President Donald Trump has already played an incredible amount of golf in his first 100 days. He says he needs the break. I sympathize. In fact, I need a break, too — from him, from writing about his relentless assault on truth and science. It’s toxic. So I break today to write about … golf — in Dubai, where I recently participated in an education conference.
Dubai is not a democracy and is fueled by cheap labor. But it’s also not Damascus. With its Ministry of Tolerance, Ministry of Happiness and Ministry of Youth (whose minister is a 23-year-old woman), the UAE has made Dubai into the counter-ISIS, a place where young Arabs can live local and act global. It’s the most interesting crossroad city in the Arab world today. You run into the most unexpected characters here — especially on the golf course — which is where our story begins.
So a Hindu, a Muslim and a Jew are playing golf together in Dubai …
Sounds like the first line of a joke, right? Actually, it’s the first line of one of those serendipitous stories that often happen when you play golf abroad. In my case, I was invited to play at the Emirates Club with a UAE education expert and the famed Indian mystic, poet and yogi Jaggi Vasudev, who goes by his reverential name, Sadhguru.
When I got to the first tee, I realized this was not going to be a normal round. Sadhguru is the founder of Isha, an Indian-based humanitarian and environmental movement with millions of followers (and some critics, too) — several of whom I could tell were at the course, because caddies and staff members kept coming over for selfies with Sadhguru and offering the traditional Hindu greeting, “I bow to the divine in you.”
What made it fun was that Sadhguru was not dressed in his traditional multicolor robes but in a gray Under Armour golf shirt, tight golf slacks and a floppy golf hat. The only giveaways to his day job were an ankle bracelet peeking out above a golf shoe and the longest flowing white beard I’ve ever seen on anyone trying to swing a club. I thought: Was he Bobby Jones in a previous life?
Sadhguru got addicted to golf while visiting followers in America. With about a 15 handicap now, he can hit a drive 220 yards.
As a yogi, it was not surprising that he had probed the deeper meaning of the game: “The simplicity of it makes everyone attempt it, but the subtlety of it makes almost everybody get frustrated with it,” he once observed in an interview with Isha’s magazine. Golf was also just like life (and yoga), he added: People mess up at both when their “interior is not settled.”
He was also up on all the jokes about Jesus and Moses playing golf together. So as we waited to tee off on a par 3, I offered him and our Muslim partner my favorite Jewish golf joke: This threesome is at a public course and the starter comes over and says, “Do you mind if this rabbi plays with you?” They say, “No problem.” The rabbi walks up on the tee with banged-up clubs, a tattered golf bag and a yarmulke instead of a golf hat — but then proceeds to shoot a 69.
At the end of the round one of the other players asks, “Rabbi, how did you get so good?”
“You have to convert to Judaism,” he answers. So, a year goes by and the same three guys arrange to play with the rabbi again. He shoots another 69, but they all still shoot in the 90s. At the end of the round, one says: “Rabbi, I don’t get it. We all converted like you said, but you still shot 69 and we all still shot in the 90s. What’s wrong?”
“What synagogue did you get converted at?” the rabbi asks earnestly.
“Temple Beth Shalom,” they answer in unison.
“Oh no,” says the rabbi. “Temple Beth Shalom? That’s for tennis!”
Sadhguru loved that one, and for the rest of the round when the yogi missed a shot he would look over to me and say, “Wrong temple!”
We had a match and I gave Sadhguru extra shots to make up for the difference in our handicaps. The 18th hole was a 550-yard par 5 around a lake, and Sadhguru hammered his first two shots and had only 110 yards to the green. As he got an extra shot on this hole, it wasn’t looking good for me. So I tried to get into his head: “As a holy man,” I whispered to him, “don’t you feel guilty taking a shot from me on this hole?”
“Not at all!” he grinned. But when he chunked his next shot he exclaimed that a higher power had clearly intervened!
Two days later I ran into Jeby Cherian, who used to run IBM’s Global Business Services unit in India but quit in 2015 to build Sadhguru’s Leadership Academy. I asked him what the yogi’s message was to young leaders?
Sadhguru sees “leadership as serious sacrifice — not as power to dominate,” Cherian said. The best leaders “first work on themselves to achieve the necessary inner capabilities, because their actions impact millions of people. If you are personally transformed then you will conduct yourself in a manner that is inclusive. If you are inclusive, then you will transform the communities you live in and thereby the world.”
Hmm, I thought, I know a golfer-leader who should meditate on that message, but, as promised, I’m not writing about Trump today.
Thomas Friedman writes for The New York Times.