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Golf's Holy War: The Battle for the Soul of a Game in an Age of Science

Review

Golf's Holy War: The Battle for the Soul of a Game in an Age of Science

For many passionate sports fans, the last couple of months have been difficult as the sports world has been shut down. Now they anxiously wait for information about when sports might return to their lives.

One exception to this hiatus is golf --- not professional golf, but golf as played by the many avid followers around the world. In several states, golf courses have remained open throughout the pandemic. Some restrictions were placed on golfers, including limiting play to twosomes and requiring most of them to walk. In my community, golf returned on May 1st, and observing golfers walking while carrying their bags reminded us of how the game was played a century ago. Golf is a sport steeped in tradition, and in GOLF’S HOLY WAR, veteran sportswriter Brett Cyrgalis addresses how many of those traditions are presently being challenged by technically minded instructors, club designers and architects driven by science to remake elements of the game.

"GOLF’S HOLY WAR may be too exhaustive for some readers, but many golfers still searching for that one golf tip that will change their game will find it an enjoyable work of golf history. I know I did."

Cyrgalis observes that technology has substantially changed the method of golf instruction. I am the proud owner of a signed collection of photos of golfing great Ben Hogan on the practice tee, taken at various stages of his swing. Technology has rendered such pictures meaningless. These days, any golfer seeking instruction can be filmed from multiple viewpoints and have their swing analyzed by devices that measure speed, launch angle and other important metrics. At some instructional facilities, golfers wear full-body sensors to analyze swings. Hogan was lionized for his adherence to practice, which he called “digging in the dirt.” He hit golf ball after golf ball until he cured himself of a damaging hook, and went on to dominate the sport in the late 1940s and early ’50s.

But Hogan’s way clearly was not the only way. Cyrgalis calls attention to two other sources, based on vastly different theories of how the ultimate swing may be achieved. The first was formulated by Homer Kelley, an instructor unknown to most golfers, including myself. He took up golf late in life and quickly became entranced by the science of striking the ball. By analyzing the golf swing through geometry and physics, he developed theories in multiple editions of THE GOLFING MACHINE, a book devoted to the search for the perfect swing.

Many golf professionals became devotees of Kelley, including Bryson DeChambeau, who is known on the PGA Tour for his eccentric theories of the game. He is also the 13th-ranked golfer in the world and one of only five golfers in history to win the NCAA Division I Championship and U.S. Amateur in the same year. Michael Murphy’s GOLF IN THE KINGDOM is a spiritual novel that strikes a chord in golfers of all skill levels, although it is devoid of physical teaching. This cult classic looks to the golfer’s mind, not his or her swing techniques. According to professional Brad Faxon, “It gave us the language to talk about the spiritual side of the game, which I had always believed in.”

Using these two books as his starting-off point, Cyrgalis launches a deep and detailed discussion of how players have advanced from self-teaching to team-teaching to data gathering and technology in their search for golfing success. He also notes how modern players, while mastering ball-striking, sometimes reach their goals through both physical and emotional costs. The poster child for this is Tiger Woods. In addition, Cyrgalis devotes a portion of the book to talking about equipment and golf course design changes.

GOLF’S HOLY WAR may be too exhaustive for some readers, but many golfers still searching for that one golf tip that will change their game will find it an enjoyable work of golf history. I know I did.

Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on May 8, 2020

Golf's Holy War: The Battle for the Soul of a Game in an Age of Science
by Brett Cyrgalis

  • Publication Date: May 5, 2020
  • Genres: Nonfiction, Sports, Technology
  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Avid Reader Press/Simon & Schuster
  • ISBN-10: 1476707596
  • ISBN-13: 9781476707594