Monthly Archives: November 2006

The Uneasy Legacy of an Uncommon Golfer

It was a year ago this week that Michael Hoke Austin died in Los Angeles at the age of 95, and another week before everyone could gather for a memorial to send him off properly.

Mike Dunaway, the world-renowned long-driver who regarded Austin as a second father, flew in from Arksansas. Jaacob Bowden, spiritual grandson to the Austin legacy, came down from Carmel. Phil Reed, who memorialized Austin in his book “In Search of the Perfect Swing,” was there from Long Beach, along with Gary Sanati from Torrance and other acolytes from the metropolitan area.

Thomas Dang, the arriviste who bought the rights to Austin’s name, was there, too, claiming that Austin wasn’t cantankerous when everyone knew he was, and had long ago forgiven him.

Only Dan Shauger, Austin’s other spiritual son and high priest of the swing brotherhood, missed the memorial. Austin and Shauger had a falling out near the end of Austin’s life, which was unfortunate since Shauger had spent 25 years mastering the intricacies of Austin’s glorious, fluid swing and perpetuating his legacy.

In September, 1974, Austin hit a tee shot on the par 4, 450-yard 5th hole at Winterwood Golf Course in Las Vegas that came to rest on the 6th tee, 65 yards beyond the pin and 515 yards from where Austin stood. Even more remarkable than the feat – accomplished with the technology of his era (persimmon head driver, steel shaft, two-part ball) – is that Austin at the time was 64 years old.

The drive landed in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest ever, and despite vastly superior equipment, none of the bombers on the PGA Tour have surpassed him since. The current tour record is 476 yards by Davis Love III, set in 2004 on Maui where the tradewinds are blustery and the fairways as hard as runways.

Austin was brilliant, belligerent, generous and profane, a boxer, opera singer, inventor and golf pro, and, as Dunaway put it, “a real-life Indiana Jones.”

Austin loved to tell stories, and many of them were just that — stories, figments of his overheated imagination. But he was also a fringe actor in Hollywood and taught his swing to the likes of Howard Hughes, Jack LaLanne and the Quaid brothers.

He once drove a ball through a phone book on, and at the age of 77 averaged more than 300 yards in a long-drive tournament, prompting an astonished onlooker to remark, “It looks like you’re just playing with the ball.”

Austin claimed to have degrees in engineering from Emory University, physics from Georgia Tech and kinesiology from the National Academy of Applied Science. Emory and Tech say there’s no evidence that Michael Hoke Austin ever attended either university, and the academy — if it ever existed — is out of business.

But it was that effortless, supple and astonishingly powerful swing, even in Austin’s advancing years, that was most remarkable of all. While it looks like the conventional swing, subtle adjustments involving the hips, legs and hands generate a swing that is significantly different, and remarkably effective as well.

Not only does it require less effort, it is easier to learn and maintain than the conventional swing. And, say its proponents, it is it is more powerful, more accurate, and easier on the body, as well.

At the moment, however, there are only a handful of teachers, and some issues that must be resolved.

Under Austin’s tutelage, Dunaway became one of the best and most accurate long drivers in the world, winning titles in the U.S. and Japan. Bowden, too, has won a major long-drive championship, as has John Marshall of Atlanta, who took up the Austin swing after 40 years with the conventional swing.

But Shauger and Dunaway espouse different hand actions, and for a while Dang threatened legal action against anyone who used Austin’s name. Dang eventually disappeared, and Shauger is considered an excellent teacher, but his books and video are windy, complicated and tax the patience of all but the most devoted golfers.

Dunaway is also a superior teacher — Wal-Mart is distributing his video — but he lives in Arakansa and prefers working with corporate clients.

There is also lingering animus from the Shauger-Austin spat. Dunaway took Austin’s side and has nothing good to say about Shauger. Reed and Bowden say Austin was irrational at the end of his life and his anger at Shauger was unwarranted.

Thus the legacy of a man Shauger called “the Leonardo da Vinci of the golf swing” is far from certain, and it falls to a frustrated Sanati to play the Rodney King card. “We’re doing something that’s better than the PGA swing, but the public doesn’t know about it,” Sanati says. “We should forget about the egos and work together to see that his legacy continues.”

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Neal Donald Walsch and ‘Prior Assumption’

A few weeks ago, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution asked me to interview Neale Donald Walsch, the author of the 1995 best-seller “Conversations with God” and its sequels, and to write a story about people who talk with God. The occasion was the impending release of the film version of “Conversations with God,” and Walsh and the film’s director, Stephen Simon, were on an 18-city promotional tour.

We met in a hotel conference room bereft of amenities except a big, square table, a few chairs and some bottled water. Walsch is a burly man, well over six feet tall, and wore dark slacks and a bright blue, long-sleeved shirt. With his full white beard, long white hair and spectacles, he looked like Michelangelo’s depiction of God, albeit a God who’d just finished with the day’s paperwork.

Walsch proved to be a willing and agreeable interview subject. Indeed, I got the impression that he has been interviewed often, and rather enjoys having an audience, however big or small.

Walsch said he thought it fairly commonplace that people talk to God, and pointed out that books, magazines, films and even TV shows over the past decade have abounded with reference to God, angels, etc. He said he still talks to God himself, and still sometimes wonders “if my mind is playing tricks on me.”

The message from all this communication, he said, is that the common understanding of God is “all wrong.” Namely, that God is not the master puppeteer, but rather the hands-off executive producer of a sweeping epic in which the actors – us – have free will to do as we please. Dramatic tension is provided by the conflict between love and fear, a conflict that Walsch says is too often won by fear because we do not understand God and our relationship to Him.

Walsch said his books raise “a simple question before humanity: is it possible that there is something we do not fully understand about God, the understanding of which would change everything?”

Questioning “the prior assumption” occurs in every other field of endeavor, but not in religion. “If modern medicine was approached the way religion is,” he said, “it would be like going into brain surgery with nothing but a sharpened stone.”

And, indeed, in researching the story, I found that one theologian after another, no matter what faith, did not question the prior assumption. As far as they were concerned, scripture is God’s word perfected and applies then, now ands always.

As a seeker myself, I agreed with Walsch’s sensibility, if not always his reasoning. And yet at one point, I stopped taking notes, just as I’d stopped re-reading “Conversations with God” after only 65 pages. Ten years ago, it was provocative and timely, a primer on contemporary spirituality. But now it seems dated, shopworn.

Perhaps if I’d asked different questions, we might have broken new ground that was neither theoretical nor philosophical, but practical and inspiring. That’s what interests me now.

But I have met or known a number of ministers, and for the most part I’ve been disappointed that there wasn’t more excitement about them.

Years ago, I heard a sermon by a woman who had struggled for years against the hierarchy to become an Episcopalian priest before finally succeeding. But her sermon was cool, reasonable and disappointing. There was no passion, no sense of shared truth, just ideas and beliefs.

Just a week ago, I attended a service conducted by a man I respect and like. His sermon suggested that we “re-form” our idea of God, but his performance was inflamed by nothing brighter than the power of reason. It was the kind of stolid, dispassionate, eminently reasonable sermon I’ve heard in Presbyterian, Congregational, Episcopalian, Methodist and Unity Churches all my life.

Maybe I’m too idealistic, but it would be cool to see spiritual leaders who are inspired and willing to challenge assumptions.  I imagine that the dominant characteristic of the spiritually enlightened is serenity, but I don’t think excitement is out of the question.

Fundamentalist churches are growing because people are looking for something more than cool logic. They want an experience. Not, I hope, the tawdry show biz of some televangelists, but a genuine and soulful sense of connection. The desiccated religion of the past is the “prior assumption,” and it’s being shoved aside for inspirational sizzle.

I attended a service at a Church of God in suburban Atlanta recently where  the congregation was singing a song of praise as if they fully believed that God was listening. I’d never seen had that impression anywhere before, and it was powerful.

I mean, if you can’t “give it up” for God, what’s the point?

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