Golf in the Kingdom
Since its first publication in 1972, Golf in the Kingdom has been recognized as a classic work on the deeper mysteries of golf—a gospel of those who suspect, or know, that golf is more than a mere pastime. A young man en route to India stops in Scotland to play at the legendary Burningbush golf club and in twenty-four hours, his life is transformed. Paired with a mysterious teacher named Shivas Irons, he is led through a round of phenomenal golf, swept into a world where extraordinary powers are unleashed in a backswing governed by true gravity. A night of adventure and revelation follow, and lead to a glimpse of Seamus MacDuff, the holy man who haunts a ravine off Burningbush's thirteenth fairway—one they call Lucifer's Rug. Murphy's account reveals the possibilities for transcendence that resides in the human soul, and through mystic-philosopher Shivas Irons, the reader, like Murphy, becomes drawn into new worlds by this ancient and haunting game.
Click on the tabs below for a discourse on Golf in the Kingdom from the deeply-researched and beautifully written book Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion. (University of Chicago Press, 2007, by Jeffrey J. Kripal.
In the beginning
An Indecently Alluring Novel
..... In 1972, at the age of forty-one, Michael Murphy published his first book, Golf in the Kingdom. In terms of both sales and public reception, it has been, by far, his most successful publishing venture. The book has sold well over one million copies and has become something of a cult classic among both amateur and professional golfers. Other than a few instructional manuals, no book on the subject of golf has sold more copies than Golf in the Kingdom. The title routinely shows up on various published lists of the most influential books written on the game; Murphy was once the featured speaker at a national meeting of the PGA; and the party scene from the novel has been dramatized on stage at Pebble Beach.
The novel's influence, however, extends well beyond the PGA. Phil Jackson, the most successful coach in NBA history, is an enthusiastic reader of Golf in the Kingdom and gave it (along with Murphy's The Future of the Body) to Michael Jordan and other members of the Chicago Bulls when he was coaching them toward their six titles. Jackson, moreover, would later follow Murphy's lead and write his own book on a similar athletic-mystical theme, that is, the Zen of basketball or Sacred Hoops.
As further cultural signs of the book's importance, a fan club has formed around the book, its lore, the ambiguous existence of its central character (Shivas Irons)—the society has even playfully split into two schools over the central doctrinal issue of whether or not Shivas really exists—and what is called the "as-yet-unknown pleasures to be gained from this indecently alluring game." The reader thus stumbles upon the Shivas Irons Society at the very back of the book [later editions]. The society is described on its own advertising page as "a nonprofit corporation organized to further the pleasure of golf and explore its many mysteries." Fittingly, its logo is artistically rendered by the abstract symbol of a putting green drawn in the shape of a figure-eight infinity sign.
The society has members in more than twenty countries and at one time or another has boasted members in every single state *South Dakota was the last to be added). It even has its own high-end beautifully produced journal on golf, literature, and art, The Journal of the Shivas Irons Society. The first issue, for example, includes such wonders as three separate pieces on or by Bernard Darwin, one of the most famous golf writers of all time who also happened to be the grandson of Charles Darwin. Evolution and golf are deeply and humorously intertwined in Golf in the Kingdom, so this link between evolutionary theory and golf writing is not without meaning for Murphy—-another piece of smiling synchronicity.
This little book also has its own Hollywood story. Movie rights have been sold to different producers nineteen times..... [Note: the Golf in the Kingdom movie, produced by Mindy Affrime, was finally released in 2010]..... Comedians Bill Murray and Tommy Smothers are fans. As is Men's Wearhouse CEO, George Zimmer, who built his own nine-hole golf course in Hawaii after a map of the novel's sequel, The Kingdom of Shivas Irons.
How to begin to explain all of this? How to make at least some sense of the phenomenon that is Golf in the Kingdom and, with it, that frustrating and yet seductive game that Murphy likes to refer to as "a mystery school for Republicans"?
The story is a remarkably simple one. The novel encodes a grand, if never quite fully developed, philosophical vision within a single twenty-four-hour period, which occurred, we are told, in June of 1956. Murphy writes autobiographically here, that is, as himself traveling to Pondicherry to live in Aurobindo's ashram. And this no doubt adds a certain realism to the story; he did, after all, travel to India in this same year, and he did stop over in Scotland to play a round of golf at St. Andrews, the Vatican of the golf world, as it were. So, too in the novel, he stops over in Scotland, in the Kingdom of Fife *or "the Kingdom," as it is called, no doubt as an allusion to Jesus's teaching about the kingdom of God), and plays a round of golf on Burningbush Links (clearly a fictional and humorously Mosaic stand-in for St. Andrews) with Shivas Irons, a local, lanky, buck-toothed golf pro, and his present student, Mr. Balie MacIver.
After the game, Murphy joins Shivas and his friends for an evening dinner and drinking party and then, after the party, follows him into a ravine off the thirteenth fairway to look for Shivas's mysterious and legendary teacher, Seamus MacDuff. After failing to find the master (only his ancient club and balls seem to be down there, although Murphy swears he saw someone peering at him from the cliffs), the duo returns to Shivas's apartment. Later Murphy observes with some horror an unconscious (or superconscious) Shivas rigid in a meditative trance as the sun comes up. Eventually the men converse and the odd golf pro shares his metaphysical theories and the numerous "dangerous connections" that he purports to detect in human history and the advances of science and technology.
Finally, Murphy, conscientiously bound to his travel plans and proper schedule, leaves the next afternoon for London and then Paris, all to Shivas's great disappointment and Murphy's considerable guilt. An epilogue finds Murphy in the Cathedral of Rheims with a young woman named Dulce, struggling with the competing lures of asceticism and eroticism and, again, with a possible vision of Seamus, whom he thinks he sees in the dark reaches of the church's upper nave. There too an old lady opens his heart and ears to divine voices: "Come home. Come home." As he is on his way to India, even this divine voice remains ambiguous, however. Is his true home India via some past-life memory? Or is he being asked to go back to California to start some new adventure there? Or is this perhaps a call back to the Plotinian Mystical One as primal home? All of these readings seem reasonable as the novel ends, simultaneously in both 1956 and 1972.
Structurally speaking, the book is divided into two parts. Part 1 relates the events just summarized. Part 2 then expounds on the teachings Murphy received from Shivas, at least as he claims to remember them sixteen years later, that is, in 1972. By the time, however, the author has tried and failed to locate Shivas, who is either now dead or long gone (like any number of figures in the history of Western esotericism, we are never quite sure). There have been many "sightings" over the years, of course. In the summer of 2005, rumors even circulated through the Shivas Irons Society that Murphy was about to release an old film of Shivas. Our best guides here, though, are clearly an appreciation of Irish humor, a grin, and another beer. I certainly wouldn't put any bets, not large one anyway, on the existence of the rare film clip.
We need not detail the entire story here, Two scenes, however, are especially pertinent to my own developing tale about Esalen: the party scene just after the round of golf, and the night Murphy spent with Shivas in his apartment. These two scenes, it turns out, are structured around two classics of mystical literature, one Western, one Indian: Plato's Symposium and The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna.
The dinner party took place at the home of Shivas's friends, Peter and Agatha McNaughton. Murphy comments explicitly on the latter's shapely figure and the fact that she "wore a light brown woolen blouse that showed the contour of her breasts." These sexual details set the scene, as this chapter, "Singing the Praises of Golf," is playfully but closely modeled after that ancient Greek banquet where Socrates and others make their speeches on the mythological, philosophical, and mystical natures of love or eros.