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Friday, May 21, 2010

Straight Shooter: A Book Review

When Tiger Woods stood in front of that now-infamous blue curtain at PGA Tour headquarters in February and told the world he would recommit to Buddhism as part of his new self-improvement regimen, author Josh Karp must have thought his prayers had been answered. Or ... that karma was shining down upon him. Or ... whatever one says in the Buddhist realm when good fortune befalls you.
     Because suddenly the golf world was talking about Buddha for the first time since ... ever? And Buddhism, along with the search for inner peace and enlightenment, are central themes of Karp's new book, Straight Down the Middle: Shivas Irons, Bagger Vance, and How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Golf Swing. (Image: Straight Down the Middle, by Josh Karp; Chronicle Books, 2010)
     So as far as publicity hooks are concerned, he's got that going for him. Which is nice.

After being called a "new soul" (as opposed to an "old soul," or someone with wisdom and depth beyond his years) by a friend of his wife's, Karp decided his inner being needed some aging, so he set out on a journey of enlightenment:
My quest, the quest that became this book, was one toward two goals – better golf and a better life via the non-traditional Eastern route. I would sample various Eastern approaches to golf and life – meditation, martial arts, and all manner of instruction both on the course and off – hoping to lower my handicap and find my true, calm, happy self, or vice versa.
In Straight Down the Middle, Karp searches for golfing Nirvana (as opposed to the flannel-clad, grunge rock variety) by traveling around the country (not to mention Scotland) to sit at the feet of a wide range of offbeat golf teachers, gurus, spiritualists, and even a sensei. He was asking, essentially: Can inner peace lower your golf score? As a firm believer that the answer is "yes," I was immediately captivated by the topic.
     Karp chronicles his quest with a lively and self-effacing voice that is part Rick Reilly and part Dave Barry, with an anxiety-ridden dose of Woody Allen thrown in for good measure. While the Reilly/Barry component gives the book its life, the Woody-ness supplies the heart. It's Karp's openness and honesty about his anxiety and insecurities that ground the book, give it some real weight, and make it more than an entertaining lark (though entertaining it most certainly is).
     Along this metaphorical "Road to Utopia" (Bing Crosby plays a recurring role), Karp encounters a cast of compelling characters, who come alive through his vivid descriptions. Take Coach Stephen, a practitioner of the self-styled "Renegade Mindset Technique" (an offshoot of something called the "Emotional Freedom Technique"), with whom Karp trained in Columbus, Ohio:
[H]e's got that energy that the truly healthy – and particularly the truly healthy that don't have kids – possess. His training methods are infused with what he calls a "need for speed." His healthy lifestyle is not something he lords over you, but you get the sense that everything he consumes is organic and that each bit of food, albeit delicious, has a precise purpose that it quickly fulfills when it enters the bloodstream, where his body maximizes the nutrients then dumps out the waste in neat little packages.

I was a bit skeptical at the outset that some of these people were simply too far out there to take seriously. But I felt reassured when I realized that Karp himself shared much of my skepticism. He approached each leg of his journey with both an open mind and, in many ways, a thoroughly Western attitude. He didn't blindly accept the teaching of any one expert as the whole truth, but gleaned what he could from each and applied what worked for him. In the end, over the course of about a year-and-a-half, he lowered his handicap by nearly seven strokes, from 18 to just over 11. He also describes how he used those teachings to improve his outlook on life in general.
     By far my favorite chapter was the one entitled, "Have the Jews Not Suffered Enough?" Here, in the context of playing 18 holes with a rabbi, Karp opens up about his own Jewishness, his decidedly "unorthodox" spiritual upbringing ("... my parents conducted some kind of bizarre religious experiment by sending me, their first born, to a Conservative temple for Hebrew and Sunday school"), and his misgivings and doubts about traditional, Judeo-Christian religion. It's not that I identify with where he lands through all this, but I understand how he got where he is and appreciate and enjoyed his straightforward and honest discussion about religion.
     I also enjoyed his account of an awkward conversation he had with his father, whom he describes as "a pretty nontraditional, open-minded guy":
Standing in my living room I explained that perhaps one of the most direct paths to a better score is not to keep score. I told him that giving up results completely would free your mind and your potential – and by doing that, results would usually follow. I tried to explain it several different ways. Each time I was met with the same expression, which I'd never before seen on his face – as the wheels in his mind visibly turned, attempting to get his brain around the concept of not keeping score. As I spoke, his head shook involuntarily back and forth as if to say, "NO! NO! NO!!!! This goes against the laws of man!" Then he spoke.
     "But that's the whole point, isn't it? Shooting the lowest score. I mean what's the point otherwise?" he asked. Then added, gravely, "I'm going to need a bit of time with this one."
As someone who has a hard time not keeping a stroke-by-stroke tally running continuously in my head – even though I know it would help me not to – I can completely relate to his father's point of view. Laws of man, indeed.
     Yet this chapter also gives rise to my only substantial criticism: I wish Karp had given the Christian perspective a few more pages as part of this process. In fairness, he treats the "Jesus is my homeboy crowd" very respectfully, and later in the book acknowledges that he loves going to church with his wife: "I find Catholic services soothing on some level that I have never experienced in Judaism." And it also seems he has read his share of Christian-themed golf books. Yet he chose not to discuss them in-depth or spend time with any sort of pastor, priest, parson, or pope as part of this book.
     And that's fine. It's certainly his prerogative, and it's not the theme of this book. But it left me feeling as though the discussion was unfinished, as I know from personal experience how the peace that transcends all understanding can affect your golf game (even though it can be all too easy to lose touch with it in the face of a downhill 5-footer for bogey).
     We'll save that discussion, however, for another post.
     So while I can't personally recommend the Eastern spirituality approach to reaching golfing satori or finding lasting happiness, I'm happy to recommend Straight Down the Middle as an honest, wildly entertaining, and thought-provoking work.
     But Tiger, if you're reading this, give me a call before you bust out the blue curtain again, OK? I have a few thoughts of my own on finding inner peace.

Josh Karp teaches journalism at Northwestern University and has written for Salon, Premiere, Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine, TimeOut New York, and other publications. He is also the author of A Futile and Stupid Gesture: How Doug Kenney and National Lampoon Changed Comedy Forever. He currently lives in Glencoe, Illinois, with his wife, Susan, and their four energetic sons.

UPDATE: The above-mentioned "another post" can be read here.


  1. I've not made it too far through this, but I'm liking it so far. There's one paragraph that really strikes home - in Chapter 4, Big Sky Bhudda, page 71, where he poses this question: "What is the balance between caring and not caring? How do you care yet throw caution to the wind at the same time? Gain control by giving it up?" I have thought about this a LOT. I wish he'd tried to answer....I also chuckled when he said you need to be "more fluid" which is what my friend Rai used to tell me regarding my basketball skills in college. And in a twist of fate Rai is now learning the game of golf. Maybe this book would help him?!
    As for the religious aspect, I'm fine with the Eastern religious angle. I personally don't think religion and sports mix too well. But spirituality/meditation, which is what I think he's getting at, does apply to sports better.
    But, I'm still reading.

  2. Great blog! As my friend Rob mentioned. I am a beginner at Golf but not at meditation. I have been meditating for the last 15 years every morning; haven't missed one yet! However, recently my meditations have been consumed by re-counting my strokes and reviewing "what if" shots that got away from me on the golf course. I will definitely pick this book up as I am always looking for a new angle on how to figure this game out. Golf is a wonderfully frustrating journey and in my case I have commenced by journey of a thousand mulligans by taking that first one with you Rob:)

  3. Rai! Thanks for dropping by. I'm glad you like the blog and even more glad you've taken up golf. I've always figured that golf would be difficult to learn as an adult, so I'd love to get more of your perspective on that some time. (And of course shoot a round together!)

    RobT, I'm a little curious about how, in your comment, you seem to separate "religion" from "spirituality/meditation" – and why golf/sports doesn't mix well with the former but does with the latter. But again, I think I'd like to address this area further in a future post. It's a very rich area of discussion and can get well beyond golf.

    Thank you both for the comments. You've justified my blogging existence for another day. :)

  4. I forgot one other quote I liked - from another author, actually: Chris Prentiss, whose book "Zen and the Art of Happiness" Karp discusses in chapter 4. Prentiss says you should repeat the saying "this is the best thing that could be happening to me in this moment" over and over. Karp said it takes on a weird power. I've been trying it, and I'll report back. Nothing weird happening yet. Power or otherwise.

    As for the religion vs. spirituality discussion... I don't think sports and the supernatural mix too well. But I do think I can use Zen to play better golf, and I think golf can teach me to be a more centered, present person. But I'm waiting for your next post on the topic and we'll go from there.....

  5. Some interesting points. I too have always been a little skeptical about spirituality in sport - I really struggled with 'Golf in The Kingdom'. However, I've just read 'Golf Sense' by Roy Palmer and feel he's really nailed bringing a Zen approach to golf with a very well-written and practical book. A real insight, the best I can describe it is a sort of 'physical golf psychology' that brings the mental and physical together.

    David T