Stanley shuffled to the tee. And inwardly, I sighed.
This, I thought, is not how I want to spend my afternoon.
I have had a love-hate relationship with golf. I came to the game late, at 27. Old enough to have learned the consequences of mistakes. And the power of the word, ‘don’t.’
The human mind responds unwillingly and inconsistently to the word, ‘don’t’. Ask a parent. Or a golfer, for whom the silent prayer don’t hit it in the water is the golfing equivalent of a sacrifice to Poseidon.
As a species we are drawn to the affirmative. Of what might be. We search, we discover, we create, we innovate. Our triumphs and our existence depend on possibility.
Avoiding the negative makes us cautious. And tense. Hard places from which to navigate. Life or business.
As the stakes increase, the temptation to succumb to caution is overwhelming. A temptation we fight with intellect and hard work. As though trying harder will change patterns already deeply embedded.
Instead the effort guarantees the outcome we want desperately to avoid. A lesson I learned in two parts.
Part one took place in the Fall of 2000. On the Old Course in St Andrews. On the east coast of Scotland.
St. Andrews is the home of golf. Its heart and its soul. And the ground has been walked upon by every golfer history would name as significant. Tom Morris, Young and Old. Harry Vardon, Walter Hagen, Bobby Jones, Nicklaus, Palmer, Watson, Faldo, Woods. All have played and triumphed at the Old Course.
And for an hour, on this hallowed ground, I was as great as anyone who had ever played the game.
Standing on the seventh tee two I was two over par. A score that reflected the good and bad in my game. Long, straight drives. The growing tension as I neared the hole. Mis-hit irons, tentative chips and putts hit without hope or expectation.
There are moments in life when you get out of your own way long enough to permit greatness. When the self doubt steps aside, and who you are finds voice.
Sometimes we need help. I had Shivas Irons.
Golf In The Kingdom is the story of Shivas Iron - a mystical golf professional at Burningbush Links on the coast of Scotland - who teaches the book’s writer over one extraordinary twenty four hour period, that the golf swing is an expression of the soul.
For an hour on that late September afternoon, I felt Shivas Irons walk with me. Pointing out the possible. Focusing not on fear, but on expectation. Reminding me what I already knew. That I was responsible. And capable. And that the combination is undeniable.
It was not a conscious thought of mine to let him join me. Just a realization as I finished the sixth hole, that different results would not come from the same actions. Or thoughts.
That getting out of my own way was the first step.
I let go. And Shivas Irons arrived. An hour later I walked off the tenth green, two under par. I had birdied all four holes.
As I stepped onto the eleventh tee it started to rain. Hard. And the calmness that had descended upon me, unhurriedly reached for my rain suit. It was 165 yards, into a stiffening wind. The pin just over the front bunker.
In those few moments I was aware of every sensation. The rain in my face, the sun breaking through the clouds over St Andrews Bay behind the green. Chris beside me, not wanting to break the spell.
It may have been my body that settled over the ball on that rain-swept piece of historic ground. But it was Shivas Irons that swung the club. The sound of a perfectly struck golf shot is distinctive. And as the ball flew towards the flag, its final destination was pre-determined.
There are many who feel that perfection in golf is a hole in one. I do not. For the number of variables in achieving that specific outcome require luck play a crucial part.
The ball landed softly on the green, two yards beyond the gaping mouth of the bunker, took the slope above the cup and rolled gently to a stop, eighteen inches above the flag.
Eighteen inches from three under par at the Old Course.
The walk from the eleventh tee to the eleventh green is a little under two hundred yards.
In that time, Shivas Irons left me. All that was left was a man staring at eighteen inches of sharply sloping ground. And a putt that looked longer than any he had ever seen.
Don’t miss it. Like the shot before, the outcome was pre-determined before my putter made hesitant contact with the ball which rolled past on the low side without grazing the cup.
I snap hooked my drive on twelve into a gorse bush and made a seven. Shivas Irons was nowhere to be found, and I bogeyed my way in for a 77. A score to be proud of in the context of what I was.
But greatness is measured against what we are capable of. What we could be. A bar held too low by too many. In their lives. And in their businesses.
For five more years, I put down my experience that afternoon to the mysticism of the Old Course. I had merely been the vessel. The inspiration had been of something else. Not religious, for I am not. But a confluence of influences available only on that particular piece of ground.
But unable to scale those heights again, even momentarily, I lost interest in the game. And what had been an obsession dissipated to almost nothing. Last year I played 27 holes. And took one lesson.
Last Monday, I went out to Miacomet Golf Course in Nantucket with no expectations. Instead, I found Shivas Irons again.
I didn’t recognize him at first. He introduced himself as Stanley. Then he shuffled to the tee. And waited. “Nilda has to watch for me. I don’t see too good anymore,” he explained.
Nilda, his wife, walked unhurriedly towards him, and then turned and looked in my direction. “Stanley’s ninety three,” she said proudly. “Going on ninety four. I keep an eye on where he hits it. Easy job.” I swear she winked before she settled into what I came to realize was her usual position a few yards behind him.
Stanley hesitated for a few moments and swung. It was more fluid and graceful than a man of ninety three has any right to expect. The ball flew without complaint and rolled to a stop in the dead center of the fairway 160 yards away.
“Nice and easy,” said Nilda. “He knows where he’s going, he’s just enjoying the ride.”
“A lesson for all of us in that,” I said by way of polite small-talk, and as they slowly got back in their cart I lifted my bag across my shoulders and walked down the first fairway.
I had hit a good drive. A natural ability that never seems to stray too far, no matter how little I play. As I looked at the yardage marker and pulled a club I felt the wind freshen.
I waited while Stanley played his second shot. It carried about 140 yards, rolled another forty or so on the hard, dry ground and came to rest just in front of the green.
I settled over the ball, and as I took the club back I thought, enjoy the ride.
The ball compressed against the club face and climbed aboard the breeze headed in from the ocean. As it started to fall, the ball seemed to hesitate as though picking a spot to land, before coming to rest about twenty feet above the hole. I smiled and picked up my bag, walking quietly and enjoying the moment.
Stanley's chip lacked nothing in skill or commitment, but perhaps a little in good fortune, and jumping forward when he might have expected it to stop, it carried six feet past.
I looked at my putt briefly, a downhill left to right slider that had ‘roller coaster’ written on its obituary. Enjoy the ride. The ball tracked the invisible line I had drawn, and fell into the cup as though it could imagine no other destination. Stanley missed his par putt and made five. “Nice birdie,” he said quietly. “Do it again.”
Only once over the next eight holes did I get in my own way. My second shot on the second hole. After a drive of such effortless power that I was left with only a short little wedge to the green. Then, for a moment, a lifelong weakness of delicate short shots encouraged me. To try. Hard.
I double bogeyed the hole. It was the only time I didn’t believe in myself. Or the swing I have honed through painstaking effort and great teaching over fifteen years. A platform I had invested in but never used. Afraid to see what I could be if I believed.
Stanley played his round without fuss. Hitting the ball relentlessly down the middle, and up on the green. His sense of calm and of purpose never left. And neither did mine.
On the ninth green, I considered my final putt of the afternoon. Ten feet. Left to right. Against the prevailing wind. Enjoy the ride.
The ball travelled unerringly along the path I had predicted and veered right towards the hole. At the last moment, the breeze gathered itself, holding the ball for an instant in its grasp. As the wind dropped, the ball grabbed the lip of the cup and rolled around the edge, dropping beneath the surface for an instance before jumping out and stopping an inch away.
I tapped in and turned to shake Stanley’s hand. “Can’t win ‘em all,” he said. What did you shoot? 35?” I nodded. “Pretty good with a double,” he grinned. “Three birdies, damn near four, in nine holes. You should play more often.”
“I’m not this good normally,” I said softly. Stanley held up his hand.
“We’re as good as we want to be,” he said firmly. “You spent a lot of money on that swing of yours. I’d go use it if I were you. Before you’re too old. Took me a long time to enjoy this game. Wasted a lot of time worrying about making mistakes. Tried too hard. I was over eighty before I figured it out.”
He turned and walked slowly back to his cart. I picked up my bag and followed him. “Figured out what?” I asked.
He turned and looked at me. “You already know,” he said. “Maybe today you realized that.”
He shook my hand again. “You coming back next year?” he asked.
I nodded instinctively.
“Good. See you then.” He climbed into the cart and he and his wife drove off.
A year’s a long time. Who knows where any of us will be.
But there is possibility. And there is purpose.
Enjoy the ride.
Stanley shuffled to the tee. And inwardly, I sighed.