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FIRE PIT COLLECTIVE

Michael Murphy, the author of “Golf In The Kingdom,” checks every box for hero

Editor's Note: This article first appeared in Fire Pit Collective, a Golf Digest content partner.

January 16, 2023
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The year newly over was a bad one for hero worship, and the continuation of a pattern: It has been a rough new century for most anybody on a pedestal, literally and otherwise. We know too much about our heroes. I’m glad I had Roberto Clemente, E.B. White and Mickey Wright when I did.

As for the newly fallen, I’m not going to name names. You have your list and I have mine.

We can be heroes/

Just for one day

I’m going to put David Bowie on the list, with Clemente & Co., in the category of Hero Hero. I don’t know much about the gent, but I do think it’s clear that Bowie stayed true to his art, his muse, his self. I was surprised to learn after he died that he lived in New York City. Who knew?

There are all manner of heroes, and two distinct definitions of the word. There’s the first definition, a person we admire, broadly speaking a brave and noble person who serves others. The hero population of the world is not growing. We’ve become too sophisticated, too cynical, too something. Some would say it’s childlike to have heroes of this sort. I wouldn’t.

Then there is the storyteller’s hero, the person who carries the story, regardless of the medium, in fiction and nonfiction. Writers will sometimes fall in love with their on-the-page heroes, making them a hero in two senses of the word. It’s an occupational hazard.

My friend and colleague Alan Shipnuck and I have touched on this over the years: We fall hard for our subjects, especially when you’re going deep, say for a long magazine piece or a book.

Some years ago, I wrote a book about the film director M. Night Shyamalan. I was impressed by his intelligence, his work ethic, the way he treated people from all walks of life. I wasn’t (in my opinion) blind to his foibles, but for a while, I was all Night this and Night that. These feelings can come and go. Now his name comes to mind only now and then. That’s OK. That’s life.

Alan has been down this road with his books. There was one featuring, in a heroic role in every sense, the late Steve Duplantis, one of last great touring caddies/romantics. Alan had another book starring Hootie Johnson of Augusta National, one of the last great golf-administrator hard-asses. Then, in Phil, there’s Amy Mickelson, one of the last great Tour wives.

Amy was (and surely is) one of a kind. We were once walking together at the 2007 Presidents Cup in Montreal when a leaf fell out of the sky and drifted practically on to her hatted head. She said, “That was random.” Charm is elusive. You have it or you don’t.

Now Phil’s gone LIV—he’s gone rogue—and you don’t hear much from Amy anymore. I haven’t seen her since the 2021 Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits, a hundred years ago.

LIV Golf is LIV Golf and I will be interested to see if Alan can find a heroic hero as he tells the story of its formation, in a book he is writing about the rogue golf league. (Thank you, London Daily Telegraph, for introducing that fine phrase.) I look at LIV Golf and the main thing I see is not love of golf, the thing that drew me to professional golf, but love of money. (It’s not money that is the root of all evil, but the love of money, per the ancients of old.) Alan will find a hero for his book because every book has a hero, even if the hero is an anti-hero. (I have floated and Alan has rejected this title for his work-in-progress: Golfers Gone Wild.) Maybe it will be Greg Norman, finally getting his league two decades after he conceived it. He wouldn’t be a hero in the sense that John Adams is the hero of David McCullough’s John Adams. But Norman could be the book’s hero. Or maybe Henrik Stenson will take over. Who knows?

Some of you will know the name Joseph Campbell and what Campbell writes and says about the hero’s journey. (If you don’t, you might start with the series of interviews Bill Moyers did with Campbell.) I tried to look at Tiger’s life for a book, with the hero’s journey in mind. Please don’t confuse hero and role model. In this case, if you’re asking Tiger Woods to be a role model you’re asking too much. Sir Charles (Barkley) has a whole bit about that. BTW: Whatever happened to Barkley running for governor of Alabama? In the meantime, we have him in the golf booth now and again, and he does the thing golf doesn’t do. He doesn’t take the whole thing too seriously.

Charles and Tiger palled around years ago but not after Tiger ran over that hydrant. Here’s one of the top-12 quotes from Phil, courtesy of Charles:

“One of the reasons Phil has lasted so long is because he’s had a joyful life. Tiger won a bunch of tournaments, but there wasn’t much joy in it. Sure, Tiger is a better golfer. You’re just in awe of his talent. But it’s not fun to be around him. Everyone in his world is uptight and shit, afraid to say or do the wrong thing. Tiger himself has always acted like he’s under siege. Gimme a fucking break. You’re just a golfer, dude. When you’re with Phil, you’re guaranteed to have fun. He makes people feel good. Everyone around him is always smiling. That’s a huge difference, man.”

I don’t know if Tiger can do it, but I hope someday he will write an honest book about his life and times. Not tit-for-tat. Tiger would go big or not at all, I would think. You can imagine the role his mother, especially, might play in such a book. But Tiger would be the book’s hero. The story of his journey. A while ago, Tiger said he was working on a book and he even had a name for it: Back. His comeback win at the 2019 Masters would surely have been part of it. Or it is, if the book is still on.

He was working with the writer and therapist (no, not in the true sense of the word) J.R. Moehringer. At the 2020 PGA Championship, delayed to August by the pandemic, I asked Woods how the book was coming along. “It’s been insightful,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed the process of looking back on some of the stories, and it’s been a lot of fun.”

If he does the book with Moehringer, my bet is it will be good. Moehringer was the ghostwriter behind Andre Agassi’s memoir, Open. It’s outstanding, and what makes it is Agassi’s candor. Moehringer was also the ghostwriter for Prince Harry in his book, just out, called Spare. (It’s not a reference to bowling, in this case. Charles praised Diana for giving him an heir, William, and a spare, Harry.) I haven’t read the book, but a good guess is that Harry is the hero of his own story. That doesn’t mean he’s likable or admirable, but it doesn’t mean he’s not. It does mean he’s the main character, that he starts in one place, goes through a series of adventures, finishes somewhere else.

As a quick aside, we are all the heroes of our own rounds of golf, which is why golf and storytelling is such an easy marriage. You start on the first tee. On the first, I was so—whatever. You pick that ball out of the cup on 18. I mean, even if you pulled a modified Faldo and made 17 straight bogeys and a par on the last to break 90 for the first time, you still have a story to tell.

I don’t know if Tiger can do what Agassi did, tell his story with candor that goes broad and deep. For decades now, Tiger has preferred to let his clubs do the talking. When he announced he was writing Back it was after his win in the 2019 Masters. His single-vehicle crash in February 2021 changed the direction of his life, and changed the impact of that win. Whatever happened that morning, it has to be intensely personal. If he doesn’t want to share it, any of us can understand that. That might have derailed the book. I don’t know.

Tiger is an only child and sharing does not come naturally to him. We live in a confessional age and Tiger is, by his nature, stoic, unfit for these times, and an unlikely writer of a famous-person memoir. The accelerator of his vehicle was floored at the moment it struck a tree and was upended, according to an L.A. County sheriff’s officer report. (He was wearing a seatbelt and the airbag deployed.) But that doesn’t mean, at all, that he’s not the hero of his own story. He absolutely would be.

Hero is a complicated word.

Roberto Clemente, the great Pittsburgh Pirates right fielder, died 50 years ago when a cargo plane he was in barely made it off the runway at the main airport in San Juan, in Clemente’s native Puerto Rico. There had been an earthquake in Nicaragua and Clemente had loaded the plane with relief supplies. It was New Year’s Eve. That night, he was planning to fly to Nicaragua on a humanitarian mission. He was 38. The plane was a piece of junk. What a tragedy.

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Clemente’s last hit in the last regular-season game of the ’72 season got him to 3,000 career hits. The fatal airplane crash, which took four other lives as well, came three months later. I was 12 and loved baseball when the news startled the world. Clemente was a hero to millions. The last act of Clemente’s life was heroic in the most elemental sense of the word. He wanted to make sure those relief supplies got to a country he had affection for. Everything related to the execution of the delivery was a fiasco. Clemente died as an amateur humanitarian.

I’ve written a book due out in late March about three amateur golfers. None has come close to winning a U.S. Am or anything remotely close to it but I found all three of these people irresistible, for their love of golf, for their humanity and for the journeys they have made. Various other golfers make appearances, including Lee Trevino, Ben Hogan and Michael Murphy. I find joy just typing that final name.

Mike is 92. He is the author of Golf in the Kingdom. I know of no book that captures the essence of the game with more feeling. You talk about childlike wonder. Michael Murphy is childlike wonder.

The first half of Golf in the Kingdom is a novella, of a strange and singular kind, and it created forever one of golf’s most interesting characters, a mystic Scottish teaching pro named Shivas Irons. You’re tempted to say that Shivas is the book’s hero, but I would say the hero is the narrator, Michael Murphy, a fictional version of the author. Murphy starts in one place, encounters Shivas at the Burningbush links, goes to a sodden, coed golf dinner and is never the same afterward.

Oh my (to use a phrase the real Mike Murphy uses): I was just looking up the book to see about its availability and discovered that the aforementioned Joseph Campbell blurbed for it: Murphy has “put a lot of fine thoughts together here, most gracefully, and the book should have a long and prosperous life.” Yep, Campbell got that one right. The book is 50-plus now and better than ever. Golf in the Kingdom is about our golf.

Maybe Rory McIlroy will play in all the remaining elevated events on the PGA Tour schedule. Maybe he won’t. Maybe he’ll collect a wheelbarrow full of PIP money. Maybe he won’t. Maybe the Niblicks will have a better ’23 than their ’22. None of it will have any impact on me whatsoever. I am curious and excited to see how the U.S. Open plays out at Los Angeles Country Club. If McIlroy and Bryson DeChambeau are in a playoff, I’ll be rooting for Rory. It won’t have any impact on him, or you. Maybe you’ll dance the Funky Chicken on your 75th wedding anniversary. Maybe you already have.

I was put off by DeChambeau coming to the Memorial last June, singing the praises of the PGA Tour and then jumping to LIV not even two weeks later. I do admire how he has figured out some of the riddles of golf, with his own swing, with his own tools, with his own swing thoughts and practice habits. I admire people who can think for themselves. I don’t know what DeChambeau did when the PGA Tour paused play for 10 weeks at the start of the pandemic in mid-March 2020. He left big and came back bigger yet. He must have spent a lot of time eating.

A year has 8,760 hours in it, and if you’re lucky you’re sleeping for at least 2,760 of them. So, 6,000 hours. Really, not that much. One thing we all have equally, every single day, are those 24 hours. How we use them is how we use them.

One of the best hours of my 2022 was one spent, through the magic of e-travel, with Michael Murphy. I was at Alan’s house in Carmel-by-the-Sea, about two miles from Pebble Beach’s front door, looking at a laptop. Alan was in another room, looking at his own screen. Geoff Ogilvy was home, in Australia, doing the same. Mike was at home in Northern California, totally at ease with the technology. He said, “May I call you Geoff?”

Geoff: “Absolutely.”

Geoff is a Kingdom-ophile. That’s unusual for a professional golfer, but Geoff has a lot of amateur in his blood.

So Mike was with the three of us for a podcast we do called “Need a Fourth.” If you haven’t listened to our show—sponsored by Ecco!—you most likely will be bored out of your mind. Unless you like golf and golfers and its playing fields and the stories and heroes it produces. That hour with Murphy is a joy. Others have told me that as well. Michael Murphy is a total inspiration to me. He is nimble of mind and body.

I texted him the other day, asking him to remind me of his mile time at age 53. He called me immediately. I guess the question intrigued him. Also, he didn’t recognize the number and I had failed to sign my name to the text. He wanted to know who wanted to know.

At age 53, Mike ran 1,500 meters in 4 minutes and 31 seconds.

Yes, that is a world-class time at that age for a so-called metric mile.

As my friend Jaime Diaz says, “Some people get the full DNA package.”

Yep. Hair, teeth, speed, intelligence, humor, and dancing eyes, too. Still, there’s what you do with all that DNA. That’s what makes a person heroic in the first definition of the word. What you do. Mike created Shivas Irons; also “Michael Murphy,” the hero of Golf in the Kingdom; he co-founded the Esalen Institute; and he has spent decades in an effort to improve the Russian-American relationship. Yes, his heart is broken by the war, the violence, the hurt. He carries on.

So Mike called not knowing who he was calling and we spoke for an hour, which is not a long conversation for Michael Murphy. I am lucky enough to have talked to him plenty over the years, in person, over the phone and of course by mental telepathy.

I asked Mike when was the last time he played a full round of golf. It had been a few years.

“I don’t mind being outdriven, but I don’t like being outdriven by 100 yards,” he said.

I asked him if anybody had ever studied him, as a “freak of nature.” He laughed. Murphy has an infectious laugh.

Freak of nature. I can’t remember anybody using that phrase,” Mike said. “But my doctor, at my last physical, said, ‘Your numbers, in your 90s? They’re getting better!’ It was like being on the honor roll.”

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We talked about his writing life and how he came to it. Golf in the Kingdom took him seven months to write. The Future of the Body took him seven years. He came from a family of high achievers. His father was a lawyer. His father’s father was a doctor who delivered John Steinbeck. His brother was a novelist, a pianist, a gambler and a ladies’ man. Also a golfer blessed with distance.

Mike spoke of Pebble Beach, his favorite course in the world. I have been there with him twice, once to play, once to watch some golf during the 2019 U.S. Open. “It is, oh my God—you’ll never see it the same way twice,” Mike said. “It is gloriously moody.”

Whenever he described a golf course in his writing life, and that wasn’t often, his love affair with Pebble Beach was part of it. He didn’t write much about golfers, but the golfing experience is in everything that interests him.

“The emergence of super-normal functioning, I have been able to see that through golf and my writing about golf,” Mike said. “What a gift.

“In my family, everybody read. There was a big premium on storytelling. I became a writer. My brother became a writer. Our family was filled with red-heads and filled with fighters. Everybody was skeptical about religion, except for me. I was an altar boy in the Episcopal church. And then at Stanford, where I flipped, and got into all these yogic systems. And I could see, unmistakably, yogic elements in golf. There’s no doubt about it.” Golf in the Kingdom came out of that.

I asked Mike if he felt playing golf was time well-spent.

“Yes,” he said, without hesitating. “Yes, golf is time well-spent. Physically. Mentally. Spiritually. It provokes altered states. This is the game of all games, from where I stand. I imagine I have heard more people talk about their mystical experiences in sport than anybody.”

Sometimes that sport was running or swimming or football or surfing. But most often it was golf. The people telling Mike about their golf experiences (and I have watched these scenes unfold) aren’t seeking to be the heroes of their own stories. They just are.

Anyway, Michael Murphy is a hero to me in every sense of the word.

Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at Bamberger@firepitcollective.com