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In the Depression year of 1931, on the golf links at Krewe Island off Savannah's windswept shore, two legends of the game, Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen, meet for a mesmerizing thirty-six-hole showdown. Another golfer will also compete—a troubled local war hero, once a champion, who comes with his mentor and caddie, the mysterious Bagger Vance. Sage and charismatic, it is Vance who will ultimately guide the match—for he holds the secret of the Authentic Swing. And he alone can show his protégé the way back to ...
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In the Depression year of 1931, on the golf links at Krewe Island off Savannah's windswept shore, two legends of the game, Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen, meet for a mesmerizing thirty-six-hole showdown. Another golfer will also compete—a troubled local war hero, once a champion, who comes with his mentor and caddie, the mysterious Bagger Vance. Sage and charismatic, it is Vance who will ultimately guide the match—for he holds the secret of the Authentic Swing. And he alone can show his protégé the way back to glory.
The big scoreboard by the tourney tents was visible when he reached the height of the tee. Hagen 35, Jones 36, Junah 41. The nine behind felt like a war zone; it seemed impossible that the competitors still had a siege of 27 more holes to play.
Jones lashed a monster down the right side, a screaming yardage-devouring hook that arced out and back over the rough, hit the fairway steaming and bounded forward with overspin to slow finally, curling safely around the flank of a bunker I'd paced off the night before at 285.
Junah barely noticed, so tightly was he held by Bagger Vance's eyes. "What can I do, Bagger? Tell me."
Hagen was stepping to tee his ball; Vance kept his voice low. "I require only one thing of you, Junah. That you swing your True Swing. Your Authentic Swing."
"What the hell do you think I want?" Junah hissed. "How do I do it?"
He paused for Hagen's address. Sir Walter ripped one, a high dead-straight boomer that was all carry, splitting the middle and landing just a few yards behind Jones', settling onto a clean flat lie, 190 from the 464-yard green. The applause echoed; then the gallery turned to Junah, who still stood over his bag, his face inches from his caddie's.
The caddie held out the champion's driver.
"Remember, the game is simple. The ball doesn't move. It simply sits and waits. Now strike it, Junah. Hold nothing back. Hit it with everything you have."
Vance set Schenectady Slim in Junah's hands. You could see the champion's head was whirling, his brain beyond overload. The gallery sensed an apocalypse. Hagen and Jones did too. I was in terror that Junah might faint, collapse, actually fall down, so dizzy and disorientated did he seem. I shut my eyes, too terrified to watch as Junah teed his ball and stepped to it. I squinted to see him look back at Vance, one last time. Then he set himself, glanced once down the fairway...
Junah's clubhead started back. Before it reached the top, the gallery knew. Judge Anderson knew, my father knew, everyone who had ever seen and marveled at Junah's swing when it was on ...they all knew. He was on plane. On track. On rails. The big persimmon hit the slot at the top exactly, you could see Junah's wrists cock fully into their ultimate power position, his knees and hips had already started rotating forward into the shot as the clubhead reached its zenith, high and geometric, left arm at full extension, and then, not with a slash or a blast but almost in slow motion the club powered through the hitting zone. The sound was like a bomb. The gallery gasped as the ball exploded off the clubface, low and hissing fire, and boomed down the narrow alley between the massed formations. Heads snapped, trying to follow its speed. There was a quick intake of breath, then a joyous release of tension, applause and a rush of awe and appreciation. I looked at Jones and saw a small curl of pleasure in his lip; he appreciated it too. Hagen was already striding off the tee, head down, ignoring the shot, which meant of course he had seen it and took it seriously. I peered toward the far right bunker, the one Jones' ball had rolled to, whose carry paced off at 285. Junah's drive cleared it on the fly, took one long hard hop, then settled into a low ground-hugging roll, coming to rest 30 yards farther on, 315 from the tee, with Tawdry Jones the forecaddie sprinting in its wake to jubilantly plant his bright white flag. Three-fifteen cold. Thirty yards past Jones, nearly 40 beyond Hagen.
Junah himself could barely believe it. Not so much the prodigiousness of the blow, as he had hit many as well and better, but that somehow it had appeared at this time, when his swing had seemed utterly incapable of producing it. He turned to Bagger Vance, as if expecting a winking smile or a thumbs-up. But the caddie was already striding for the fairway, instructing me to give Junah another of my iced apples and make sure he ate it. "You are your swing, Junah," he muttered to the champion as he passed. "We will find that swing today and, having found it, nothing will ever take it from you again."
From The Legend of Bagger Vance
Copyright © 1995 by Steven Pressfield
In keeping with the informal nature of the Bagger website we thought, instead of an "interview with the author," we'd have a conversation between friends. In this case (since their psyches seem to work along similiar lines) Printer Bowler (PB), author of the upcoming Cosmic Laws of Golf (and everything else), will give the literary third-degree to his old-time compadre, Steve Pressfield (SP). Take it away, PB!
PB: Today it's more commonly understood that Bagger's role with Junah is inspired by the Bhagavad Gita where Krishna, Hindu Lord of the Universe, counsels his troubled disciple, Arjuna. Do you remember how and when it came to you, this idea to translate the Gita into a golf story?
SP: I don't remember when I first read the Gita, but it seized me at once. I used to take it with me on airplanes and read it through, since it's not long, as I was white-knuckling through turbulence. As for how it happened I can't recall, but I know it lived with me for quite a while to use the structure of the Gita—i.e., a warrior on the brink of battle who suddenly draws up and for reasons which seem entirely good and honorable refuses to fight, only to be upbraided by his wiser mentor/charioteer/caddie and instructed in the deeper usages of conflict, action, competition, not to say life and death - in a contemporary golf setting. In other words, to do the interior game of golf as war, and to treat the golfer's battle with his own internal opponents of fear, anger, etc. I "kinda ruminated on that for a spell," as you might say in Montana.
PB: Did you create Bagger, or did he create you so you could write about him?
SP: Well, I certainly didn't create Bagger. He just kind of came along on his own. Of course his original incarnation, as you know, was Bhagavan (Lord) Krishna, hence "Bagger Vance." The idea of the mysterious guide and avatar who functions as the servant arose from that and thereby: Bagger.
PB: How would you describe Bagger's relationship with Shivas Irons of Michael Murphy's Golf in the Kingdom—would they be brothers? Fellow Starship Troopers? One and the same?
SP: Shivas Irons is one of the great creations of fiction, to my mind, and I don't mean just golf fiction. In a way they are brothers, Bagger and Shivas (if Michael Murphy will forgive me), in that both are lovers of the game and both have plunged into its mysteries, employing it as a metaphor for greater things. I loved Golf in the Kingdom from the first time I read it, at least twenty-five years ago. I've probably read it seven or eight times since. Every copy I buy I wind up giving away to people, telling them you gotta read this, and then I have to go out and buy another. I'm a huge fan of Michael Murphy. He invented the genre that Bagger Vance followed up on. If Bagger can find a place on the same shelf with Shivas, I'll be happy.
PB: Just out of curiosity, what prompted you to portray Bagger as a black man, rather than some other racial origin?
SP: History seems to tell us that anytime an avatar or great master appears on earth, whether he be Jesus or Gandhi or whoever, he doesn't come as a prince or king, trailing retinues of warriors or wealth. He comes in great humility, as a teacher or a servant. And always he is despised by the dominant powers, as Jesus by the Romans and even the priests of his own people, and Gandhi by the British and the Indian elite.
So with the setting of our story being the South of 1931, Bagger had to be black. He had to appear humble in his demeanor and in his task, namely for the period of the story, serving as a caddie. And the local mucky-mucks had to treat him, at least at first, with contempt. Of course, that changed dramatically as they began to see, beyond his color, that Bagger was far more than he at first appeared to be.
PB: What do you think people are drawn to when they make a literary or cinematic connection with the likes of Bagger?
SP: One of the great unexpected perks that came from writing "Bagger" was that I got invited, by a lady named Jane Howington and her husband, Jerry, to visit them in Augusta, GA and to play, through their friend Dessey Kuhlke, a round at "the National." They had a sort of party for the book at their house, with fifty or sixty people, all of whom had been instructed, on pain of incurring Jane's displeasure, to read the book. And people did respond, as your question poses, to the character of Bagger as someone one wished he or she knew, or could play golf with, and so forth. What was fascinating to me was that Augusta, which is the real South, is serious Christian country. Folks related to Bagger as a Christ figure, which I think makes absolute sense.
I think we all at some level respond to the idea of a personal mentor, call him God, Guru, Messiah, Savior. It's like putting a human face on the great mystery. We want a buddy we can turn to, who knows more than we do, who can instruct us and guide us when we've lost our way. In my view, of course, we do have that exact entity inside us all the time, whatever we choose to call him. I think readers, at least those who like the book, respond to Bagger that way.
PB: That's awesome to play Augusta National, every golfer's dream. What was it like playing where so many champions have carved their divots?
SP: Technically this has nothing to do with a conversation about a book, but just because a trip to "the National" is such a fantasy and so rare ... might as well, huh? I will say this: You know how so many things in life don't live up to their advertisements? Well, Augusta National does. As soon as you turn off that hellhole street, Washington Avenue, and turn down Magnolia Lane, your heart does a little flip-flop. Whoa, you say, this is it. This is the place.
Our host was Dessey Kuhlke, a gentleman like they don't make anymore, with Jerry Howington and Marshall Brown rounding out the foursome. It was December. Overnight temp was in the 20s. Grass everywhere else was brown and dormant, but at Augusta National it had been overseeded with rye so the place was green. It looked exactly like you thought it would look, except no azaleas. It was in the 40s on the first tee, but it warmed up. We had caddies, in their white overalls just like the Masters, but we didn't play from the tournament tees. We played off the members'. Here was the biggest thrill:
We were coming down the eleventh fairway. I've got my ball in view and I'm looking ahead at the green trying to figure out what to do, when my eye slides to the right of the green, where I see beyond a creek another green. I look at it blankly for a beat and then it hits me: that's the twelfth green. Where Freddy Couples' ball hung up on the bank the year he won, where Greg Norman's ball went in the water against Nick Faldo, etc. It just hit me all at once that this was it, we were really here. I got a little lightheaded.
The thing you don't appreciate, seeing the Masters on TV, is how related the holes all are to each other. On television each one looks separate. There at Amen Corner you could see the eleventh with its pond, then Rae's Creek gliding to the right, the twelfth green, then Rae's continuing and behind it the thirteenth tee, with Rae's again winding back to the right along the length of the thirteenth.
What makes Augusta so special as an experience is that you know all the holes and the history. So each one appears as a revelation. Ah, so that's what it looks like! It's the kind of experience that you wish every golfer, just once in their life, could have. We've suffered enough. We deserve it!
PB: Did you have your "A" game going at Augusta?
SP: I'll just mention a couple shots from the round that'll give you an idea what game I was playing. Off eighteen I cold topped one, squirting ignominiously across that long long tee to wind up at the absolute bottom of the hill, about a thousand feet below the green. Disgrace! I don't think our caddies had ever handed anyone a club on that part of the golf course. But on fifteen, the par five, I hit a good enough drive to have a two-iron left to reach the elevated green. With a long iron in my hand the ball can go anywhere and because of the pond in front of the green I was thinking of laying up. But how can you do that? How many times in your life do you get a look at the 15th green at Augusta. I'm proud to say I hit it and didn't even choke on the green, got down in two for the bird.
PB: How were you introduced to the game? What do your golfing roots look like?
SP: I learned as a caddie, at the Whippoorwill Club in Armonk, New York. It was exactly like the movie Caddyshack. My buddy the Hawk's older brother, the original Hawk, was the coolest guy in town, drove a Corvette, went steady with the hottest babe; he brought us all up to be loopers [caddies]. Robert Redford, it turns out, came to the game much the same way. He told me when he was growing up in Santa Monica he and his buddies used to sneak through the fence of a local golf course; they couldn't afford bags so they tied their clubs across the handlebars of their bikes. He remembered that so vividly, he said, that he had it written into the "Bagger Vance" movie. I haven't seen it yet, but apparently the character of young Hardy does exactly that with his bicycle.
I won't bore you with too many loopers' tales, mine are exactly like everyone else's (apart from yours from Montana, which involve chasing grizzlies out of huckleberry patches) except that we used to play 54 holes every Monday, Caddies' Day, and one time played 72. Speed of play was enforced very simply: the big kids merely went straight through the little ones. If you were eleven and had just teed off on a hole, the big kids would load up and fire away right past your ears. That taught you to move.
The best loop at the club was the pro, Harry Montevideo, and the chairman of the Greens Committee, Dr. Virtuoso (I'm not making this up) who would zip through 18 holes in 2 hours and 15 minutes. They knew the course and their own games so well that before their drives had landed, they had already taken the club they wanted for their second shot. All you had to do was hump straight down the fairway. A two-hour round was accomplished with no huffing and puffing, just simple dispatch. And they tipped good, too. The sweetest words you could hear from Frank the caddiemaster were, "Legs, take Harry and Doc."
There were some excellent players in our neck of the woods; one of the best was a great guy named Billy Torpie, who was killed in Vietnam. I dedicated Bagger Vance to him.
I just had dinner the other night with another old looping mate, Tom Sandler, who is now president of Samsonite. He worked in the shop. He was telling me how Frank the caddiemaster used to turn down the water pressure in the drinking fountain, making it just a dribble, so that the loopers would buy more Cokes from the machine. Each day he brought up thirty ham and cheese sandwiches to sell. On a good sales day, when he got down to the last six or seven, he'd send Tom out for more bread. They'd take the extra slices of ham and cheese out of the old sandwiches and make new ones. If a member died, the instant Frank saw the obit, he zoomed to the decedent's golf bag in its rack in the shop, lightening it of any excess gloves, tees and Titleists. "What the hell, the guy won't need 'em no more!"
So that's how, like Bill Murray and every other ex-looper, I acquired my caddie swing and my taste for speed.
PB: How's your caddie swing working these days?
SP: Let's just say I'm relieved that I don't have to earn my living playing golf. We've talked about this, you and I. It's a lot of pressure playing golf when you've written a book on the subject. Your buddies, Printer, are already razzing you and Cosmic Laws of Golf hasn't even come out yet. As you say, they watch that snipe hook sailing into the trees. "Hey, Printer, what law was that?" Same with me. The worst was playing in Hawaii with two pros, a game set up by a dear friend. I'm lobbing Titleists into the Pacific and wanting to shrivel down and hide under a wooden tee.
PB: Do you ever ring up Bagger for a little assistance when you're having a rough day on the course, or any other time?
SP: Not specifically. But I'll tell you what I did do last summer, mentally. I rented a cottage on a farm in Scotland for a month, in October. Did my work in the AM, then hit the links PM, mostly at the great local courses that cost 15 pounds and you can walk right on. It was the first time in my life that I could play golf day after day for a fairly extended period. What I wound up doing, pretty quickly, was dropping all goals related to scoring or ball-striking and playing with only one object: to not yield to anger, fear or impatience. Just to stay cool, don't hurry, all those things that we all try to do. Man, it was hard! I couldn't do it, even for one hole. But it was great fun to try.
Q & A - on books and writing . . .
PB: Any interest in movie rights to your recent bestseller, Gates of Fire? [Published in 1998, this historical novel, set in ancient Greece, is about the 300 Spartans who held the pass at Thermopylae against the invading Persian army of 2,000,000 men (according to Herodotus). The Spartans died to the last man, helping to preserve the fledgling ideal of democracy in Western civilization.]
SP: Gates of Fire has been optioned by Universal Studios, with George Clooney and Robert Lawrence's company, Maysville Pictures, as producers. Dave Self, a terrific young writer, was the key participant from the start; his interest in the book made the original deal happen.
Recently Michael Mann, the director (The Insider, Last of the Mohicans, Heat), has signed on. He'll work with Dave on a script. Then it's up to mysterious forces if it will go forward. I see from the Hollywood papers that Michael Mann's next project will be Ali, about Muhammad Ali, starring Will Smith. So if Gates moves forward under his banner, it'll be a while before it happens.
PB: Tell us about your latest historical novel. SP: Yes, Tides of War, another story whose subject seems excruciatingly obscure from our dunderheaded American-educated perspective but in fact is fascinating as hell. About the 27-year war between Athens and Sparta that ended with the defeat of Athens and, indirectly, the execution of Socrates. In other words, it's about the fall of a great democracy; how Athens self-destructed along lines not too dissimilar from what's going on right now in that other illustrious democracy, the US of A.
PB: Who are the key players in this story?
SP: Good question, PB. The principal actor in the story-the real historical tale, I mean-is Alcibiades, whom few contemporary Americans have heard of, but who was an absolutely mesmerizing individual, something like JFK in the sense of being wildly charismatic, with General Patton or MacArthur thrown in, as he was never defeated in battle, and a dash of Elvis, as he was also the greatest heartthrob of his day. He led Athens, was convicted of trumped-up treason, defected to Sparta, turned the tide of war back to their favor, then returned to Athens, turned the tide again, was exiled again and, as chance would have it, was present on the eve of the great naval catastrophe (the battle of Aegospotami) that sealed Athens' defeat, in time to approach the Athenian generals, offer his help, advise them on mistakes they were making, only to be told "You command here no longer, Alcibiades," and be banished yet again.
PB: Just for some perspective, who recorded these same events in the histories or literature of that era?
SP: The primary historical source for this, as for anything related to the Peloponnesian War, is the great historian Thucydides, though Xenophon, Diodorus and Plato chip in quite a few goodies. I know it sounds obscure but, trust me, it's fascinating, like watching our contemporary national dramas playing out on an ancient stage.
PB: Where does Bagger fit in with all these tales of ancient Greece - any common threads connecting them?
SP: Someone asked me what united golf and Thermopylae. I said they're both battles in which we outnumbered troops must hold off hordes of shrieking savages, whose primary identity is that they are aspects of ourselves. In golf, all the demons of anger, fear, impatience, vanity, you name it, arise like battalions inside our fever-ridden brains. Somehow we have to hold the pass against them. I guess in some way I see life like that.
For anyone who works as an artist, each day is a new battle, against all the forces of resistance, self-doubt, laziness, empty ambition, etc. We're like Arjuna peering across the field at the enemy. At our side we call upon some mysterious force, which we may personify if we wish, to help us be our best selves and then we plunge into "the Field," which is the void, the unconscious, the unknown, the mystery of what word we'll put up next on the page or what note of music will come out of the piano. We launch ourselves into the unknown just like the Spartans did, or Arjuna did, and we seek to detach our egos from the outcome. We accept defeat and failure, if they should come, and seek to surrender to "the Field" and let it take us where it wants us to go.
PB: You've spoken of the Muse as a source of your inspiration and guidance. What does the concept of "Muse" mean to you, and what kind of relationship do you two have?
SP: You're a writer, Printer, so you know what I'm talking about. Anyone who works in any creative field, which is everyone, has to ask sooner or later: where do ideas come from? They pop into our head in the shower, while we're shaving, when we're on a walk. But where do they pop from? The Greeks personified this mysterious source. They had the nine Muses, daughters of Zeus and Memory, each charged to inspire artists in a different art. I once lived in a neighborhood in New Orleans where the streets were named after the Muses: Terpsichore, Erato, Thalia, Polyhymnia, Calliope, Clio, Euterpe, Urania and Melpomene.
What does this mean to me? I believe, cracked or not, that ideas, whether they be melodies or software concepts or screenplays, exist first in the ether, in some non-material dimension of reality. You, Printer, as the author of Cosmic Laws of Golf, know all about this. Ideas exist first in that realm, the Void, the Unconscious, whatever you want to call it, and then tap on the shoulder some poor sucker whose charge it now becomes to bring them forth in this material plane.
PB: Is your Muse on call, or can she keep you waiting?
SP: It has been my experience that if she sees you sitting down at the typewriter for enough days in a row, eventually she takes pity on you and gives you an idea. There's an anecdote of Somerset Maugham. Someone asked him if he wrote on a schedule or only when inspiration struck him. "I write only when inspiration strikes me," he replied. "Fortunately it strikes me every morning at nine o'clock sharp."
PB: What's cooking in your creative cauldron these days?
SP: Another book, also Greek-themed. I started on it a few months ago. It's about the ancient Amazons, the female warriors who according to legend seared off the right breast so that nothing would impede the draw of the bow. According to Plutarch an army of Amazons once attacked Athens and very nearly took the city; the siege lasted three or four months. That's what I'm working on now.
PB: Wow, those ladies were seriously committed to their work! Do you see any social or cultural connections between the ancient Amazons and our present civilization?
SP: I'm conceiving the Amazons as the last free women, the last time in history when women were the pure equals of men, physically, in combat, as well as politically and psychologically. When they fell, as I conceive it, the era of patriarchy began and women were reduced to second-class citizens - the state that the female half of the human race today still resides in, to both genders' woe.
The Amazons were a horse culture. I'm trying to view them in the book much like the great horse cultures of the American West, the Sioux and Crow and Cheyenne. Like these Native Americans, the race of free women, as I'm hoping to conceive it, fell before the relentless march of historical necessity. Hopefully their demise will come across as heartbreaking and give us cause to reflect on such issues as: What is a free woman? What would such a creature be like? Is there a way to bring her back?
Or as Edmund Spenser put it:
Been they all dead, and laid in doleful hearse?
Or do they only sleep, and shall again reverse?
PB: You once mentioned that you "borrowed the structure" of the Bhagavad-Gita when you wroteBagger Vance. How common is this practice among writers?
SP: There are a number of classic stories that get repackaged, reconfigured, and have for thousands of years. The Odyssey, Romeo and Juliet have been done again and again. The Way We Were was Romeo and Juliet in Hollywood. Panic in Needle Park was Romeo and Juliet on heroin. The Warriors was Xenophon's Anabasis. Even in Golf in the Kingdom, the scene where Shivas and the others gather for dinner to make speeches in praise of golf, that's Plato's Symposium, brilliantly reworked and given new meaning by Michael Murphy.
Probably the most perennial is the Christ story-the solitary master/hero who takes upon his shoulders not only the sins of the people but their highest spiritual aspirations and lives them out, as none of them possess the courage to do, to the bitter end. Cool Hand Luke is the Jesus story, right down to Luke's "crucifixion" in a church at the end. These tales are timeless because they speak to eternal motifs in human nature and the struggle to be human. They come back again and again, reconfigured for new generations. They never get old. Even Romeo and Juliet was borrowed by Shakespeare from a Roman play, I believe, which itself was borrowed from a Greek tale, which no doubt went back to the first cave man from the tribe of Og who fell in love with the cave girl from the clan of Gork.
The Gita is really Dante's Inferno—or vice versa. They're both stories of a man at a crossroads, in a spiritual crisis, who is guided through "hell" by a mentor, in one case Virgil, in the other Krishna. The opening stanza of The Inferno . . .
Midway in our life's journey, I went astray
from the straight road and woke to find myself
alone in a dark wood . . .
could be the Gita as well. When Robert Redford said he conceived of the Bagger story as a passage from dark to light, that's exactly the theme he had locked onto.
PB: If Dante, Shakespeare and Pressfield want to rework the classic themes, I can't argue with that.
SP: I appreciate your comparisons, PB. As for my own borrowing, I've lifted stuff lock, stock and barrel. The Gita opens with two armies lined up across from each other on the field of Kuru. There at the brink of battle, the great warrior Arjuna experiences his crisis. He looks across at the warriors lined up opposite, supposedly his enemies, and sees friends and teachers, kinsmen and so forth whom he does not want to fight; he sees only evil coming from this battle. In distress he orders his charioteer to drive him out between the two armies and there he pulls up and lays down his arms, refusing to fight.
His charioteer, who happens to be the Lord of the Universe in human form, proceeds to read him the riot act and tell him, in 18 chapters (coincidence only to the number of holes in a round of golf) why he must fight. He instructs Arjuna in such concepts as karma, dharma, attachment, non-attachment, the meaning of death, the definition of the warrior's code, etc., then finally reveals to Arjuna a vision of his own might and majesty. In Bagger, you can see how I lifted the pre-battle moment almost exactly, changing a chariot to a 1930 Chalmers and the battle to the golf match at Krewe Island.
PB: The ancient Gita stands on her own after all these years, but do you think Bagger someday might want a sequel to his golf story?
SP: Right now no. I think I'll leave well enough alone. However, you never know what the Muse is up to . . . .