Shot of a Lifetime
Esalen founder Michael Murphy’s Golf in the Kingdom is finally made into a movie.
Thursday, June 17, 2010
Something extraordinary happened in 1972. As the wind whipped Jack Nicklaus’ golden hair – and the field’s nerves – into a tangle, he calmly crushed an audacious one-iron from the second-to-last tee of Pebble’s Beach first-ever U.S. Open.
Just 50 yards away at The Beach and Tennis Club, blocked from viewing the 17th tee, Esalen co-founder and Salinas native Michael Murphy tracked the swing on TV until the ball sizzled into his field of view, drilled the flagstick on a hop, and settled inches from the cup.
In that, Murphy saw something he had been studying for years, and has continued to study exhaustively: exemplary human performance.
“Certain golfers can translate the image of a complex shot – like a low and the rising fade I’ve seen Ben Hogan do – into the movement,” he says, “Hogan made himself a channel for the image of the shot he wants… like certain writers and poets, or improvising jazz musicians. They get going, and can only ask later, ‘Where did that come from?’
“It’s there in all sports, there in everyday life. If we open our lives to the possibility of the extraordinary, [our lives] can be bigger and richer.”
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Murphy had his own extraordinary golf episode in ’72. He had founded Esalen a decade earlier with fellow Stanford grad Dick Price on family land, seeding an epicenter for the Human Potential Movement that has drawn waves of thinkers, hot-tubbing hippies and Hollywood stars seeking, as Esalen literature reads, “the intellectual freedom to consider systems of thought and feeling that lie beyond the current constraints of mainstream academia… to discover ancient wisdom in the motion of the body.”
To date, Esalen has drawn 300,000-plus to the remote Big Sur coast. But it’s the novel Murphy published in 1972, Golf in the Kingdom, through which he has reached more more people. His first book remains his most popular, having sold 1.5 million copies, making it easily the best-selling golf novel of all time.
In it Michael, a college-age American on the way to study religions in India (Murphy himself spent 18 months at an ashram) stops by Scotland to play golf, and encounters oddly charismatic pro Shivas Irons. As they spool through an impromptu golf lesson and an evening of discussions with area players, the mystical seeps in. Irons introduces his concept of “true gravity,” or the “deeper structure of the universe.”
“Let the nothingness into yer shots,” Irons says.
Partly because of its mystical leanings and a plot path that is more mental than most – “it’s not linear,” Murphy says, “it’s prismatic” – converting Golf in the Kingdom into film has become its own extraordinary undertaking. For decades various parties optioned it, including Clint Eastwood, but never brought it to production – until last spring.
The new independent film stars Malcolm MacDowell and Julian Sands; Oregon’s Bandon Dunes backdrop poetically emulates Scotland. Murphy says they’ll shop the movie after July 4.
“There’s no sex, not much action, and a lot about metaphysical concepts,” producer Mindy Affrime told the Wall Street Journal. “It’s funny and speaks to how sport can enlighten your life. But how do you label a movie like that? It’s definitely not a romantic comedy.”
Just this Tuesday Eastwood’s Tehama Golf Club hosted a reception after an exclusive preview of Golf in the Kingdom: The Movie that doubled as fundraiser for First Tee of Monterey County, and its mission to inspire youth of all backgrounds through golf.
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Murphy and his team gathered 10,000 scholarly and scientific studies on what he calls “supernormal” human functioning for his book The Future of Life, touching on everything from telepathy to martial arts. “Every human attribute,” he says, “vision, love, cognitive abilities, gives rise to supernormal expressions of themselves.”
As it turns out, a lot of supernormal happens on the links.
“After I published Golf in the Kingdom,” he says, “people started telling me about extraordinary experiences on courses. As years have gone by, I’ve heard thousands.” A woman walking an 18th fairway feels the setting sun glow through the ground, occupying her body and charging her with an enchanted feeling for several days. A man standing with friends on the tee sees a ball marker on the green 400 yards away.
Murphy, a devout empiricist, understands skepticism in response to these stories; only the fact that he has carefully collected so many similar stories across cultures dissolves his doubt.
“Why did golf trigger these,” says Murphy, “even though a person isn’t looking for them? It’s the quiet of mind, the focus, the stretching yourself, that makes it become a transformative practice, like yoga. It’s given as a grace.”