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Letter From America: In the Swing of Things

/ Source: Newsweek

Fred shoemaker, my golf coach for the next three days, hands me a five-iron and turns on his camcorder.

"Whenever you're ready," he says, "hit a ball."

It would be easier for me to hit the ball with his camcorder. That's the kind of golfer I am, which is why I've come to his golf school in Carmel Valley, California. I have come because when it comes to golf, I am, to use the technical term, a spazz.

But I grip the club and swing. And during the entire second-and-a-half-long action, I'm thinking, Relax your body, be natural, remember where the club head is, fix your grip, rotate your hips, keep your head down, where's the club head again? Left arm straight, don't rush, focus on the ball, where's the club head? Remember to shift your weight, follow through, here comes the release and where's the damn club head?

The ball skitters off to the left and crashes into the bushes.

"Great!" Fred says. "How did that feel?"

"Ummmm, well, I guess I kind of topped it," I say.

"I meant how did it feel to you, to your body, when you took that swing?"

I think for a moment. "It felt like a shameful and emotionally painful event."

"Great!" Fred says, and he hands me a rusty old club. "Now give this one a swing, but let it go."

"Let it go?"

"Yeah. Just throw it as far and as straight as you can. Don't hit a ball. Just throw the club."

He clicks on his camcorder again. I swing the club and let it go. It whooshes away and lands with a thump.

"Great!" Fred says.

After lunch, we watch the videos. There are about 10 of us doing the workshop: low handicappers, high handicappers and me, for whom the entire concept of the handicap is irrelevant until I learn how to hit a golf ball farther than I can kick it. Fred and his fellow coaches call their school "Extraordinary Golf" and have tasked themselves with changing the culture of golf from one of "tips, techniques, formulas and answers," as they put it in their mission statement, to one of "exploration, discovery and freedom."

Whatever. It's all very California. I just want to stop being humiliated by a tiny white ball.

Fred and his team do a great job creating a friendly and supportive atmosphere, but watching myself hit a golf ball on video makes me want to grind myself to dust in my chair. It's all wrong--everything.

Then Fred clicks on the video of me just throwing the club. I swing the club and it's... beautiful. That swing could be in a magazine. I'm watching myself do something that I simply cannot do, but there I am, doing it.

Fred, Garry and Ed smile. They see this reaction a lot.

"So, I mean, ummmm, why can't I do that?" I sputter.

"You can," Fred says. "You did."

"But why can't I swing like that when there's a ball there?"

Fred shrugs. "Maybe that's something for us to explore."

I spend the next two days trying to swing freely, without the chatter in my head. Just "be present," Fred tells me, and I give it my best shot. Later I start wondering about all the other things in my life that may also be governed by fear and anxiety. Can I swing more freely and take more risks in, say, business? Or relationships?

Whatever. It's all very California. But the next day I step up to the ball with a smile and swing with freedom and joy.

"How did that feel?" Fred asks.

"Great!" I say. And it did, too.