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Original Issue

Becoming One with a Five-Iron

Duffers get in touch with their swings—and one another—at a holistic golf clinic

I was a golf club. Not per se, but in thought. I was in a meditation class, sitting on a pillow, my back to a wall, eyes closed, imagining that I was a golf club. Except for one slip when I was momentarily convinced I was a striped bass—I was meditating unsupervised, mind you—I was feeling like a five-iron. I was soaring down in a graceful arc, about to send the ball on a blissful ride straight to the green.

While my mind was drifting away at that particular moment, the rest of me was sitting on the grounds of the Omega Institute, a center for holistic studies in Rhinebeck, N.Y. That's holistic as in hippie, as in I was there on Labor Day weekend to take a golf workshop.

Omega was founded in the mid-1970s on the site of a former summer camp. The grounds are lovely—they have gardens, trails, cabins and a lake—and the food is both vegetarian and unrecognizable to the uninitiated. Omega offers workshops in such topics as Ecstasy and Psychic Self-Defense. There's even an Omega store, where the Awakening the Heroes Within motivational tape resides on the shelf next to one titled Shattered Dreams. Both describe why I needed golf instruction. Earlier in the summer I had attacked a tree with a five-iron after shooting a 69 on a par-27 course.

The workshop was taught by Mike Hebron, who was the PGA's 1991 Teacher of the Year—an honor he relishes but a title he dislikes. Author of The Art and Zen of Learning Golf, Hebron insists that golf cannot be taught. Rather, it must be learned by all the bones and muscles in the body. He wouldn't, he said, use the terms good or bad, only the word different. And he insisted that "the most important part of the weekend [would] be sitting and having lunch with other people from class."

Thus for three days my 40-odd often puzzled classmates and I were taught the language of the golf swing. Putting vanity aside, we stood in the grass and learned the proper rotation of the swing by holding Hula-Hoops around us and turning our shoulders. We dragged mops across the grass to learn the concept of the leaning shaft.

But mostly we talked. We talked about our swings. We talked about other people's swings. And we grew restless. So Hebron took us to the driving range—the only time we would actually hit balls during the weekend—and afterward we watched our swings on videotape and talked some more.

At one point a man asked Hebron what he could do about having his game fall apart after 12 holes. Hebron inquired, "What do you do for a living?" The man said that he was a financial consultant. "There's your answer," said Hebron. "You think too much. But it's really great that you can feel the wheels coming off."

Although the workshop was made up of therapists, doctors, lawyers and accountants, we seemed to be a class of free spirits. Meet Beverly Goldman, 52, the self-described ballroom dance queen of New York City and "winner of millions of dance contests." When Hebron commented in a lecture that the woods are a bigger dance partner than the irons, there was Beverly, sitting in the middle of class, spreading her arms and taking on an imaginary partner.

In the corner, on a zafu (meditation pillow), sat Dana Robinson, a shamanic counselor from Takoma Park, Md. In layman's terms that's a medicine man. Dana launched into an explanation of the power animal, a spirit that you, I and all healthy souls supposedly are connected to. "You are in an altered state when encountering the animal," said Dana, "and you could ask the animal about your golf swing. Personally, I'd like to connect with my animal before shots."

On the last day we all had lunch together. Many of us, including Dana the shaman, still wondered what to do with our anger. "My power animal doesn't help," lamented Dana. "Maybe," suggested classmate Eric Larson, "connecting with other humans helps us connect with the ball." Eric was trying harder than most, attempting to, ah, connect with a certain woman he had just met.

Everyone parted ways and, alone, I went to the driving range. I took out my five-iron. I sought my power animal (a striped bass?). I asked the club for a dance. Together, to the tune of 180 yards or so, we did the tango.