By Lisa Beckelhimer, University of Cincinnati
Sport is frequently elevated to some higher meaning in American culture. Traditional sports writing, memoirs, and historical accounts can inspire readers. But so can several works of fiction, including Steven Pressfield’s mystical golf novel The Legend of Bagger Vance (1995). An athlete/tortured soul in need of salvation, his angelic or god-like mentor with the power to grant such redemption, and the mystical qualities of the sport of golf work together to create a powerful metaphor between sport and spirituality.
Pressfield’s book is often compared to Michael Murphy’s classic Golf in the Kingdom (1972), but the former screenwriter and avid golfer is better known for his military fiction. In The Legend of Bagger Vance, Pressfield explores war, but also guilt, redemption, and golf. The story follows Rannulph Junah, a broken man but also a local golf champion, as he competes with real-life champions Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen in an exhibition tournament at a fictional Savannah, Georgia golf course in 1931.
As the tournament opens, Junah laments that he has lost his swing. Pressfield insinuates that Junah’s depression links back to his experience in World War I. We learn that Junah killed 11 Germans before he was wounded and hospitalized for two years. Later, he refused the Medal of Honor out of guilt. He returned to Germany to apologize to the families of those he killed and eventually married the sister of one of the slain German soldiers. But before they could return to the States, the wife died of typhus.
The bulk of the story unfolds on the golf course and highlights Junah’s struggles with life and the intensely mental challenges of the sport. Junah agrees to play in the tournament, but still harbors feelings of guilt and shame over his actions in the war, and extends those to his jaded perspective of golf. He tells his caddie, Bagger Vance, “‘Victory’ and ‘defeat’ . . . I’m sick to death of them, and of men contending as if there was any difference between them!” (95). When Bagger Vance scolds Junah, asking, “What do you know of life? . . . Are you a god that you have plumbed the depths of existences’ meaning?” (96), Junah repents, “. . . please don’t abandon me. Do you think I want to feel these awful emotions, that I take pleasure in the desperate conclusions my heart leads me to? I’m lost, Bagger. Help me, my friend and mentor. Tell me what I must do” (97). At this point, Junah is akin to the sinner who knows that he needs salvation but doesn’t know how to find or accept it.
As the tournament and Junah’s journey progress, Junah struggles to find what Pressfield refers to as his “Authentic Swing.” Vance guides Junah with probing questions, such as: “Who are you, Junah? . . . Who, in your deepest parts, when all that is inauthentic has been stripped away. . . . Are you your roles, Junah? Scion, soldier, Southerner? Husband, father, lover?” (113). Vance later encourages: “All your ‘selves’ are exhausted and gone. Now: hit the ball with what is left.” When Junah replies “But there’s nothing left,” Vance answers, “Exactly” (116). Bagger Vance’s approach here is similar to those in many traditional religions: to encourage the sinner to hollow himself of everything inauthentic so that God or savior can take over and use the redeemed as an instrument for good.
Though Vance is obviously Junah’s savior figure in this story, he is at first cryptic about his identity, explaining himself to Junah with esoteric phrases such as: “I come again in every age, taking on human form to perform the duty I set myself.”; “Before Time was, I am. Before Form was, I am”; and “I am the Field and the Knower. Everything that is, is brought into being and sustained by me” (184). Many of these phrases remind the reader of God’s definition of himself to Moses in the Book of Exodus as “I am that I am.” As well, Jesus refers to himself throughout the New Testament of The Bible as the “Son of Man.” In both cases, ordinary people seemed in awe of, if not confused by, the deity’s identity.
Finally, Vance speaks in terms that Junah (and readers, perhaps) can understand when he clarifies: “Forget all else, Junah, but remember this: You are never alone. You have your caddie. You have me. . . . I stand by your side always. I will never abandon you. No sin, no lapse, no crime however heinous can make me desert you, nor yield up to you any less than my ultimate fidelity and love” (185-186). I can’t help thinking that Bagger Vance sounds a lot like Jesus in this scene, though Junah seems to view him more as a guardian angel of sorts.
Toward the end of the golf tournament, Junah blatantly disregards Vance’s guidance, repeating a swing that Vance had warned against and hitting the ball into the water. In Christianity, this is called “backsliding,” or temporarily turning one’s back on God. In the end, Junah responds as many do when they have sinned against their religion or deity: he repents, saying, “Please, Bagger, forgive me. . . . I have failed, Bagger. Here on this field and in all else in my life. I know you’ve brought me here deliberately, and I know it’s out of love for me. Love I can’t seem to understand or return. Help me, please. Show me. I am ready at last to see” (175).
Junah’s final act of repentance comes on the 17th hole of the final game, when his ball moves slightly; even though no one witnessed the movement, Junah imposes the sport’s rules on himself and takes a penalty. Bagger Vance responds: “In this hour, you have reached me” (206). He then simply walks off, telling Junah “Remember, I am ever with you” (207). This scene is reminiscent of Jesus ascending into Heaven after the Resurrection, leaving the disciples, and in fact all of mankind, to live independently, guided by His spirit.
Redemption, salvation, and enlightenment for the characters in turn elevate the sport of golf to a higher spiritual plane. It’s through golf that Junah finds his Authentic Swing, a metaphor for finding himself. I won’t spoil the end of the book for potential readers, but I will say that neither the tournament nor the story ends predictably. Pressfield’s mix of sport and spirituality is a refreshing metaphor that goes beyond the surface comparisons sometimes apparent in sports literature.
Images: cover image of the novel and Kiawah, the South Carolina golf course where part of the cinema adaptation was filmed.
Lisa Beckelhimer is an associate professor of English at the University of Cincinnati. Her book Sports Talk (Longman 2008) is a reader for composition, literature, and sports sociology courses. This fall she is teaching a freshman seminar on sports rhetoric called Sport & Society.