The Authentic Swing by Steven Pressfield is a valuable and enjoyable little book. Whether you harbour ambitions to become the next JK Rowling, or the next Rory McIlroy, there is gold hidden in these pages.
I first came across it while researching a piece of work I was doing about another of Pressfield’s novels, The Legend of Bagger Vance. (You can read my review of that book by following this link.) The Authentic Swing is the story about how the novel come about, and is essential for anyone who is looking to better understand the deep and mysterious character of Bagger.
This is ostensibly a book about writing and creativity, in line with his more well known non-fiction titles, The War of Art and Turning Pro. However there is more than enough for the avid golfer to appreciate and learn from. Golf is a creative enterprise after all!
When and Where
Part One of the book describes where the idea for Bagger Vance came from. Pressfield grew up in the caddy yards around Westchester, New York. If you were wondering how he gained the expertise and knowledge to describe the playing scenes so accurately, then all the answers are here. It also gives an insight into why the viewpoint of ten year old Hardy Greaves works so well as the narrator of the story.
Pressfield also explains his choice of setting for the book. Scotland, the home of golf and perhaps the obvious choice, had already been used in another story about the spiritual side of the game, Golf in the Kingdom by Michael Murphy. It needed to be placed in an era that was close enough for the game to be recognisable, but far enough back to still have an air of mystery and glamour.
The choice of the Southern United States in the 1920’s is perfect. The instability of the years between the two world wars, and shortly after the Great Depression adds to the feeling of instability and flux. The decision to include two real life legends of the game is a masterstroke. It grounds the book firmly in the history of the game, while allowing the mysterious events to unfold.
The Philosophy Bit
As you are probably aware, the novel is based on the Bhagavad Gita, one of the foundational texts of the Hindu faith. Pressfield describes how he hangs the story from the structure of the Gita, and also how much of the philosophy of this ancient work chimes with his experience of the game, and about life.
It is from this synergy that the key idea for the book emerges, the concept of The Authentic Swing. According to Bagger, the modern western idea that ‘you can become anything you want to be’ is fundamentally flawed. The confusion arises because most people think that what they do is their identity.
The book lays bare this misunderstanding and shows us that we can only be who we already are. The key to living a life you love, both on and off the golf course is rediscovering your true Self. The Authentic Swing is a metaphor for this Self. As Pressfield puts it, ‘The Authentic Swing is not learned, it is remembered’.
Golf in the Movies
Bagger Vance was made into a film in the early 2000’s. It wasn’t a success, although from looking at various review sites there seems to be a lot of positive regard for it.
In The Authentic Swing, Pressfield writes,
‘I hate to say it, but Bagger Vance should never have been made into a film. Terrific actors were wasted, and everyone lost money but me.’
He goes on to make the point that no one has ever made a serious film about golf that worked. The only ones that have been successful have emphasised the more light hearted side of the game – Caddyshack and Happy Gilmore are probably the best examples.
There are a number of reasons why it’s hard to make a good movie about golf, and Pressfield explains them in detail. But the most important one is this:
‘The hero’s struggle exists inside his own head. For the audience to understand the protagonist’s ordeal, it must be told – and telling never works on the screen.’
‘Golf is a game played on the five inches between your ears’, as the great Bobby Jones once commented. A book is a much better place to explore that game, as it allows the reader to bring their own perspectives and imagination to bear, something that film doesn’t encourage.
If you enjoyed The Legend of Bagger Vance, you will love The Authentic Swing. It provides some great insights into the deeper ideas behind the book, without completely revealing the mysteries that make the original work so compelling. If you have read the book, or seen the film and weren’t completely sold, or were a bit bemused by some of the more esoteric elements, this will help to fill in some of the gaps and hopefully encourage you to take another look.
I believe that the Legend of Bagger Vance is one of the best and most important books about the spiritual and mental side of the game ever written. It is right up there with Golf in the Kingdom, despite being less well known. Unfortunately the film seems to have dissuaded a number of people from reading it, which is a shame. The book is a million times better than the movie.
The Authentic Swing is a valuable companion work, one that will hopefully make the novel more accessible for golfers whose practical nature might baulk at some of the mysterious aspects of Bagger’s important message.