Total Focus

Golf in the Kingdom taught an entire generation a mystical approach to the game. As Michael Murphy's best-selling book turns 30, a hands-on workshop proves it's still on target.

Michael Murphy's Golf in the Kingdom was not a big hit when it came out in 1972, or for about a decade afterward. Then suddenly, inexplicably, sales of the mystical book began to take off, first to 50,000 copies a year in the early 1980s and later to 100,000 a year. Eventually it became the best-selling noninstructional golf book of all time. Even Hollywood developed an interest: Avid golfer Clint Eastwood purchased the film rights.

Set in 1956 on the links of Burningbush in the Kingdom of Fife, Golf in the Kingdom was a refreshing contrast to traditional (translation: dull) instructional books. But more than that, it conjured up an irresistible fantasy: A Scottish golf pro named Shivas Irons (picture Obi-Wan Kenobi with a majestic swing) demonstrates to Murphynot just how to play the game but how to live.

At first, Murphy indulges in the kind of undisciplined behavior so common on the links: small self-deceptions (not counting the ball he tipped off the tee as he was setting up his drive), mood swings (smug satisfaction after a good shot, anger and frustration after a bad one), competitiveness (compulsively tallying his score in his head), lazy corner-cutting (wanting to nudge his ball into an easier lie in the rough), and self-absorption (ignoring his fellow players and the beautiful surroundings). However, after observing Irons' scrupulous honesty, Buddha-like serenity, good humor, and self-reflection, Murphy learns to relax, play better, and embrace the game as almost a religious experience, a perspective that clearly resonated among golf's most ardent followers.

Any golfer knows that the game is deeply, maddeningly psychological. One of its perpetual appeals is that you are always playing against yourself, confronting your own capacity for concentration and clarity—or self-destruction, in the form of a tendency to slice or three-putt under pressure. "The best golfers tend to be in touch with the mystical side, whether they know the precise language to describe it or not," Murphy, now 71, told me recently at his home in California. Take Ben Hogan, who spent an eternity on the driving range in a process he referred to as "digging it out of the dirt."Hogan, Murphy explains, had "tremendous focus, an absorption in the shot, absolute stillness." The same goes for Jack Nicklaus and, of course, Tiger Woods, whose mind game is unparalleled in modern sports.

Murphy believes that golfers, professional and amateur alike, can develop this kind of intense focus themselves by spending more time on their psyches and less on their swings. He tells the story of the time he and a friend watched players finish their rounds at the Stanford University golf course. "Half of them looked to be suffering. We started laughing about it," he says. "They could not wait to get into the clubhouse and have a drink. If that's the case, then why were they making themselves so miserable in the first place?"

Murphy proposes a different, more fulfilling way to play the game. He suggests setting up a second scorecard for each round: one that does not list how many shots you hit for each hole but instead rates how you handled adversity on the course. "Give yourself points for a calm and centered attitude or for sweetness in the rough," he wrote in the book. "Perhaps a smile after a double bogey or a gracious remark to your playing partner when he beats you would be worth a point."

"What we are trying to get at," he says now, "is a fundamental life change—one that can be a reflection of how you might live the rest of your life." Golf, he adds, can, by its very nature, serve as a perfect environment for increasing self-awareness and building character. "It has the unique power to invite the inner game and self-cultivation. You spend just a few minutes swinging out of the four or five hours that you are on the course. The rest of the time, you're walking or you're socializing or you're addressing the ball. Golf has the genius to evoke your demons and your angels." Murphy has heard about plenty of demons from players over the years: "One man told me that every time he addressed a putt, he would see a toad sitting on the hole. Another said that when he lined up a putt, in the hole, looking up at him, was the face of Richard Nixon."

Murphy's principles have spawned a flock of disciples over the years, including the 1,400 members of the Shivas Irons Society, whose mission is to celebrate golf's beauty and mystery and "provide opportunities for personal and social transformation." And what better proof that his ideas resonate more than ever today than the surge in popularity of sports psychologists for professionals? "I never heard of sports psychologists when I came out in 1974," says Senior PGA Tour professional and CBS analyst Gary McCord. "All of a sudden you started hearing of a couple, and now they're everywhere." While there are a glut of golf books for amateurs, each promising to help overcome the obstacles in the way of a good score, there is still nothing else like Murphy's book, which may explain why its popularity has persisted so strongly.

This year, as Golf in the Kingdom turns 30, golfers can learn its principles with hands-on workshops given at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, an hour south of Monterey. Established in 1962 by Murphy, along with the late Richard Price, Esalen was a famous '60s retreat, filled with encounter sessions, nude sunbathers, and everything else that made the era so richly experimental. Well, times have changed. That golf, the quintessential symbol of the Establishment, should be part of today's curriculum sounds ironic, but to be fair, this is golf according to Michael Murphy.

Entitled "Golf in the Kingdom: An Exploration of the Deeper Game," the five-day workshops delve into the issues that prevent golfers from deriving more satisfaction from their games and, not coincidentally, their lives. Leaders Stephen Cohen, president and founder of the Shivas Irons Society, and PGA member Andy Nussbaum mix Murphy's teachings with principles from Gestalt and physical exercises to "explore the inner self and how one interferes with its emergence." "You come to the course with all of your fears and anxieties," explains Cohen. "Awareness creates change."

A longtime fan of Golf in the Kingdom, I decided to enroll in a workshop last fall. Having played golf all my life and taken years of lessons, I doubted how much it could teach me but was curious to see Murphy's theories translated into action.

Each morning the workshop began with stretching and meditation to help us focus, followed by a series of mind-body exercises. Even the simplest ones were surprisingly revealing. For example, I was told to move my arms as far as I could behind my head; after that, Nussbaum persuaded me to extend a little more. In golf terms, I realized I could rotate my body farther during my swing than I had thought. To reduce our anxiety on the green, Nussbaum had us putt a dozen or so balls without looking at the outcome. By focusing on the process, I soon developed a smoother, less stressful rhythm. When we started putting with our eyes closed, I found myself incredibly calm and centered—quite an unfamiliar feeling on a green.

One morning players used the same club for every shot on one hole. Bill Falik, a lawyer from Berkeley and a 12-handicapper, used a driver. "It helped me readjust my focus on golf as being more a game than a contest," he says. "I realized how much fun it was to let go of my expectations for making a great shot and just let myself play with a club I had never before hit on the fairway." On one hole, Falik's ball sailed straight for about 250 yards. "I felt an unbelievable exhilaration," he said. "Decreasing the pressure actually improved my shot making."

Reggie Bronner, 59, said the workshop taught him that he had been placing too much emphasis on performance. "The only person who truly cares about your score is you," said Bronner, a sales executive in Silicon Valley. "I thought, What am I doing to myself? I had been ruining so much of the experience. If you can lose and still feel joy and satisfaction, then you are in the right place."

Though I was skeptical at first, as the week progressed I, like everyone else, learned how to let go and not worry so much about what I was trying to accomplish. Since then I have been able to trust myself more on the golf course--and have played better as a result. And yes, the problems that obstruct my progress and fulfillment on the course do the same in other aspects of my life. I am trying not to be so hard on myself, both in golf and in life.

Not everyone subscribes to the premise of Golf in the Kingdom. As McCord puts it, "What amateurs really want is a driver that's going to hit the ball twenty-five yards farther." Maybe so, but golfers like Ron Collins, 65, indicate that there may be more to improving your game than buying that new titanium club. For yearsCollins, who lives in Florida, would get frustrated and angry after hitting a bad shot. Then, about three years ago, after reading Golf in the Kingdom, he started to play a different game, which he then honed at one of Murphy's workshops at Bandon Dunes, a golf course on the Oregon coast. (See "Playing the Dunes," May/June 2001.)

"I've learned to let go," claims Collins. "I have played golf for thirty years, and I wish I had learned this thirty years ago. I've even started meditating, and I was the last person in the world you would ever have thought would meditate." One exercise that has helped him immensely is playing a few holes without uttering a word to the other members of his foursome. "It drives some people crazy, but I love it," he says. "I've played with guys who were loud and distracted when we started out, but after seeing how quiet I was, they calmed down and started playing better."

Similarly, Esalen's Stephen Cohen recalls a class Murphy led at Bandon Duneslast year. After a meditation session, a group of golfers went to the driving range, where they were given a much smaller bucket than usual—only 12 balls to hit in 20 minutes. "It was an incredible thing to watch," Cohen recalls. "The first thing people wondered was: What are we going to do with twelve balls in twenty minutes? Most players hit one ball and then the next one right away. But then they slowed down and began to really think about each shot. We found out that about half the people never even finished hitting their twelve. There was silence on the range, and great focus and intensity. These people were present."

Some professionals observe that Murphy's ideas provide an escape from the incessant pressure of Tour competition. "When I get too tangled up with the things that are going on out here," says the PGA Tour's Kirk Triplett, who has done fund-raising for the Shivas Irons Society, "the best way for me to concentrate is to get in touch with the mystical side." Adds Peter Jacobsen, 47, one of golf's most colorful pros, "When I read the book in high school, I didn't really get it. But over my college years and on the Tour, it started to make sense to me. Golf in the Kingdom helped me to keep the game enjoyable. I made the decision that whether or not I played well, I wasn't going to turn bitter or get a chip on my shoulder—I was going to have fun."

Esalen Institute: 831-667-3005; Workshops will be held May 5-10 and again in September; the all-inclusive price is $1,030.

Michael Arkush is the author of the golf biography I Remember Payne Stewart (Cumberland House, 2000).

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