogs: and