Paying attention in Palm Springs

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Nov. 30. 2006

Dear Patty,

The passengers on the flight to Palm Springs, Calif., included women of a certain age whose tanned hands and arms resembled fine leather. Their faces, though, looked as if layers of skin had been peeled away in hopes of projecting a babylike freshness. The effect was disquieting.

They do the same with golf courses in Palm Springs, scraping away the grass when it turns brown and then overseeding and watering the bare desert into a lush greenness in a matter of weeks. Hydrate is Palm Springs' buzzword.

Well-heeled retirees move to Palm Springs planning to ride their golf carts off into the sunset. Some of the major streets are named for celebrities who did just that: Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Dinah Shore, Monty Hall.

The Coachella Valley has 130 golf courses. I was there to attend a golf school taught by Fred Shoemaker, whose two golf instruction books are like no others on the shelves. Fred is a gifted teacher. Instead of telling you how to play golf, he asks questions meant to reveal how you prevent yourself from expressing your natural talent.

Fred asks you to think about your purpose for playing. Many golfers say they just want to get better. That's not a purpose. That's a goal. A purpose is what it is about playing golf that makes your life richer. For some people it's the camaraderie, for others the self-awareness. For me, the fascination is trying to master something. It's really about developing the focus and discipline necessary to master myself.

Fred seems to have a shamanic kinship with the mystical golf teacher in "Golf in the Kingdom," a book about a young American headed to India in a quest for enlightenment. On a layover in Scotland, the young man decides to play a round of golf and encounters Shivas Irons, the golf teacher who talks about an esoteric state he calls "true gravity," a kind of forgetting of the self, and through his instruction induces luminous experiences on the golf course.

Here's betting others attending the school had some of the latter in Palm Springs.

Fred believes that golfers who don't continue improving have at least one blind spot in their swing, a moment or point in the swing where awareness is lost. He helped me find some of mine.

But hardly anything Fred says applies only to the world of golf. Blind spots are the parts of our personalities we are unaware of that keep us from growing.

I told Fred I wanted to learn how to let go. He showed me some of the ways in which I was preventing myself from doing so. So many of us would do so much better if only we got out of our own way.

In his first book, Fred demonstrated that our bodies naturally know how to swing a golf club by inviting his students to throw a club down the driving range. The motion is very close to the swing that best hits a golf ball at a target.

Another of Fred's exercises has the golfer trying to make a putt stop between two tees pressed into the green only 2 inches away. It sounds easy but isn't. A 2-inch putt that can't go 2 1/2 inches requires a certain softness in the hands. Fred calls that softness "putting hands." They can be experienced with practice. Then the goal is to maintain that softness on a 30-foot putt.

Gentle hands can be useful in life outside of golf.

The week following the golf school, Fred was due back home in Carmel to begin teaching the actor David O'Hara how to swing a club like Shivas Irons. The movie version of "Golf in the Kingdom" is being filmed this fall.

From Fred I learned that the secret of golf might be the ability to pay complete attention for two seconds in a row, the amount of time a golf swing requires. Maybe the secret of life is paying attention, too.

Love, Sam

Sam Blackwell is managing editor of the Southeast Missourian.

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