The Bhagavad Gita is one of the foundational texts of the Hindu faith.
It begins with the prelude to a great battle. Arjuna, a decorated warrior, has a crisis of confidence. He turns to Krishna, his charioteer, for advice and support.
The conversation that follows is a metaphor for the inner struggle between the True Self and the ego – a conflict every golfer knows only too well. Author Steven Pressfield weaves the powerful underlying message of the Gita into a gripping and entertaining story about a golf match.
Most golfers realise that their main adversary is not the course or an opponent. It’s themselves. Look inwards, it suggests. Explore the nature of your golfing experience and ask some different questions,
‘Who am I? To whom does this matter?
To produce a work of historical fiction that has such profound implications and practical benefits for those playing the game today is not an easy task. The Legend of Bagger Vance accomplishes it with style and authority.
The main story takes place in Savannah, Georgia in the early 1930’s. It chronicles a match involving two golfing legends – Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen – and reluctant local hero Rannulph Junah, assisted by mysterious caddie and advisor Bagger Vance.
The setting of the Southern United States in the years following the great depression provides a rich backdrop. The cultural references are evocative and pertinent without detracting from the flow. The golfing styles of the day – plus fours, two-tone brogues, crisp cotton shirts and neckties are easy to picture in the mind’s eye.
Pressfield’s observations on the society in which the story unfolds capture the mood of the time. It seems like another world. Yet many of the political and social issues remain to this day. The timeline of the book moves back and forth between then and now, controlling the pace of the story and further blurring the distinctions of time and place.
The author is clearly an experienced and knowledgeable golfer. The subtleties of the course and the nuances of the shots are described in perfect detail, such that they stand up under the scrutiny of even the most discerning player. Anyone who has had the good fortune to walk a great links course will immediately feel at home.
Your Authentic Swing
The tale is told through the eyes of a retired medic, Dr. Hardy Greaves. He was ten years old when the match took place. His perspective adds to the mysterious nature of the events. Are his recollections accurate? Or have they been distorted through the mists of time – seen through a ‘large dollop of Vaseline smeared on the lens’ as the author suggests?
The choice of a young boy as the narrator takes us back to our own childhood. Living life and playing with joy, freedom and a lack of self consciousness is natural at that age. As we get older the beliefs and misunderstandings of the society and culture intrude. That innocence is lost. You can sense this happening to Hardy as the story unfolds.
The central premise of the book is that our Authentic Swing is already within us when we first pick up a club. We express it effortlessly when we are young, before other people’s concepts and theories and beliefs about the game begin to make their mark on us.
‘Your Authentic Swing is remembered, it isn’t learned’, Bagger Vance explains to the veteran golf writer O.B Keeler as they walk the course the night before the big match. This is a most important and revealing conversation. It can be studied at length by any golfer who is keen to learn more about the nature of their own experience and is searching to find their own best way of playing the game.
The Big Questions
Fiction and non-fiction books are usually read for different reasons. You buy a non fiction book to answer a question, to solve a problem. You buy a fiction book because you want to be entertained and moved emotionally, perhaps to escape to another world for a few hours.
It’s a rare and special book that manages to combine these two very different objectives. Yes, in a great novel you might learn something along the way, but usually it’s an incidental fact that might come in useful at a pub quiz or dinner table conversation.
The Legend of Bagger Vance asks some of the fundamental questions golfers have about themselves and about the game, while at the same time inspiring and enthralling. By concealing it in a story every golfer can identify with, the timeless wisdom of the Bhagavad Gita is smuggled past the bouncers of the intellect and ego straight into the heart of the reader.
I believe it is one of the best books ever written about the mental side of the game. If a struggling golfer can read it with a mind open to the metaphorical, rather than just the literal meaning, far more assistance will be gained than from most mainstream golf psychology books.
Don’t Judge the Book by the Film
It is hard to find a bad word to say about the book. If you have seen the movie of the same name you might be slightly bemused by my enthusiasm. Unfortunately as with most films about golf, it is a disappointment when compared with the novel. Despite a renowned director and an all star cast, the end result is a pale and somewhat cheesy imitation.
The main theme – the search for meaning in the game and in life – is relegated to a subplot behind a corny romantic storyline that isn’t even mentioned in the original work. There are glaring errors and mistakes both in the setting and in the action scenes.
I accept the difficulty of finding actors who can swing like a good golfer, and it’s nigh on impossible to replicate the moves of two of the greatest players the game has ever seen. The inauthenticity makes it hard to relax and focus on the story.
As Pressfield himself later acknowledges,
‘I hate to say it, but The Legend of Bagger Vance should never have been made into a film. Terrific actors were wasted, and everyone lost money but me.’
Having said all that, the film does have some charm if you are unaware of the book. It is well acted, and captures some of the mood and style of 1930’s Georgia . There are enough hints at the mysticism and spiritual nature of the original story to arouse the curiosity of someone slightly open minded to explore more deeply what the story might be pointing towards.
A couple of key scenes from the book are retained, offering a thread for the viewer to follow. If you recognise them for what they are and are encouraged to seek out the novel, then the film would be worth a couple of hours of your time.
Will It Help Your Golf?
I played to a good standard for more than 20 years. I have been a coach to golfers of all abilities for around the same length of time. Golf is a mind and body game, but too often we get trapped in the physical and psychological elements of it. We fail to look beyond what is tangible and provable.
It’s important to see this book in context. It’s a spiritual myth. It points the reader to something deep and profound within themselves in a way that a ‘how to’ guide or psychology textbook cannot. By disguising the wisdom in a story, the learning will be absorbed with less judgement and intellectual interference.
Finding meaning in our life, or in our sport is about finding a narrative. We all have one, even if we are not cognitively aware of it. The big question is this: is the story pointing us towards true nature, towards enlightenment, towards happiness – or away from it?
When talking to golfers, it often becomes clear that who they believe themselves to be is the main character in their story. If this is the case, everything they do is in pursuit of ensuring that the tale has a happy ending. This is the root cause of all the self inflicted pressure they feel when they play.
Questioning that perspective is the first step to playing with more freedom, enjoyment and love. Playing like we did when we were children.
The Legend of Bagger Vance is a masterpiece. If you haven’t read it, I suggest you do so. Even if you have seen the film, the book offers much more that will help your game.
The written or spoken word does something that film does not. It evokes something from within. The picture is not complete, so we add our own imagination to it. Something of ourselves becomes part of the story. It is a collaboration between the author and the reader in a way that a film is not. It’s why books are different to film, why radio is different to television.
The author points out another difficulty with films about golf:
‘The hero’s struggle exists in his own head. For the audience to understand the protagonist’s ordeal, it needs to be told. Telling never works on the screen.’
The book addresses some of the big questions human beings have been thinking about and discussing for millennia:
Who am I?
What is this? (What is the fundamental nature of reality?)
What does it all mean?
The Bhagavad Gita represents one of the earliest recorded examples of human exploration of these questions. All mainstream religions, philosophies and spiritual traditions have versions of them at the core. When played purely for its own sake, a sport or game is an equivalent form of enquiry.
Steven Pressfield is a fine author, both fiction and non. The Legend of Bagger Vance demonstrates a deep knowledge of the game of golf, of the human experience and of the true nature of who we are.
If you are a golfer, whether you are playing well or playing badly, this book will help you understand your experience.
More than that, it might just change your life.