Golf In Hell
About ten years ago, I returned from a dream vacation in Bermuda severely depressed. It was my golf game. I had played three of the most beautiful courses in the world, but my scores were so bad that even now they are too painful to share. The culprit was “the shanks.” If you play golf, you probably just shook off a cold shiver, but for those who don’t, the shanks makes playing the game well nigh impossible. A shanked ball veers off to the right so quickly that it darn near ends up at a right angle to the target line. After a few shanks, a golfer’s confidence is gone. “Afraid to hit it,” he becomes tentative. The shank is “grooved in,” and the player descends into the lowest circle of golf hell. I’d been struggling with the shanks for quite a while, but they got so bad in Bermuda that I decided I either had to give up the game or get some help. I decided to get some help.
I started working with a pro named Kent. Kent was the quintessential golfer— blond, blue eyed, limber, and fresh off a stint on the PGA golf tour. At our first meeting, Kent said, “Hit a few. Let me take a look at it.” I promptly treated him to eight or ten grooved in shanks right in a row. Unfazed, Kent said, “We’ll get it.” By the end of his ensuing five minute spiel I gathered that our goal was a smooth, repeatable, low maintenance, relaxed, athletic, tensionless, natural, spontaneous, effortless, golf swing. That sounded pretty good. I signed up for three lessons a week.
What Kent said we were trying to accomplish and what actually transpired could not have been more different. Everything we did seemed anything but natural. He twisted me into positions I was dead certain my body was never intended to attempt, let alone attain. Every muscle in my body ached, sweat soaked my clothing, my hands were covered with blisters, and within a couple of weeks I lost seven pounds. Everything Kent wanted me to do “felt” wrong, and everything I “felt” was right Kent blithely told me was, in fact, wrong. Everything seemed awkward and artificial, and I often thought Kent was asking me to do things that didn’t make sense.
For example, Kent would insist that I was “over-cooking” it, which I took to mean I was trying too hard. But when I tried to relax, and the ball shimmied off the turf in front of the tee, he would exclaim “Hey, I didn’t tell you to quit on it!” Not to put too fine a point on it, Kent put me through hell. But whenever I got discouraged he would just smile that boyish smile of his and say, “Don’t worry, we’ll get it.”
After several months of non-stop lessons, pounding balls on off days, and rehearsing in the mirror at night, I was noticing some improvement. I wasn’t shanking the ball, and while I wasn’t hitting it pure either, I began to think I was turning the corner. I even managed to get a little praise from Kent in the occasional “Good, that was close.” I began to relax a little and enjoy my lessons.
One day I headed up to the range as usual to “beat some balls.” For the first few minutes, everything was fine. Then I shanked one. My heart shuddered and I walked around for a minute or so to collect myself before addressing the next ball. Another shank. This time, like a diver after a belly-flop, I opted to immediately hit another one. Another shank. Fear turned to panic. I changed my grip, made an “adjustment,” and hit a shank. I moved farther from the ball, made another adjustment, and hit another shank.
Over the next hour, adjustment followed adjustment until I had unwittingly moved away from everything Kent had drilled into me. What was worse, I was now hopelessly “lost in my swing.” I’d lost track of all the adjustments. Now everything felt right so nothing was right. I couldn’t remember how to get back to square one so the sickening spiral just continued. When my bucket of balls was finally empty, so was I. I felt like a man with ten kids who had just pumped all the grocery money into a slot machine. With the quarters all gone, exhaustion complete, and the early morning sun in his eyes, he slumps in his car in the parking lot and cries uncontrollably.
Three months of hard work and hard-earned money wasted. Alone in my living room competing ideas raced through my head. I decided that Kent had been taking me for a ride all along. He knew from the beginning I was hopeless. He just needed the money. Even if he wasn’t dishonest, he had simply fooled himself in order to better fool me. A moment later I was just as certain that my suspicions were nonsense brought on by my agitated state. As I oscillated between these convictions, the panic I first felt at the range deepened. From lost in my swing I was now so lost in myself that I couldn’t decide whether my suspicions of Kent were absurd or whether I only needed them to be absurd so I could rationalize a tremendous waste of time and money. As I obsessively went over it all again and again, I realized that I had lost my ability to think objectively and this frightened me even more.
Just then my girlfriend paid me an unannounced visit. I was so glad to see her. I needed someone to talk to. I needed someone who would understand. Over the next thirty minutes, I poured out my dilemma. When I finally took a breath she matter-of-factly said “Maybe you’re just not cut out for golf.” Thirty seconds later her car was pulling away.
Finally, at almost midnight, I called Kent at home. Several times I thought my voice would crack as I told him everything that had transpired. He listened patiently, chuckled softly and said “Don’t worry about it Aug. We’re going to get it.” In the end, this mantra wasn’t much to go on, or better said, to continue on. I was convinced it was hopeless. Yet for some reason, a reason that even today I cannot articulate, I did go on.
Two weeks later I was struggling through another lesson. After a few minutes Kent suddenly moved to a position across from me and started talking in a rhythmic patter: “August, listen to me. Don’t think about golf—just listen to my voice. Just start swinging the club back and forth, waist high—no, no, don’t look at the tee just look at me and just start…that’s it, that’s it, just rock back and forth letting the club pull you around. I’m going to put a ball down on the tee, but you just keep looking straight ahead. Just listen to my voice and keep rocking, ok, that’s it, there’s nothing to it. Now just start sweeping the tee with the club while still looking over here… good, good, now I want you to rock back just one more t… OK HIT IT!!!!” And I did. I hit it sweet and pure. He put another ball down and without thinking I hit another beautiful shot. Quickly this became a pattern. Ball after ball was placed without comment, and ball after ball took marvelous flight. After a few minutes, Kent suddenly said: “Hit a fade.” Without hesitation, I hit one that gently fell off to the right. After a few of these I was told to hit a draw, and I watched the ball gently curl to the left. For the next forty-five minutes I was in the zone and could effortlessly do whatever I wanted to do with the golf ball. The following weekend I shot 80 at one of the most difficult courses in the area—quite a feat.
Several years elapsed before I began to see in my saga with Kent a microcosm of life in general and of the spiritual life in particular. As we reach the age of reason and beyond, we become painfully aware of the fact that there is something fundamentally wrong about ourselves and about life. Something is just not working. In short, we get the shanks. At first, we are optimistic that the right job or the right mate will fix the shanks. But we find that the shanks are grooved in at a deeper level, and so we turn to philosophy, self help books, and/or religious practices as a remedy. For a while, this may seem to work, but often the shanks return.
It is at this point that it begins to dawn on us that we can’t do it alone, and so we turn to a teacher, mentor, or spiritual director for help. While promising an effortless, spontaneous, repeatable, life-swing, our teacher often seems to put us through hell. In most cases a crisis eventually ensues. The spiritual shanks come back with a vengeance. We frantically make adjustments only to find we are lost in our spiritual swing. At this stage, all our frustrations, doubts, and anger are focused on the teacher. However, if we weather this storm, there is a breakthrough. A happy ending where we are graced with a smooth, natural, athletic, spontaneous, effortless, tensionless life in the Spirit.
Yet all too often we rob ourselves of these breakthroughs that we deserve and that God so deeply wants us to have. The first pitfall is what my teacher, Richard Rose, called our need to be “constantly inspired.” Like my lessons with Kent, things will get harder before they get easier. All too often, enthralled by tales of the miraculous, we expect constant stimulation and instant results. Like learning to play a musical instrument, we must first struggle with the basics before we can soar through improvisation. As Francis Ford Coppola said of great acting, we must learn our lines before we forget them.
The second pitfall is foolish pride--the foolish pride that keeps us from reaching out for help when our own attempts are so obviously failing. This mistake often hides behind the vaunted American pride in our precious individuality. Worst, we may actually have to do what our teacher asks, even if it doesn’t feel right. One of the greatest compliments Kent ever gave me was when he told me that I was a good student. “August,” he said. “I enjoy teaching you. Whatever I ask you to do; you try your best to do it. So many guys spend $100 a lesson and then spend the time telling me why I am wrong about their swing.” Often we treat our spiritual directors the same way. We are loath to give up control, even when having control has done little more than give us a first-class case of the spiritual shanks. We should remember the old adage that the doctor who treats himself has a fool for a patient.
The final major pitfall to spiritual breakthrough is despair. Despair is the spiritual equivalent of selling our golf clubs and giving up the game. It often takes the form of that little voice inside that says: “Maybe you’re just not cut out to be a seeker.” Richard Rose, my teacher, never tired of telling us that of all the virtues needed for the spiritual life, determination is the most important. With determination, we will eventually get beyond our mistakes.
Over our lifetimes, all of us will repeatedly face the dilemmas I have listed above. When should we seek help? Should we follow advice even when it “feels” wrong? When should we admit defeat? When should we pack it in? Do we have what it takes?
Obviously, as the Bible says, “to everything there is a season.” But I can honestly say that I have seen more people fail because they trusted too little and quit too soon than because they trusted too much and beavered away in a hopeless cause.
What do I do?
Today, push yourself out of your comfort zone. Say something friendly to a random person at the mall or strike up a conversation with the person at the checkout counter.