Book Review: Golf in the Kingdom
Murphy, Michael, Golf in the Kingdom, New York: Penguin Books., 1972, 1997, 2011.
As the copyright dates will attest,Golf in the Kingdom has been around for a long time. My local golf professional, Jack Sauers, gave me a copy of the book for Christmas in 1984. I read the book at that time and found inspiration for thinking about my own religious philosophy of golf. I have cultivated my own religious philosophy of golf ever since. I recently read Murphy’s sequel, The Kingdom of Shivas Irons, and, at that point, I decided to reread Golf in the Kingdom. This review is the result of my second reading.
“In Scotland,” Murphy writes, “between the Firth of Forth and the Firth of Tay, lies the Kingdom of Fife – known to certain lovers of that land simply as ‘The Kingdom.’ There, on the shore of the North Sea, lies a golfing links that shimmers in my memory….” In 1960, on his way to study Indian philosophy and practice meditation at the ashram of Sri Aurobindo in India, Murphy stops over in Scotland to play Burningbush Links (a fictional course in a real land). At Burningbush, Murphy spends an incredible day with a golf professional named Shivas Irons. “Shivas” is pronounced with a short “i,” as in “divot.”
Murphy is placed with Shivas and one of Shivas’ students for the round at Burningbush. Shivas and his student are working on “true gravity,” an awareness of the energies surrounding one’s ball, club, body, environment. The goal behind their work is to harmonize the energies into one force that encompasses one’s game. Murphy, listening to Shivas’ instruction, begins working on “true gravity” as well, and he begins seeing auras of energy.
The group arrives at the thirteenth hole, a long par three with 200 yards of gorse, an area called Lucifer’s Rug, running up to a mounded green. On the left is a steep ravine from which several boulders rise. Shivas stands “on his left leg, then on his right, once with eyes open, once with them closed.” Then Shivas cups his hands to his mouth and sounds out “an incredible cry” toward the ravine. Shivas’ student hits his shot into Lucifer’s Rug, and Murphy prepares to hit. Shivas lets forth another primordial wail, startling Murphy and causing him to jump away from his ball. Both Murphy and Shivas hit good shots; and, in fact, both make birdies. Shivas shoots sixty-seven; and, though he struggled at the beginning of the round, Murphy ties Shivas on the inward nine with a score of thirty-four.
After the round, Shivas and Murphy enjoy some drinks in the Burningbush clubhouse, and Shivas invites Murphy to join him for dinner with a local family, the McNaughtons. After walking to the McNaughtons’ home, Shivas takes a meditative break, sitting by himself on a window ledge and looking skyward, while Murphy accepts an invitation to enter the home. Inside, Murphy meets an odd collection of people interested in golf. Shivas eventually joins the festivities, and the discussion turns to theories about the meaning of golf. Murphy is informed of Seamus MacDuff, Shivas’ teacher, and Murphy becomes convinced that he actually saw MacDuff when they played earlier that day. Murphy describes MacDuff as “a seedy-looking character walking back and forth along the far edge of that treacherous ravine on the thirteenth hole.” Not only does Murphy suddenly remember that he saw MacDuff, he remembers that MacDuff spoke. Shivas indicates that, indeed, MacDuff has been spending a lot of time on the thirteenth hole, studying the game and working on his theories of the world. Shivas says, “he’s had to tip the balance of his mind to study gravity. He’s floatin’ free now to get a better fix upon this world of ours.”
Shivas, then, expounds his own theory of the game. Drawing from MacDuff, Shivas argues that “life is nothin’ but a series of fascinations, an odyssey from world to world. And so with golf. An odyssey it is – from hole to hole, adventure after adventure, comic and tragic, spellin’ out the human drama. Fascination holds us there, makes us believe ‘tis all important.” Golfers are “like the great God, who lost Himself in the dark unconscious universe and wends His way back toward light and fullest knowin’. Forgettin’ and rememberin’, losin’ and findin’ our original face – the great God and all of us are in the game togither. We’re all o’ us joined to the growin’ world, with God we’re waking’ up.” Shivas continues,
Fascination is the true and proper mother of discipline. And gowf is a place to practice fascination. ‘Tis slow enough to concentrate the mind and complex enough to require our many parts. In that ‘tis a microcosm of the world’s larger discipline. Our feelin’s, fantasies, thought and muscles, all must join to play. In gowf ye see the essence of what the world itself demands. Inclusion of all our parts, alignment o’ them all with one another and with the clubs and with the ball, with all the land we play on and with our playin’ partners. The game requires us to join ourselves to the weather, to know the subtle energies that change each day upon the links and the subtle feelin’s of those around us. It rewards us when we bring them all together, our bodies and our minds, our feelin’s and our fantisies – rewards us when we do and treats us badly when we don’t The game is a mighty teacher — never deviatin’ from its sacred rools, always ready to lead us on. In all that ‘tis a macrocosm o’ the world, a good stage for the drama of our self-discovery.
After the McNaughtons’ party breaks up, Shivas invites Murphy to visit Seamus MacDuff who, readers are informed, actually lives in the ravine to the left of the thirteenth hole. When Shivas and Murphy arrive at the thirteenth, Shivas holds forth an “eerie yodeling wail” and a “bloodcurdling scream.” Shivas explains that, earlier in the day, he let forth those cries in order to scare away the devil. Shivas shows Murphy the entrance to MacDuff’s cave, but MacDuff does not appear to be around. From MacDuff’s cave Shivas produced “a gigantic Irish shillelagh,” (a walking stick) and two feathery golf balls. Shivas refers to MacDuffs stick and balls as “weapons,” but Shivas informs Murphy that MacDuff calls the shillelagh “his baffin’ spoon.” MacDuff uses his baffing spoon and featheries for his research. Murphy, gazing up at the boulders above the ravine, swears he sees a face, but Shivas dismisses the apparition. Shivas and Murphy begin hitting the featheries with MacDuff’s baffing spoon, aiming at a target in the ravine. Shivas urges Murphy to feel his “inner body,” and Murphy finds himself outside of his body looking at his own swing. Shivas talks about MacDuff’s idea of “true gravity,” an attempt to attune oneself with “the deeper lines o’ force, the deeper structure of the universe.” Shivas indicates that he has always wanted to play golf with MacDuff’s stick, and he and Murphy climb up to the thirteenth tee. Shivas is concerned about losing one of MacDuff’s featheries, but he overcomes his fear. Shivas, playing by the light of the night, scores a hole-in-one with MacDuff’s shillelagh.
Giving up on an appearance from MacDuff, Murphy and Shivas head for Shivas’ modest abode. Soon after they arrive, Shivas enters into a trance for about fifteen minutes. Murphy, seeing Shivas with his eyeballs rolled back, is understandably concerned and uses Shivas’ phone to call for emergency assistance. Shivas, however, regains consciousness enough to calm Murphy’s anxiety. Shivas says, “I almost disappeared … almost disappeared.” “Do ye n’ ken ye’re flyin’ heer like a kite – wi’ nae mair than a thread holdin’ ye?” “We’re all kites in that wind.” Shivas, then, reenters his trance for another thirty minutes. When he awakes, he notices that Murphy is looking at some of his books, and Shivas decides to show Murphy his own writings and photographs.
Shivas relates that he gained an interest in Eastern philosophy from entertaining the notion that each round of golf constituted a new incarnation. He then began to have experiences which he equated to being caught up in “fits,” episodes he likened to epileptic fits. At the onset of one of these “fits,” Shivas remembered the advice of the mystics to give way, to “got into it, go right into it.” The experience frightened him at first, but then he gazed into the stars above and felt a great joy. Shivas says, “Oh, I’ll niver forget it – it was my first journey into the one.” It was “the first step” in finding his “way.” During the course of a few months, Shivas found “the truth in the Indian view of the world as maya, pure illusion; he knew what the old mystics had meant. Why return to this brawling pit when other worlds held such promise of peace and delight? He thought of going to India to join an ashram, as [Murphy] was doing, or of holing up in the Outer Hebrides, in order to live entirely in the mystic state. He had ‘fallen into Nirvana’ and now he was tempted to stay there for the rest of his life.”
Members of Burningbush were pushing Shivas to enter the world of competitive golf, but Shivas was torn between golf and his new understanding of the world. Further, his own personality shifted between quivering rabbit and emboldened lion. If he were to play in front of crowds, he had to overcome his shyness. At the British Amatuer, to conquer his fears, Shivas began preaching to his gallery. He won his first match, breaking the course record. “After the tournament he could see that golf and his inner life were one destiny. He would be a golf professional and a philosopher, using the game to body forth the truths he was discovering within.”
In 1945, Shivas met Seamus MacDuff. Shivas saw Seamus standing in front of a famous golfer’s tomb; and, without turning, Seamus said to Shivas, “You and I have much to do, for these are our final days.” Seamus “was studying the golfer’s tomb that day … because he and Shivas had to make golf a matter of life and death.” Shivas and Seamus were immediately close, and “in the years that followed, they worked on the relations between consciousness and physical laws, Seamus being the theorist and Shivas his practitioner in the world of golf.” Seamus believed that the discovery of atomic power, highlighted by the bombing of Hiroshima, “was the beginning of the end,” “the final sign that man must discover the secrets of his soul or go the way of dying species.”
Murphy leaves Shivas at about 3:30 in the afternoon and heads to London where he meets a lady friend who will accompany him to France. While visiting the Cathedral of Rheims, Murphy encounters a woman who grabs him by the arms and asks if he hears the voices of the vaults. Murphy sits, gazes up into the gothic vaulting and, indeed, hears a voice, “Come home, come home … follow the music home at last.” He sees a face in the vaults, but no one else sees the face.
After a year and a half in India, Murphy returns home to California and eventually founds an institute for higher consciousness in Big Sur (The Esalen Institute) It is not until after another trip to Scotland in 1970, trying unsuccessfully to relocate Shivas, that Murphy decides to write about his experience with Shivas in 1956.
The second part of the book represents Murphy’s “attempt to make sense of some passages” which he was fortunate enough to copy from Shivas’ journals on the second day of his visit with Shivas.
A chapter entitled “The Inner Body” expressed Murphy’s conviction that “we do indeed posses another body, an inner body, a vehicle of consciousness that survives death, travels to far places during sleep and trance, and changes size and shape.” Citing Vedic authorities of Hinduism, Murphy appears accepting of the notion that one can tap into Being-itself so that that one begins to transcend the limitations of finite beings. He writes, “The Vedic rishis believed that through this basic connection in our soul with Agni (the Primal Fire), man can evoke Its power. As you discover this profound connection, they said, you can grow into the Being from which everything arises so that certain manifestations of that Being begin to appear in your life. Your body, for example, might begin to glow with the First Light.” The energy one cultivates and the transcendence of ordinary gravity are signs or privileges of this “luminous body” that one may acquire.
In a chapter entitled “Some Notes on True Gravity,” Murphy cites
other terms in Shivas’ private vocabulary which are roughly synonymous with ‘true gravity.’ For example: ‘feeling-force,’ ‘heart power,’ and the Sanskrit philosophical word chit, which is sometimes translated as ‘consciousness-force.’ Other related terms and phrases appear less frequently in my notes and memory, e.g., Gravity-with-Loving-Eyes, shimmering Body-Field, a MacDuff-Body, a Pythagorean Unity, a PK Field (or Psychokinetic Field), breathing baffing spoon, Galactic-Ecstatic-Hole-in-One, eighteen holes on the ‘milky fairway’ … and, of course, all the words having to do with the ‘inner body.’
Murphy explains that “True gravity is, on the one hand, an experiential reality; it is also a force-at-large in the world, the omnipresent ‘heart power’ or ‘feeling –force’ that permeates all things. It is the dynamic aspect of the one Omnipresent Reality….” “True gravity is a universal force, an ethical imperative, and an overwhelming spiritual experience.” Shivas believed that one could guide the flight of the golf ball by virtue of joining this universal force. “Visualization of the ball’s path … can lead to actual streamers of energy emanating from the golfer to the target, streamers in which the golf ball travels.” When Murphy played with Shivas and focused on “true gravity,” Murphy felt he “was swinging with extra legs and arms” with an “inner body wide as a green.”
If you are spiritually inclined, if you love golf, and if you have not yet read Golf in the Kingdom, you should. Murphy and I take our religious philosophies of golf in different directions. I would describe Murphy’s philosophy of golf as more idealistic, mystical, and transcendent, and I would describe mine as more realistic, naturalistic, and immanent. Nevertheless, both of us cannot help but find that golf strongly evokes religious and philosophical reflections. Golf in the Kingdomis a classic and earns a full sleeve of balls.
There is a recently released film version of the book which I have seen. Unfortunately, the film was painful. Read the book!