NOº 2243

Sacred Text: “Golf in the Kingdom” by Michael Murphy

The year: 1971.

A pivotal year in the American consciousness. In this, the second year of the 1970s, Disney World opened in Orlando and on the very same day — October 1, 1971, to be precise — I was born! This confluence is significant. I’m not sure how or why yet, but give me a couple more decades, and I’ll figure it out.

At any rate, 1971 is also the year that Michael Murphy wrote a slim (and not-at-all Disneyfied) volume called Golf in the Kingdom. Half-novel, half-spiritual-manifesto, and published in 1972, it would soon become a cult classic for golfers, New Age types, and especially New-Age-type golfers (of which there are, perhaps surprisingly, quite a few).

First, some background on Murphy, Reader’s Digest version:

  • Born into a northern California family of means.
  • Attends Stanford, joins a frat, and goes pre-med.
  • Wanders into a comparative religions lecture on accident and gets hooked.
  • Starts meditating, drops out, goes to India.
  • Comes back, does some other stuff (finishes a degree in psychology, gets drafted into the army, etc).
  • Then ultimately convinces his grandmother to let him and a buddy (who, PS, would later be randomly smashed to death by a boulder while hiking) establish a New Age retreat center on family land in Big Sur.

That retreat center, the Esalen Institute, survived the anything-goes Sixties — unlike so many other similar operations — and it still exists today, preaching the gospel of meditation, encounter groups, gestalt therapy, yoga, massage, and the whole East-meets-West mind-body-spirit connection.

Which is to say, Murphy and his Institute were seminal forces in bringing the New Age, Self-Help movement into the American mainstream, where it happily (and lucratively) bobs along today.

Yes, you would be correct if you were to say that Murphy hails from what is arguably the most European place in America — northern California. But, as a 1998 profile in the Stanford alumni magazine rightly observes,

In a sense, Murphy reflects a classic American, can-do optimism. He has a Jeffersonian belief in the perfectibility of man and a Norman Vincent Peale-like confidence in the individual’s ability to improve.

There is, in fact, nothing quite so American as a steadfast belief in the primacy of Self-Help (so-called). It says so right there in the Declaration of Independence: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Murphy eventually left the day-to-day operation of Esalen (around the time I was born — surely this too is significant) so that he could devote himself full time to writing books. His first, Golf in the Kingdom, introduced Shivas Irons to the world.

Golf (if not the world) has never been quite the same since.

The novel’s main character, who also happens to be named Michael, encounters Shivas at a fictional links course in Scotland that bears more than a passing resemblance to the Old Course at St. Andrew’s, the so-called birthplace of golf. The novel’s Michael finds himself there (in both senses of that expression) passing through on his way to an ashram in India. Equal parts yogi and golf pro, Shivas takes Michael out for an 18-hole magical mystery tour that, you know, changes everything.

I have played golf since I was eight years old. In that thirty-plus years, I have had a handful of peak athletic experiences on a golf course. Mostly of the momentary variety. A tee shot here, a putt there. I still remember one inconsequential 4-iron shot circa 1995, for instance, during which the club face felt like an extension of my cupped right hand, and I was sure I had thrown that little white ball onto the green from nearly 200 yards away. Someone who does not play golf might not appreciate the profundity of that experience.The something-numinous-just-happened, there’s-something-bigger-than-me-at-work(play)-here feeling. I mean, it’s hard to hit a 4-iron pure. When you do it, you get the unmistakable sense that divine intervention is very likely involved.

But that’s not really why this book is on the list.

This book is on the list because it was likely the first do-it-yourself spiritual tract I had ever come across, one in which a writer sought to put the very largest questions of spirit and consciousness and Essential Cosmic Purpose into the context of his own bourgeois American experience.

Part story, part philosophy, part idiosyncratic and ultra-personal how-to…

Maybe you can tell, but that whole idea kind of stuck with me.


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