Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Golf Lesson

By Dan Beauchamp

A friend of mine, an excellent golfer, invited me over a few weeks back to talk about learning golf. I am retired now and have no excuse for not finally tackling the game. This was in a town we were visiting in Arizona, a town we lived in for 10 years not so long ago.

So one afternoon around 4 PM, I show up at his house and we begin.

He has a list of rules that he has carefully written out, a set of key principles. “Everything begins with keeping the proper relationship between the ball, the hands, the sixth cervical, the shoulders, and the...”

What he says sounds familiar. My father was a fine golfer; my brother was even better. (Strangely, my brother today says, “They ought to make prisoners play this game.”)

Anyway, we begin to practice the stance: You crouch down a little, you hold the club lightly in your hands, the thumbs turned just so in relationship to your right shoulder, your right leg kept firm as a post and then you turn, letting your body take your arms, relaxed and along for the ride, etc., etc. Always holding firm the fixed position of the head, the eyes, and the sixth cervical, which I presume is somewhere in the back of the neck.

We practice for about an hour and a half. I feel pretty pleased. I did notice that I was getting tired from that constant squatting but, well, I am 70 now, and I know that all this will take some patience and careful build-up. Finally, we are finished, and I thank him, and I walk out of the house thinking, “Maybe now I will be a golfer. And hopefully that will be the answer to retirement.”

My friend lives in a lovely old house, one that other friends of ours owned years before, and the front stairs down from the porch are concrete, with about eight steps, I seem to recall.

I mention this because when I take my first step down, I am suddenly legless, my left leg simply collapsing. When I try to catch myself with the right leg, it likewise goes AWOL and I plunge headlong down the stairs, badly banging my ribs on the concrete steps and the balustrade, or whatever the damn thing is called.

It is weeks later back in North Carolina, my ribs still sore, that I remember that years ago I read a wonderful book about golf, a game I likely now will never learn to play. The book is Extraordinary Golf by Fred Shoemaker, a former collegiate golfer who is now one of the most popular teachers in the country.

Shoemaker says that golf can be learned in one of two ways. You can, like most, consider it a game that is not natural or easily learned, and then spend a lifetime and a fortune trying to get the instruction and the practice to master a vast set of complex motor skills, all while wearing green pants.

The second approach, the more Zen-like approach, is coming to understand that the body already knows how to learn to play golf, using awareness and our intuitive learning skills to slip past our thinking and controlling minds filled with the "shoulds" of playing golf, and life itself.

For example, Shoemaker has people swing a club naturally but, instead of trying to hit the ball, he has them release the club, throwing it out toward the target. Then he has them hit the ball their regular way, observing the "shoulds" of good form that they have learned from various pros and instruction books.

Invariably, the average golfer will throw the club in a way that is closer to good bio-mechanical form rather than by swinging according to some ideal.

To Shoemaker, the really big point in learning golf is to become more aware of how we actually swing, good or bad. This awareness allows the body itself to learn how to move ever closer to the form it needs, and to gradually let loose of most of the ideas of form stored in our heads.

I am fully retired with a lot of time on my hands, taking way too long trying to learn the new games you must learn to fill up the ordinary times with significance when work and career are no longer available. I think that my pratfall has finally taught me the huge lesson that, at last, I am where I should always have been, playing the game of life itself, running on empty.

The whole point of life itself, in the gospels of all true faith, is that life cannot, must not, be divided into what’s special and what’s routine, because sooner or later it will all sink into routine and we will turn our attention to some fresh fix of excitement to wake us up. That way lies dragons.

The gospel of life itself is that it is all special, it is all important, it is all, every moment of it, a gift that is ours for free, and it will never be repeated. The job we all have is to engage ordinary life, all of our life, with the kind of patient attention that its own reward: walking behind a lawnmower, learning to sing in the choir, walking the dog, playing Scrabble (in the middle of the day now, thank you very much), and yes, dear Lord, attending to the insanities of presidential elections.

Instead of wondering what I should be doing that’s really important in life’s back nine, I can finally turn my attention to what I am doing today, right now. Instead of looking for my last happiness in some final significance, I can find life itself on aisle eight of Krogers or in volunteering at the homeless shelter or taking a small job in a bookstore that I have loved for decades.

And always, of course, paying close attention to what’s going on with that sixth cervical.

Dan Beauchamp is a former Washington representative, university professor, health official, and small-town mayor. He is working on a memoir about meeting yourself again, for the first time, again and again. His blog, on politics, spirituality and other matters, can be found at

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