By Jim Corbett

In golf, as in life, it is expected that we will play our own game; no one can get up for you and swing your club and no one can really live your life for you — even though there are times when it can feel like others are trying. In both instances we play alongside of others, who are playing their own games and in both instances there is much we can learn from observing what is going on in the game (or life) of the others. But when it comes right down to it we surely must do it ourselves.

What we learn from observing another is most often a very subtle thing and in order to keep it that way, the rules of golf have stipulated, through Rule 8-1 that, “A player shall not give advice to anyone in the competition except his partner.” (The life-equivelant of this rule is “don’t give advice to anyone but your spouse — and then give it as freely and as often as you’d like, knowing full well that it is going to be ignored anyway!”)

But sometimes good advice, like an inspiration, can come from very unexpected places. I had an experience once that taught me the value of being open to all possibilities when making a decision out on the course. I was playing golf with a few friends on a beautiful course just on the west side of Puget Sound. The 4th hole was a dog-leg to the right and I hit a pretty good drive, got a good kick to the right, and lost sight of the ball as it rounded the corner, heading in the direction of the green.

Everybody else in the group hit their shots to the left or short of where my ball went, so as I approached my ball I was all alone. The ball had run down a little hill, continued to the right, and came to rest on the edge of the fairway right near a pretty little clearing in the woods. I walked over to the ball and I noticed how beautiful this spot was; there was a tall stand of cedars nearby and the ground cover under the trees was a thick blanket of sword ferns and maidenhair ferns interspersed with salal and wild rhododendrons.

In the middle of the trees was a semi-circular clearing that was probably about 10 to 15 yards across. It had a floor of soft, mossy grass and the trees towered above like the spires of a great cathedral; that effect was heightened by the Spanish moss hanging like lace through the branches and streams of sunlight beaming through the beads of dew. A stream trickled a faint tune not far away and birds and little chipmunks flitted about and added a chorus in the misty morning air.

As I stepped up to my ball, I felt a strange sense of eerieness that made my nerves tingle. I was now out of sight of all the other players in my group and I had lost sight of the fairway markers. I thought I was about 150 yards from the green, but with all of the dips and twists between me and my target, it was really difficult to tell. Assuming I had the distance correctly judged, I reached for my 7-iron, when I heard a snorting sound. My head jerked up. And there in the clearing, seeming to look directly at me, was a big, beautiful deer.

I gazed at him as he stood in the center of the cathedral, bathed in a halo of light. I drank in the solemn wonder of the moment and forced myself back to the reality of the shot at hand. I reached once more for my 7-iron, when I heard the snorting sound repeated. I looked back and saw the deer shaking its head from side to side in a wild display. I didn’t understand. Was he threatened by my movement? Had I intruded on some ritual of the natural world, and distressed this magnificent animal?

I figured I had better get my shot off and get out of there as fast as I could. But as I reached a third time for my 7-iron, the deer snorted louder than ever and when my eyes fell upon him again he began stomping his powerful front hoof on the ground. Once…twice… three, then four, then five times. All the time glaring directly at me. I began to feel that there was a very direct link between this fabulous creature and myself. What was this mystical connection? My blood was pulsing quickly as he pawed the ground again — one, two, three, four, five times.

Then, in a flash, I knew! I felt my hand on my 7-iron and, never letting our eyes lose touch, I ever so slowly moved my hand across my bag to my 5-iron. I had no control over my own movements now. The deer was directing my actions through the strength of its gaze. My hand, like ice, slowly drew the 5-iron from its quiver and when, at last, the full length of its silvery shaft had been extruded, I was somehow transported to my ball. Everything went black. The next thing I knew, I heard the distant voices of my companions shouting, “Nice shot!”

As my senses returned, I looked over in time to see the stag leap over an ancient log and disappear into the protection of the forest. Upon closer inspection, I realized that from that spot I was a little over 175 yards out from the green and my 7-iron would have put me squarely in the middle of the pond that was not visible from my vantage point. As it turned out, my shot landed 4 feet from the pin. (I managed to 3-putt and get my bogey.)

I deliberated on whether I had received advice as described in Rule 8-1, but since it didn’t come from “a player” I knew I was okay. I also considered whether Rule 14(b), which prohibits using “artificial devices or unusual equipment” for gauging the distances or conditions might come into play, but quickly convinced myself that I was safe (I had used no artificial devices or equipment, and the rule mentioned nothing about supernatural or mystical experiences).

I learned an important lesson out there that day: Even though we have no choice but to play our own game, during times of difficult decision making, it never hurts to listen to our “deer friends.” That was an experience I’ll never forget — I hate 3-putting!

Playing Your Own Game