Years ago, before children, lazy Sunday afternoons were my norm. The drive out to the country where my in-laws lived was a tranquilizing transition from the busy-ness of the city to the delicious lunch and recliner I knew were waiting for me. Often, we’d arrive to find my father-in-law watching a sporting event on television; his favorite was golf. On those particular Sundays, listening to and watching a golf game contributed nicely to the entire soporific experience. Nothing could put me to sleep faster than a full belly and the narrative lull of a golf game!
I’ve always wondered what golf’s attraction was: standing outdoors for hours, trying to get a little ball in a little hole? “A long walk, wasted” is how one person put it. Why would anyone subject themself to that? Some dear friends are avid golfers and inspired their eldest son to pursue the game. His junior and senior high school years were punctuated with try outs and tournaments. A few months ago I conveyed to them my puzzlement about their, or anyone’s, attraction to golf. Aghast, they attempted to extol the virtues and values of the game but I remained unmoved. They told me that there was a golf movie I would have to watch with them which would convert me. They often suggested this movie night however, I successfully managed to stave off such a night.
A few weeks ago, I was perusing through the DVDs on offer at a local book store and came upon the movie that my friends had mentioned: The Legend of Bagger Vance. I decided to purchase and watch the movie on my own so that I could scan through it and then tell my friends that I’d seen it so we could forego plans for an ENTIRE NIGHT of watching A GOLF MOVIE! The content and length of this “Message” reveals that I did not fast-forward through it.
The Legend of Bagger Vance is based on a novel of the same name by Steven Pressfield (1995). Directed by Robert Redford, it was made into a movie in 2000. It is a story about how Rannulph Junuh, a fictional Southern golfer, got his swing back. According to the Director and Screenwriter, golf is a metaphor for life: the rhythm of the game mirrors the rhythm of life.
The movie is told in flashback. Rannulph Junuh was the local hero of his home town of Savannah, Georgia. At an early age Junah displayed a remarkable talent for the sport of golf and won a national amateur championship when he was only sixteen. Experts who saw him play predicted he would one day become one of America’s most successful professional golfers. Junah was in his finest form when the United States entered World War I. He enlisted in the army along with his classmates and was shipped off to Europe to fight in the trenches of France. At the end of the war Junah was the only member of his company, the only one of his classmates, who returned home alive. Psychologically devastated by the violence he had witnessed, the friends he had lost, and disillusioned with the posh life he had known before the war, Junah returns home to Depression-era Savannah to forget and be forgotten. It is apparent that he has lost his swing; he has lost his grip on his whole life, not merely his golf grip.
Out of the dusk and gloom Bagger Vance appears one evening. Out walking, he tells Junah that he is simply “taking in one of God’s glories.” Junah mentions to this stranger that he has been persuaded to participate in a local tournament in which he will compete with two of the world’s best golfers. Bagger offers to be his caddie for a minimum price. His mission, we realize, is to recover balance and integrity to Junah’s game and ultimately, to his life. With Bagger as his caddie, Junah gets to work preparing for the tournament.
Junah brings his cynicism, guilt and anger to the field. But Bagger Vance tells him, “Ain’t a soul on this entire earth that ain’t got a burden to carry that he don’t understand. But you’ve been carrying this one long enough. Time to go on, lay it down.” According to the author and filmmaker, there is a “place” where everything is spiritually whole—your grip on life as well as your grip on the club; the place where you can “find your swing.” Bagger shows Junah that his real opponent is not the other golfers or anyone else for that matter, but is his own mind, outlook and attitude. Junah must let go of his guilt, anger, feelings of inferiority and hopelessness. He must clear out the debris that is clogging up his inner wellspring. “Concentrate on the field,” Bagger tells him, concentrate on the bigger picture, on life and the things and people that are really important.
Bagger is a humble man who quietly waits for Junah to become receptive and ask for assistance, then helps him get back on track without a word of rebuke. Bagger teaches Junah that in him (and in each of us) there is a soul infused with the Spirit of the One who is the source of all life and gives life ultimate meaning. With, in and through God we can be our most authentic self and find hope which transcends suffering and all that we permit to weigh us down. Bagger Vance ostensibly gives Junah advice about how to play better golf but is actually leading him to live a better, more spirit-centered, life. “I can’t take you there” Bagger says, “but I can show you the way.”
In the novel Junah implores Bagger, “Please don’t abandon me. Do you think I want to feel these awful emotions, that I take pleasure in the desperate conclusions my heart leads me to? I’m lost, Bagger, help me, tell me what I must do.” At this point, Junah is like the sinner who knows that he needs salvation but doesn’t know how to find or accept it. Bagger reassures Junah: “I stand by your side always. I will never abandon you.” In this story, redemption, salvation and enlightenment for the characters elevate the sport of golf to a higher spiritual plane. It’s through golf that Junah finds his “authentic swing,” a metaphor for finding God, His Spirit within and the self-respect and integrity that flow from this awareness.
Is the The Legend of Bagger Vance a great movie about golf? You golfers out there are the better judge than I. However, with its gentle urging to cultivate a deeper spiritual awareness, the story will most likely resonate with many. Give a person a stick and a ball when he is angry and he will hit it differently than a person who is content. For most of us there are things that need “letting go.” To recognize those things that weigh us down or distract us from being who we are and whose we are, necessitates spiritual discipline which involves a consciously chosen path. We must remember, the path itself does not produce the change; it only places us where change can occur. When we fan the spark to flame, and then stoke its fire with spiritual practices, it will gradually transform us into beacons of light for others as they “play” on the course of life.