Quid Est? (What is it?)
A series focused on the varied definitions of golf.
Rationale: Every week, I’m hoping to put up a new, brief post in a series titled Quid Est, meaning: What is it? A question meant to direct us toward the essence of the game of golf, or some aspect of it. Some definitions are likely better than others, some more accurate or rich than others. Here we can sift through them, gauging their relative perceptiveness or lack thereof.
No. 1: Golf as a spiritual, no, physical game
People say to me that golf is a spiritual game. I don’t believe I understand how that word applies to golf. According to my dictionary, the first meaning of spiritual is “Of the spirit or the soul as distinguished from the body.”
It is true that golf is a game in which you seem to get in touch with higher parts of yourself. We can say golf is spiritual in that respect. But we can’t leave the body out of the golf swing, can we?
—Harvey Penick, And If You Play Golf, You’re My Friend, 45
Penick’s meditation here on the nature of the game is short, but rich. Is golf a spiritual game? Many would say, yes, of course it is. But Penick does us a service by clarifying to a degree the meaning of this designation. Certainly, it can’t mean, as he insinuates, something unrelated to the body. Golf is clearly an embodied activity. It is suffused with the reality and implications of our embodiment. From our personal activity, our swing, our being with others, to the very environs of the golf course we might inhabit for a stretch of time and how this affects us, the whole thing is an incarnated reality. It has to do with the flesh.
And yet—and this is what I think Penick is trying to get at—the game, as he says, helps you “get in touch with the higher parts of yourself.” It seems that these “higher parts” are that which people are referring to when they call golf a spiritual game. What can we call these “higher parts”? The intellect, the soul, the heart, one’s character? Probably all of these things, depending on our meaning and understanding of them. Those things that can be enriched, elevated, actualized, or, conversely, impoverished, deadened, and corrupted. That of us that is of ultimate weight.
Just how the game enables us to attend to these realities should be the topic for another post. It’s a big question. But, really, the question of how golf might be, and is, a spiritual yet embodied game is a question that ultimately regards the nature of the human person. And it’s an age-old consideration at that. Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Nietzsche, Merleau-Ponty, even Penick, to name only a few, have grappled with the tension—or harmony?—within us as embodied persons that seem also to have something about us that goes “beyond” the body, though something that is intimately, perhaps essentially, united to that body.