A Theory of True Gravity
©Robert Harris PhD, 2019
The True Nature of Golf
When the subject of “golf” has come up in casual conversation with strangers, they usually ask, “so, are you a golfer?” as if I might come from some foreign kingdom called “Golfdom” (this is actually the name of a golf store in Tysons Corner, Virginia). I usually reply rhetorically, “You know, there is a difference between “being a golfer” and “playing golf.” I pause for a moment to read their response.
Are they also members of the mystical society of golf nuts? If “yes,” then, like me, they also reserve the label “golfer” only for those who have yielded to the magical mystery of golf to become a humble life-long student of the game, not just a “playa, playa.” I am a golfer and this article was written primarily for golfers, but also for non-golfers who want to know why otherwise sane people subject themselves to the pain and humility golf demands.
Mark Twain is famously described the game of golf as “a good walk spoilt.” Most golfers would agree that playing golf can be both the most exhilarating and depressing experiences imaginable, with exhilaration appearing infrequently. According to the National Golf Foundation, more than 50 million people endure the agony and ecstasy of playing golf worldwide (counted as playing at least once a year), with about half of them playing in the America. And let’s face it, since our demand as golfers to make excellent shots far exceeds our supply, why are so many people so strongly attracted to such a frustrating game? What is the mystical force behind this attraction and its stingy rewards?
Michael Murphy offered a possible answer in his best-selling novel of all golf books, Golf in the Kingdom, published in 1971 and still in print. In his semi-fictional story, he invented the term True Gravity to describe the force field that seems to guide us when we play golf effortlessly with extraordinary excellence. Isaac Newton’s physical cause-and-effect force of “gravity” describes this force field shaping the flight path of a well-struck golf ball, or any projectile. It was powerful enough to put man on the moon so it must be good enough to explain golf and describe precisely the dynamics of the golf swing and impact on the golf ball.
However, Newton’s laws are not the only theory of gravity, physical or non-physical. Three proven scientific theories each describe the force of physical gravity as summarized in an excellent recent New Yorker essay by Natalie Wolchover. All of the science and metrics of the golf swing and ball dynamics cannot seem to reveal Golf’s magical essence. Murphy hints at other aspects of the gravity force field that were not well understood or measurable when he wrote Golfing in the Kingdom in 1971 or now. In this essay I speculate on the nature of other hidden forces of gravity that define what Murphy calls True Gravity.
The state of quiet focused grace Murphy wrote about has also been reported in other sports and life activities with the phrase “being in the zone,” also referred to by psychologists as “being in the flow.” In his golf book, Murphy tried to explain True Gravity in terms of the mystical human potential that seems to exist for ordinary people to produce extraordinary performance in ordinary life activities. He used the main character of his book, Shivas Irons, a Scottish golf professional and philosopher, to communicate the meaning of True Gravity through events that unfolded during an actual magical round of extraordinary golf Murphy played in 1953 in Scotland that lasted into the wee hours of night. The experience changed Murphy’s life. It occupied his thoughts persistently until he was compelled to cleanse his mind by writing Golf in the Kingdom almost 20 years later. Murphy reported that the story poured out of him whole in one sitting.
In 1975, I personally had a magical round of golf at a Hilton Head Island golf course after having read Golf in the Kingdom on the flight to the resort. Murphy’s book had been given to me by a fellow golf buddy, Pat Bannister, for inspiration. I went directly to the Hilton Head course from the airport and took one practice swing and surprisingly made a perfect strike on the sweet spot of my 5-iron. It was not just that the ball flew straight and true to my aim, it resonated throughout my body as if every molecule was totally dedicated and perfectly coordinated to effortlessly execute that one practice shot. I was late for my tee time and dashed to hole #1.
I shook hands with the pleasant husband and wife team I was assigned to play with and, armed with my 14 handicap and confidence from my perfect 5 iron practice swing, I nailed my drive 280 yards down the middle of the fairway. The feeling I had on my one practice shot was still with me. I was in the zone, and tried not to think about it. The wife of the couple asked me if I was a pro and said no, just having a good day, as I tried to stay in my dream. I walked alone to my ball and, after they hit, pulled a pitching wedge for my second shot and landed on the green 20 feet from the hole, When my turn came to putt I putted my ball dead center like it had eyes for a birdy three. Shot after shot after shot I continued to play way over my head after that and tried not to spook myself back down to earth. I made shots I have never made in my life like hitting long par 5 holes with 3 or 4 irons on my second shots, and chipping close to all holes and even holing out twice from off the green! I was having an otherworldly golf day.
I arrived at the last hole one-under par with 71 for the round on a tough course. On this final hole, the wife spoke up once again and said to me, “Well, you certainly are playing like a professional golfer; you must be under par.” Embarrassed, I thanked them for the compliment and told them that I had played way over my head and had never even broken a score of 80. I nervously joked that I had probably been in the grip of true gravity. With curious reluctance, they asked me what “true gravity” was and I mumbled apologetically that it was some mystical nonsense I had just read about.
I left in a glow that stayed with me for months reflecting on this strange but happy experience. Later, in the winter of that year, those strange feelings bubbled out in the open and I surprised myself by calmly quitting my job as a VP/employee-owner of a rapidly growing high tech company at the age of 34 to go into business for myself. At that point I had everything I was supposed to want in a business career—good salary, stock options, important position, connections, bright future—but none of it felt right.
I felt conflicted because I had a great future in front of me if I wanted it, but as I looked around at scores of people in my company and the marketplace and did not see anybody in my current world in their 50s and up that I could remotely see myself wanting to become. There was nothing wrong with the people I around me, I just needed to explore the world of work and meaning before I could know who I was and wanted to become.
I would have two other similarly mystical rounds of golf: the first in 1986 at the Plantation Course in Williamsburg, Virginia; the second in 2000 at the Brighton Course in Maryland. Again, I would surprisingly find myself making major life-path-correcting decisions because of felt “mismatches” in my life path after each of these two mystical rounds of golf. Though change was painful at the time of each decision, in retrospect, it seemed like I was always being pulled on a zig-zag path back to an invisible path my life was supposed to take. I know this sounds crazy, even goofy, but I can’t explain it any other way.
In each circumstance it felt like these corrections were putting me back in what I would call my “life zone” of happiness, a place of quiet grace similar to the feeling I had when I was in my “golf zone” during those mystical rounds of golf in which each confident strike of the ball resonated in my soul with pure, effortless, focused energy, and joy.
After these mystical events, I joked half seriously with my loved ones and my golf buddies that golf was essential to my life and health. I told them that I needed to play golf frequently to stay “calibrated” on my life path, to be productive, to stay centered and happy, and to be a pleasant person worth being around. My golf buddies indulged me then and for years to come in this personal sentiment and chuckled, but my loved ones, not being golfers, just put up with me. (Except for Chrissie-a first-year college golf scholarship student and family friend at the time, now a professional golf architect in Scotland). She got it.
I felt I had stumbled onto the true nature of golf as I experienced it; in order to complete my understanding of golf (and, of course, to stay on my true path), I had to develop a better understanding of True Gravity. During Chrissie’s time off from school for the holidays, an unanticipated door would accidently open for me that would guide me further toward completion of this task. Besides being a former high school state champion golfer, Chrissie was now completing a graduate degree in golf course landscaping design at St. Andrews University in Scotland and planning her wedding to a Scotsman.
During a holiday family get-together a later that year, I asked Chrissy how her studies were going and she said, “good, but all of us struggle with required reading of this really hard book on architecture by a guy named Christopher Alexander.” “A golf course designer,” I asked? “No! It’s very philosophical having to do with Patterns of design in nature and life—kind of the reality of everything.
It was the first of many books Alexander had written, starting in 1964, titled: Notes on The Synthesis of Design. Christopher Alexander’s ideas have been applied to everything from golf to computers to life itself, all having to do with “change and goodness of fit” physically, mentally and spiritually.
In 2012 while I was rehabbing from having both knees replaced I recalled this conversation with Chrissy and ordered a $6 used copy of this little paperback book and read it. It inspired me and opened the memory floodgates of my mystical golf experiences and a draft of this essay poured out. I later added the following ten principles of True Gravity, as I experienced them, that captured the lessons I learned from golf and try to experience in life.
Ten Principles of True Gravity (TG)
The following list is my Ten Principles of #TrueGravity (TG) that came to life in a golf game long ago and keep showing up in life.
TG was created at The Beginning with energy, space and time.
TG is the most powerful force in the universe.
TG exists everywhere but is most accessible in golf.
TG energy is composed of three intertwined force waves: physical, mental, spiritual; or as dramatist Mike Nichols says, “There are only three scenes in a play [in life?]: FIGHTING (physical?), SEDUCTION (mental?), and NEGOTIATION (spiritual?)
TG force waves manifest themselves in the competition between two interaction modes (inner vs outer) moderated by a third “neutral tuner” for NEGOTIATING (spiritual balance?) between REPULSION (fighting?) and ATTRACTION (seduction?).
Life has a reflective TG mode that can show our actual unique self to ourselves at each moment.
Life has a formative TG mode that guides us toward building our unique perfect self at each moment.
The purpose of TG is to give us constant feedback to help us align our actual self with our perfect self.
Perfection is not reachable but can be approached to within limits imposed by the quantum uncertainty principle.
Our progress toward these goals is exhibited in golf by the percentage of time we are in the zone of pure grace on the golf course, not by the number of times we hit the ball according to the only immutable rule of Golf: Count each shot ‘till the ball is in each of 18 holes.
In the words of Leo Tolstoy: Freethinkers are those who are willing to use their minds without prejudice and without fearing to understand things that clash with their own customs, privileges, or beliefs. This state of mind is not common, but it is essential for right thinking; where it is absent, discussion is apt to become worse than useless.
 Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, PhD