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  • Alistair Tait

Get lost in the Kingdom of Golf

Updated: Apr 19, 2020

Want to get lost in the existential nature of golf to try to get some respite from this coronavirus nightmare? Head to Golf in the Kingdom.

If there’s one book to take your mind off this knot in the stomach terror then Michael Murphy’s short tome is it. Just don’t ask me to tell you what it’s about.

I’ve just read it for the fourth time, and I can't tell you. I feel a bit like I felt when I read Arnold Haultain's The Mystery of Golf and Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.

Totally bewildered.

Golf in the Kingdom is a good yarn, and a short one at that. The actual story of Murphy’s trip to the Kingdom, clearly Fife, on his way “to study philosophy and practice meditation at the ashram of the Indian seer Aurobindo” only runs to 115 pages in my edition. The late Dudley Doust, a former colleague, sums up Murphy’s novella perfectly when he writes:

“Golf in the Kingdom is not what you might expect from a golf book. … It is the weirdest book I’ve ever laid eyes on, a wondrous read, a mind blower, a serious piece of work.”

I was certainly blown away when I first read it.

You will be too.

Murphy’s story is about encountering eccentric Scotsman Shivas Irons when he plays the Links of Burningbush, clearly based on the Old Course at St Andrews. Shivas is no ordinary golf teacher. He’s part mystic, part philosopher, part teacher who seems to border on the edge of sanity.

Shivas takes Murphy under his wing and they set out to find the true meaning of “gowf.” Shivas believes golf can help man discover “true gravity.” He passes on his deep, mystical thoughts to Murphy. The author is like a sponge, willing to accept anything Shivas tells him. And Shivas tells him a lot. Here’s a wee taste:

“Ye’ll come away from the links with a new hold on life, that is certain if ye play the game with all your heart.”
“When ye swing, put all yer attention on the feelin’ o’ yer inner body – yer inner body.”

He and Murphy set out to find the mysterious, elusive Seamus McDuff who lives in a ravine besides Burningbush’s infamous 13th hole where McDuff is

“...making himself into a livin’ laboratory to right the balance o’ our Western science, to show us how to know true gravity.”

While waiting they hit feathery balls in the ravine with McDuff’s Baffing Spoon, a shillelagh-like club that seems to swing itself.

One chapter includes a dinner party where guests hold an existential discussion to try to discover golf’s mystical nature, “the Platonic Game of Golf.” The dinner party host says:

“Gowf is a way of making a man naked. So I ask ye first, why does gowf bring out so much in a man, so many sides of his personality? Why is the game such an X-ray o’ the soul?”

Another describes golf as:

“The yoga of the supermind.”

And asks:

“Have you ever pondered the mystery of the hole? What are its past and future connotations?”

Said dinner party guest talks of the ball’s

“Flight of the alone to the alone.”

There’s a certain tweeness to the novel you need to try to ignore. Murphy describes a scene in the Burningbush clubhouse after his round with Shivas.

“A few moments later I was sitting in front of the blazing logs, listening to Shivas and his friends sing Scottish golfing songs.
"…among the heather and the gorse, ye must remember of course, not tae lose yer balls at ol’ Sin Tondress…”
“(I) listened to their laughter and raillery, to the sounds of golfers stomping grass from their cleats, then a cheer from the eighteenth green – sounds that reminded me of a special Christmas when I was a child. I was fill with gratitude, my eyes filled with tears as I looked around that glowing room."

Honestly! I can see Scottish golfers heading to the bar for a few jars, maybe a dram, but singing golf – or worse, “golfing” – songs? I think not.

Then Murphy has his “God is in his heaven, all is right with the world moment:

“…this warm place was at the centre of my feelings now… I felt as if I had found my way home at last.”

And all because of a round of golf. Imagine?

Murphy divides the book into two parts. The second part embarks upon an existential search of the game with chapters dealing with such Zen mysticisms as ‘The Game’s Hidden but Accessible Meaning,' subdivided into sections such as ‘Golf as journey,’ ‘The whiteness of the ball, ‘The mystery of the hole.' Other chapters in Part II are entitled ‘Some Notes on True Gravity,’ ‘A Hamartiology of Golf,’ (look up Hamartiology if you dare), ‘The Higher Self,’ ‘Relativity and the Fertile Void” and the ‘Universal Transparency and a Solid Place to Swing From.’

We’re not talking deep here, we’re talking bottomless.

I’d advise to leave Part II until you are well stocked with intoxicating spirits to help you plough through it.

Stick to Part I, which is an enjoyable, short read despite its tweeness. You’ll probably come to the same conclusion I did once you’ve finished it: What the hell was Murphy drinking or smoking when he wrote Golf in the Kingdom? Please give me a six-month supply and I might write a sequel…..

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