Playing nine holes of golf with the mystival Shivas Irons Society, who spice up the game with meditation, classical music, and alternative methods of keeping score. Originally published in San Francisco magazineSteve Cohen unzips his golf bag and hands me a golf ball emblazoned with an infinity symbol, pierced by a tiny flag. The logo belongs to the Shivas Irons Society, his organization dedicated to the mystical Zen-like principles found in the New Agey 1970s novel Golf in the Kingdom by Michael Murphy. I turn the ball in my hand and notice a big crease grooved into its surface.
â€œDepending on how you hold it,â€ says Steve, â€œit can be a smileâ€¦or a frown.â€
Since I really canâ€™t stand golf, itâ€™s probably a frown.
This morning weâ€™re playing the back nine holes of the Pacific Grove Municipal Course, to plumb the deeper meanings of the 1,300-member Society and discover why the popularity of a fictional character from a book has galvanized fans from 20 countries. I also am curious why these guys have started a golf program for inner-city black kids, and why on earth that would be helpful to them. But maybe another time.
Official sanctioned Shivas events are very elaborate. The group places violinists and harpists playing classical music along the course. They encourage alternative scoring. Instead of numbers, participants record each hole with an adjective that best describes oneâ€™s feelings. They make sure every player gets in touch with the historic fundamentals of the game by using antique wooden clubs and balls stuffed with feathers. And before the tee-off, Steve will often lead the foursome in some guided-imagery meditation, concentrating on specific goals each person hopes to achieve. I always thought the goal of golf was to put the ball in the cup. Apparently thereâ€™s more.
We skip the preliminaries and tee off at the 10th hole. Hopefully the spirit of Shivas Irons will make an appearance to guide us. Heâ€™d better hurry, because Iâ€™m a terrible golfer. After a couple of spastic swings that miss the tee, I finally make contact and the ball scoots a few yards along the grass. My adjective is â€œpissed off.â€ Itâ€™s going to be a long morning.
Steve gets into position, his portly 50-ish frame packed inside his tan slacks and grey sweater embroidered with the Shivas logo. His swing is fluid and balanced as he knocks a perfect drive that sails up and lands just outside the green. Several strokes later, I chip a shot that, through some insane beginnersâ€™ luck, rolls into the cup. Steve spins around, his smile radiating through his beard, and declares proudly, â€œI knew that was going in as soon as you hit it!â€
Maybe I should have been more excited.
The next hole features a handful of deer, lounging absently along the course. Steve would rather I learn from personal experience than from advice, but he does mention I should â€œvisualize it.â€ I visualize my ball entering a deerâ€™s eye socket, the animal control ambulance arriving, the word â€œdeerslayerâ€ painted in red on my apartment door. My shot misses the animals, but lands miles from the flag. Steveâ€™s shot arcs gracefully, of course, and hits the grass just to the right of the green.
This goes on for several more holes, Steve expertly placing his shots along the fairways, then waiting for me and my 17 sad croquet-like shots that barely crest the tips of the grass blades. Steve has been a teacher of disabled children, and then a Gestalt therapist at Esalen, so his patience seems infinite.
His nurturing qualities manifest in helpful comments like â€œ98 percent of golf is between shotsâ€ or â€œCome into the swing — you gotta feel good about the swing because when itâ€™s in the air itâ€™s out of your control.â€ At one point Steve hits a beautiful drive that lands on top of a sand dune. Rather than become disappointed, he exclaims, â€œThat felt so good to hit, it doesnâ€™t matter.â€
It matters horribly to me. The whole idea of golf is starting to suck. Iâ€™ve read the book, but it didnâ€™t sink in. Shivas Irons seems to be with me only on the chip shots. He is completely ignoring me in the tee box. Steve smells my frustration and suggests that when I take a practice swing, just let go of the club. It spins off to the left, indicating my swing needs a subtle correction in the other direction. I look behind us to see if anybody is witnessing this absurd scenario. An old white-haired man in expensive pastel clothes swings and his ball skitters only a few yards. Good, I think. Heâ€™s probably been golfing for 40 years, and heâ€™s still a spaz.
For the 16th hole, Steve says we shouldnâ€™t speak the entire time. He says it helps get in touch with the inner game. We will hone in on our goals, and silently articulate the metaphor of golf as a reflection of life. I tee up and stare at the ball, attempting to become one with the sphere. The dimples are going in and out of focus, as if Iâ€™m really stoned. It makes me dizzy. I whack the ball a robust ten yards into a clump of ice grass. A deer grazing nearby looks up at the ball, sniffs, and goes back to eating. Same to you, Bambi.
Steve momentarily breaks the silence rule to say â€œI love you anyway, Jack.â€ I want to take my putter and smack him in the forehead.
We continue down the course, but thereâ€™s a mysterious change in the air. On Steveâ€™s lone piece of advice, Iâ€™ve given up using most of my clubs, sticking only with the few that feel like theyâ€™re working. Heâ€™s right. My shots are sailing higher and farther. As Murphy says, perhaps Iâ€™ve won the ballâ€™s allegiance. I want to hoot like a hillbilly. Shivas is with me. Letâ€™s get hippy. Burn some incense. Fire up the hot tub.
The following hole, my drive soars over the lake hazard, just like one of the bigshot golfers on television. I feel confident and self-actualized, an autonomous entity in control of my own sensate destiny. Maybe I should just ditch this writing business. Iâ€™ll shave my head, move to Esalen, wear drawstring pants and teach spinal alignment classes. Iâ€™ll sit in the big hot tub with my students, and theyâ€™ll ask how I achieved such a balanced state of being, and Iâ€™ll tell them â€œJust use the clubs that feel right.â€
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