'Golf's Sacred Journey: A Week at the Links of Utopia' by Dr. David Cook

By: Steve Habel

There's a lot to be said about faith in the game of golf - whether it's a belief in your abilities, your vision of a result, or in just the act and basic simplicity of golf, its fields of play and its challenges. If golf has a Holy Grail or an ultimate lesson, it's that the game, like life, is all about the art, not the outcome; it's about the journey not the arrival.

Faith and that journey can be found in the small Texas town of Utopia, at least according to top sports psychologist Dr. David Cook in his book, "Golf's Sacred Journey: Seven Days at the Links of Utopia."

Utopia, a real-life town of less than 400 folks about 80 miles from San Antonio, is the setting for the story of an aspiring unnamed golf pro and his inadvertent journey of discovery to golf's big picture.

After having a meltdown in the midst of a big tournament the protagonist strikes out for parts unknown and eventually takes a fork in the road to Utopia. There, in the town's smoky diner, he finds a handwritten note posted about a driving range where you can "Find Your Game."

A "goat ranch" golf course encircling an old cemetery (yes, both actually exist) sets the stage for Cook's everyman story and its account of a chance meeting between the golf pro and an unorthodox mentor, Johnny, a small-town rancher with uncommon insight.

Johnny's unusual and memorable golf teachings incorporate lessons using fishing, painting and flying, and against this backdrop, Cook takes readers step by step through the critical mental aspects of the game, from a confidence-building, pre-shot checklist to lessons on instinct over intellect, truth over tradition, excellence over acceptance, and expecting the unexpected.

"Golf's Sacred Journey" is as much a story of faith as it is a forum for Cook's 30-plus years of hands-on experience coaching hundreds of PGA, NBA (he advised the two-time world champion San Antonio Spurs), MLB and NFL players as well as Olympians and collegiate champions.

Cook, who studied under noted mental golfing coach Bob Rotella at the University of Virginia, has been named by Golf Digest as one of the top-10 mental-game coaches in the game. Over the years he's consulted with business leaders from Fortune 100 companies, showing them how to move forward in life.

"Golf is like a Texas two-step," Johnny tells the young pro. "Until you feel the music, you ain't nothin' but a step counter." Along with the pro, readers learn that feeling the music is about infusing a swing with rhythm, balance and patience. It's about seeing past the interference to a shot we envision in our minds. It is about emotional control, conviction and not over-thinking.

Cook's, and by literal proxy, Johnny's lessons boil down to just three tasks: see, feel and trust (SFT).

Seeing, the rancher explains, means making the shot deliberate by envisioning what you want to happen - "calling the shot" in terms of shape, target and trajectory. Feeling is the internalization of that shot - its rhythm, balance and patience. And trusting is what sports psychologists would call an absence of mechanical control, but what the rancher dubs "letting it happen." Trust, according to Johnny, is a decision.

There's more to "SFT" than meets the eye. Golfers hell-bent on birdies are drawn to Cook's mental concepts for obvious reasons, but they also find his ideas very compelling and relevant to any pursuit in life, including the hardest one of all - faith.

Like all wise instructors, Cook knows the complexities of the game and understands that playing golf is ultimately not about the score. Success, like a bank account, is never the definition of a person's worth. Committed to inspiring true purpose and identity, Cook takes us on a faith journey beyond the links to a place of profound spiritual wisdom, answering the question that his book opens with: How can a game have such an effect on a man's soul?

"Significance in life is the ultimate place we are going," Cook says. "If you live your life about significance, that gives you fulfillment every day, when you win or when you lose. But when everything is based on a win, you lose perspective. You play for the score, and your life is up and down and you are miserable."

Of course the spiritual side of sports has been fodder for many books. Greg Norman, a top-of-the-tour player in 1995, was a fan of the mystical, practical advice in Zen in the martial arts. "What I try to do in the book is create a sense of freedom and faith, not rules and regulations," Cook says.

After Cook distributed and sold some 65,000 copies of the self-published book, "Golf's Sacred Journey" was acquired by major publisher Zondervan in 2009 for release in bookstores nationwide. The book has caught the eye of top golfers like Tom Lehman (British Open champion, 2006 Ryder Cup captain), Scott Simpson (U.S. Open champion), Larry Mize (Masters champion) and others.

The success of "Golf's Sacred Journey" has spawned a cottage industry of sorts for Cook. His three-day Utopia, Texas, retreats and one-day "Golf's Field of Dreams" seminars, modeled after the book's story and lessons, are drawing scores of fans and transforming souls along with their golf games.

I found myself comparing the notions taught in "Golf's Sacred Journey" with those forwarded by famed teacher Harvey Penick in his "Little Red Book" and its three sequels. Keeping things simple and remembering that enjoyment from golf is derived from the playing of the game in its usually wonderful settings are the core values and things that bring golfers happiness.

With that comparison, and by helping golfers move closer to that "Zen" ideal rather than worrying about pars and birdies on the scorecard, Cook's book succeeds immensely. It's a quick read and well worth your time and attention.

"Golf's Sacred Journey: A Week at the Links of Utopia," by Dr. David Cook, Zondervan Publishing, 157 pages, $25.95, ISBN 0974265039.

Steve Habel is one of Cybergolf's national correspondents, contributing news stories, features, equipment and book reviews and personality profiles from his base in Central Texas. He is also the managing editor for Texas CEO Magazine and works as a contributing editor for Horns Illustrated magazine, a publication focusing on University of Texas sports. He also writes a blog (www.shotoverthegreen.blogspot.com), which features news on golf and the Longhorns, and another (www.checkinginandplayingthrough.blogspot.com) on his many travels, which took him across the nation and to 105 different golf course in 2009. Habel is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America and the Texas Golf Writers Association.