Golf's Spatial and Spiritual Dimensions

What is going on with that weird posture in golf, all that hunching over? And what about those mystical relations between the ball, land, sky, and player? I got interested in questions like these for personal reasons. My father-in-law has been battling with Parkinson's disease, trying to maintain his balance and coordination and dignity in the face of the disease's relentless attack on his nervous system, and he has fought particularly hard not to let Parkinson's take away his golf game, one of his greatest joys. Over the last decade, he made compromises. He accepted that his shots wouldn't go as far as they used to. Sometimes he fell down on the golf course. But he refused to give up. He also insisted on teaching me how to play. In fact, the worse his shot got, the more determined he seemed to teach me how to hit the ball right. I still can't say my shot has gotten very good, but I've felt as close to him on the golf course as anytime in the years we've known each other. And while walking through the grass and searching for my ball in the woods, I've had ample chances to reflect on golf's mysteries and how this game gets inside your soul. Here are a few tentative thoughts.

The Set-Up

The union with the ball begins with the set-up stance, in which the golfer stares down at the ball, head bowed, as if in prayer. Few other sports require such single-minded focus on a stationary ball. In sports like baseball, basketball, and football, the ball moves too fast for anyone to get a lock on it; in golf, every play begins with a mini-meditation on the ball.

 Flickr Rennett Stowe 

Watching the Shot

In the switch from the stationary set-up position to the swing and then the ball’s soaring flight, the golfer undergoes a sudden, radical shift in perspective—from head bowed to head raised, from a focus on earth to sky, low to high, abjection to transcendence. Having started off like a prayerful hunchback, the golfer soars like a bird.                         
Flickr Russ Glasson

Flickr North Central College Long Shot

I say "the golfer soars like a bird" because the golfer is now intimately connected with the ball, as if it were his or her spirit double. The ball traveling through the air mimics the golfer's mind and body so precisely that its flight path reveals microscopic, hidden tics in the swing that even the golfer often can't consciously recognize. Once golfers see the ball going astray, they often apply "body English," contorting their bodies up and down, to the right, left, and sideways, as if the ball, sensing the golfer's desperate movements behind them, will feel obliged to change course, to please its human twin. Even golfers who suppress these spontaneous movements often still talk to their ball, whispering, begging, yelling, and otherwise imploring in such sincere tones that they almost seem to genuinely believe the ball can hear them. Whether mystical or maddening, it's hard to deny the felt union between ball and player.

A pro putting body English on a hook shot (
Even President Obama needs body English sometimes (Flickr Madu Babu Pandi)

Of course, you sometimes see body English applied in other sports as well, and that's for good reason: the same magical principle of "like produces like" appears around the world and throughout human history. This is what anthropologists call “sympathetic magic,” a long-standing, common type of magic found in everything from a love potion made with red flowers to induce a red heart, to bowlers who spontaneously jump to the left or right when they see their ball heading for the gutter. By slowing down the game and putting the focus on the ball's flight path, golf makes such sympathetic magic a central part of the sport's experience.

Searching for the Ball

Once the ball lands, the player assumes yet a different relationship with it. The ball is now a tiny white dot in the distance, whether nestled far off in the grass, or, worse, out of sight in the woods, water, or sand. Searching for the ball forces more mindful concentration on it and the natural surroundings. Moreover, the player again experiences what novelist John Updike calls the "intoxicating relativity" of golf, i.e., the constant changes in scale and spatial relations as the golfer and his or her ball move through the game. Updike writes, “As it moves through the adventures of a golf match, the human body, like Alice’s in Wonderland, experiences an intoxicating relativity—huge in relation to the ball, tiny in relation to the course, exactly matched to that of other players” (Golf Dreams, "The Bliss of Golf," 1997, p. 147-150). (Whatever you might think about Updike's fiction, it's fair to say his reflections on golf are as insightful as his famous essay about Ted Williams' final home run.)

FlickR Erik Anestad
Although Updike is referring here to the tininess of the golfer’s body in relation to the course, his point also applies to the golfer’s spirit double, the ball itself, which is even tinier in relation to the course terrain. Here's the way Updike puts it: “To see one’s ball gallop two hundred and more yards down the fairway, or see it fly from the face of an 8-iron clear across an entire copse of maples in full autumnal flare, is to join one’s soul with the vastness that, contemplated from another angle, intimidates the spirit, and makes one feel small."  In other words, the ball induces a sense of the golfer's place in nature and the universe—connected yet humbled, as in religious experiences.

Flickr Andreas Krappweis

If talk of the universe and religion still sounds like romantic hyperbole, remember that sheer scale can fundamentally change a person's emotional experience, as anyone will attest who has ever felt awe and wonder at the grandness of the ocean, mountains, or stars, or just a beautiful, tall cathedral or large-canvass painting. Joseph Parent, author of Zen Golf, seemed to be getting at the same point when he said, "we also experience what we see, so perhaps our mind is as big as our field of vision. What if I asked you to imagine the farthest star in the galaxy? Now how big is your mind?" (2002, p. 15).

Of course, I try not to think about all this when I'm swinging. I just listen to my father-in-law's advice ("hold the club gently, like you're holding a bird...feet shoulder-width apart"), bow my head, swing, watch the ball fly—and hope it reaches its destination.

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