Golf’s Soul – Machine or Human?
Golf's Holy War

Golf’s Soul – Machine or Human?

Veteran sportswriter Brett Cyrgalis offers an overview of technological changes sweeping through golf and harkens to golf’s golden moments.

Veteran sportswriter Brett Cyrgalis covers hockey and golf for the New York Post. His journey through golf’s evolution from the mysterious and mystical to the mechanistic, with data and technology driving the cart, will evoke strong feelings among those who love the game and will intrigue readers from any field that is being altered by new technologies. 

Cyrgalis astutely cautions against emphasizing art over science, or vice versa, because technology and analytics prove essential to golf’s pro game. Cyrgalis describes that evergreen, if hoary concept – golf’s soul – by invoking the spirit of Ben Hogan and recounting the games’ magical moments – which he regards as resonant even in the era of big data.

Best-selling author James Patterson says of Cyrgalis’s insights, “…a highly entertaining, very smart book about a maddening, very stupid game.” Les Shupak, author of The Met Golfer, wrote, “The author…incorporates quotes and references from… Albert Einstein, William James, Babe Ruth and Sigmund Freud. Golf’s Holy War is truly unlike any golf book you have read.”

Will

Cyrgalis says you can study a pro golfer’s swing, break it down, watch it in slow motion and practice it, but you will never duplicate it.

No player has ever made two exactly identical golf swings, nor should anyone want to.Brett Cyrgalis

You don’t know what your body is doing – and, he laments as all athletes lament, nobody can will his or her body to do what they want.

Technique and Mystique

Cyrgalis makes it clear that the battle between art and science is raging in golf. The intangible side of the game – with its long history and rich stories – exerts a strong pull. It seems to him that the more golfers, coaches and equipment manufacturers strive for perfection by taking a mechanistic, data-driven, analytical and technical approach, the more palpable the emotionalfeeling side of golf becomes.

This has led to two schools of thought. Cyrgalis cites The Golfing Machine (1969) as a technical manual. Its author, Homer Kelley, believed that physics and geometry explain golf. Cyrgalis notes this appeals to golf instructors seeking tangible techniques they can repeat and teach. 

In contrast, Cyrgalis explores the philosophy of Michael Murphy’s Golf in the Kingdomwhich treats golf as a metaphor for life and expounds upon its mystical elements. Golf, the author explains, led Murphy to launch his renowned spiritual retreat – the Esalen Institute.

Cyrgalis relates to the epiphany Murphy experienced watching a Tiger Woods shot. According to the author, Murphy found mysticism and the miraculous in that moment. In the 1980s, Murphy co-developed a workshop at Esalen that emphasized the “inner game of golf.” 

And, Cyrgalis tells, at about the same time, Dr. Bob Rotella built a practice in the nascent field of sports psychology. Rotella encouraged Tom Kite to visualize winning the upcoming 1982 US Open. Kite beat Jack Nicklaus, and Rotella’s career took off. Cyrgalis describes the core of Rotella’s advice as: Focus on the positive and visualize success.

Art and Science

At the nadir of his career, Cyrgalis relates, Tiger Woods leaned on Buddhism, his mother’s religion. On the course, Cyrgalis points out, Woods embraced science. He shifted from his feel-oriented coach, Butch Harmon, and toward those who relied on video analysis, data and measurement.

Bridging the gap between the subjective and the objective creates a balance. In golf, this neutral ground is a place from which excellence can be born.Brett Cyrgalis

In 2010, Woods, Cyrgalis recounts, hired coach Sean Foley, a devotee of the TrackMan, a $25,000 machine which measures a golfer’s mechanics by tracking the ball’s flight. Cyrgalis argues that TrackMan – developed by a firm that tracks missile trajectories for the US military – changed golf orthodoxy. It proved that a ball’s initial flight direction depends not on the golfer’s swing but on the path of the club at impact. The author notes that today’s TrackMan combines 3D video and analytics to give coaches and players greater insight.

Technology aside, Cyrgalis asserts, people learn best not from telling, but from doing. He encourages golfers to play more than they practice, and he holds that too much instruction or data analysis can squelch instinctive feel and creativity. 

Obsession

Cyrgalis vests in golf arcana, mythology and canonical stories. However, unlike author Michael Lewis in Moneyball, Cyrgalis doesn’t offer sufficient emotional or wider-world parallels for those who lack a fan’s or participant’s obsession with golf and its discontents. That is, unlike Lewis’s use of baseball as a metaphor for the technical and analytical disruption of nearly every industry, Cyrgalis offers technology as a framing and contrasting device for poetic golf moments.

Birds fly, fish swim, people feel. That’s all we do.Brett Cyrgalis

Needless to say, those who play or obsess over golf will eat up every page. Cyrgalis’s language doesn’t always measure up to his more metaphysical ideas, but his passion for the game and its history more than make for any writerly shortcomings, especially if you love golf. Cyrgalis seems unlikely to convert outsiders, except perhaps those studying the impact of tech disruption in professional sports. Those seeking other solid golf books are likely also to enjoy the thoughtfulness of Seven Days in Augusta by Mark Cannizzaro and the insights of Michael Bamberger’s The Second Life of Tiger Woods.

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