Friday, February 16, 2007

Every golfer knows the feeling: You smoke it on the range, but when you step onto the course you're stiff and nervous. Your spleen is deficient. And your yin is lagging badly behind your yang.

Such was my affliction on a damp winter day as I eased off Highway 1 in Monterey, Calif., and through the gated entrance of 17-Mile Drive. It was early afternoon, under slate-gray skies, and the mansions of the neighborhood looked vacant, as mansions often do when they're someone's seventh home.

I passed the storied layouts of Cypress Point and Spyglass before coming to the most fabled links of all. All around the resort at Pebble Beach, patrons were suffering unspeakable hardships: cool coastal air that called for an extra sweater; cool ocean breezes that called for extra lip balm; and cool concierges who called to make arrangements for hours of intensive Swedish massage. It was hard to bear witness to such pain.

Pebble now charges $425 for a round of golf. But I didn't have a tee time. I had an appointment. I checked in at the spa, coughed up 200 clams and prepared to have needles stuck in my head.

Two years ago, the spa at Pebble Beach began offering acupuncture, an ancient Chinese practice that, according to a flier I picked up, could help with everything from my flagging golf game to the sagging skin beneath my eyes. If incontinence was behind my push-slice, or constipation the reason for my rope hooks, not to worry. Acupuncture could treat them, too.

As it turned out, my game had been on the upswing, thanks to a series of time-tested measures: lessons, stretching and a visit to a voodoo queen in New Orleans. My only complaints were inconsistent putting, minor back pain from picking up my daughter and stiffness in my shoulder from a weight-lifting mishap. I consulted the brochure's list of ailments that acupuncture has been known to allay: dizziness, dysentery, gingivitis. Ah, there it was! Back and shoulder pain.

Upstairs in the spa, with strains of New Age music swimming calmly in my head, I was met by George Samuel, a pleasant young man with a sinewy build and the placid demeanor of Retief Goosen on Percodan. He led me to his office.

"The Chinese have a saying," Samuel told me. "Same disease, different treatment. Different disease, same treatment." That was acupuncturist-speak for the idea that in different people, the same problem can show itself in different ways. Your buddy has insomnia. You have the shanks. Diagnosis: you're both too stressed.

Samuel gave me a primer on the central tenets of acupuncture. The foundation of the practice is built upon something known as "qi" (pronounced "chee"). Qi is a Chinese notion that translates loosely into "life force," a vital energy that circulates around the body along pathways called "meridians," nourishing organs, tissues and glands. In a healthy body, qi flows freely. Problems occur when blockages form along the body's pathways. That makes qi backs up like water in a knotted garden hose.

Enter the acupuncturist, with a quiver of needles. Inserting them in prescribed places, he clears the clog, like your very own Roto-Rooter guy.

Samuel checked my pulse. Or, better yet, my pulses. In Chinese medicine, there are six subtle points along the artery in each wrist. The good news was that my pulses felt balanced. Bad news came when Samuel asked to inspect my tongue. For acupuncturists, the tongue is a looking glass into the body. Mine was splotchy. I thought back to grade school. No wonder girls avoided me in spin-the-bottle. Samuel saw these symptoms as signs of a deficient spleen.

What to make of this? For one, a slacker spleen could cause a blood deficiency and a stubborn imbalance of yin and yang. But those were long-term problems, not to be resolved with a single treatment. Samuel decided to see what he could do about my other aches and pains.

"One treatment," he said, "can often have remarkable results."

Reclining on a table, I pondered the injustice of my situation. Outside on the links, the world's luckiest golfers were firing at pins, while I was inside getting stuck by them. How odd that it had come to this. Acupuncture, after all, is believed to have emerged in China before 2500 B.C. It wasn't for another 4,000 years that weirdos in Scotland began taking whacks at a little white ball. For the next five centuries, little evidence exists that the two pursuits ever overlapped.

By the late 1990s a lot had changed. A great golfer named "Boom Boom" had turned to acupuncture to treat his back pain, and today the ancient Chinese practice is covered by major health insurance plans. It's a brave new world, but I felt even braver-a volunteer pin cushion at the country's most celebrated golf resort.

Samuel began working on his needlepoint. He stuck one in my ear and another just above my forehead. He placed one in my right hand-below my pinky, and another in my ankle. There was method to this madness, much of it aimed at increasing the flow of energy into my back. Samuel put a needle in my right shoulder, attached electrodes to it and sent tiny pulses reverberating through my upper arm.

Meanwhile, in every point that Samuel pricked, I felt a pool of warmth, as if the needles had triggered an internal thermostat. The effect was soothing. I felt relaxed but focused, like Tiger in a pre-shot trance.

The peaceful state was broken by a new sensation-that of Samuel pouring salt into my navel. A college girlfriend had once done something similar, though she'd used maple syrup, but that's a story for another time and another magazine.

Samuel placed a clump of mugwort, a moss that grows abundantly in coastal California, atop the mini salt pile on my belly and lit it with a match. "This," he said, "should have a centering effect." Certainly, it made me feel more grounded. I sure-as-mugwort-fire wasn't going to budge, for fear of setting myself ablaze.

Samuel burned more mugwort, and I slipped back into my peaceful trance. Some 20 minutes later, the once- smoldering moss reduced to ash, Samuel removed the needles. I got up from the table. The dull pain in my shoulder and back were gone.

I pumped Samuel's fist and made a beeline for Poppy Hills, a humanely priced course that plays host to the AT&T along with Spyglass and Pebble. My back was limber, my shoulder loose and my body centered from the warming effects of the burnt moss. I shot 1-over, a personal best.

Coincidence or not, I felt like a different player. I drove north to San Francisco like Qi Qi Rodgriguez, reborn in the body of a younger man.

My experiment with acupuncture a success, I decided to immerse myself in Migun, a Korean-born approach to holistic health that has grown into a global brand. At the heart of the brand is the Migun (pronounced MEE-gun) massage bed, a contraption that combines acupressure and infrared rays in a treatment combining Eastern mysticism and Western marketing. Followers of Migun let you use their beds for free for two months at the end of which you can pay three grand for a massage bed of your own.

It didn't take long to find a Migun center in San Francisco. It was on a busy block at the outskirts of the city. I walked into a room with dozens of massage beds laid out in a row. A petite young attendant sat behind a desk.

"Do a lot of golfers come here?"

She stared at me blankly.

Luckily, a brochure once again saved the day. Migun could alleviate a panoply of problems well beyond a balky back: asthma, heart conditions, diabetes, emphysema. The claims sounded outlandish, but-the brochure boasted-clinical studies backed them up. In the short-term, however, Migun could have side effects. These symptoms included diarrhea and dandruff. Suddenly, my spotchy tongue didn't seem so bad.

The mattress of a Migun bed is made up of knobs that look like an egg carton. In the course of a treatment, they buck and roil, creating a feeling that is faintly medieval, like a torture rack programmed to administer massage.

My first run-through lasted nearly 40 minutes. The Migun rubbed my head and kneaded my back. It rubbed intently on my calves and thighs. All the while, infrared rays, emanating from the mattress, warmed my body. An hour later, I felt rejuvenated. But by early afternoon, my back began to ache. A temporary side effect? I scratched my head in wonder, though maybe that was a reaction to the dandruff settling in.

Over the next three weeks, I gorged on Migun, enjoying nearly daily treatments. Lying on the mattress proved soothing and meditative. I emerged from each treatment more relaxed. I showed no signs of dandruff and the soreness in my back began to fade.

Meanwhile, on the course, my solid golf continued, though how much credit goes to Migun is difficult to say. This much I now know about Eastern treatments: I'd still rather play Pebble than get poked by needles. But I'd also never pooh-pooh the power of acupuncture.

As for Migun, it's a toss-up. It seemed harmless, even helpful. But shell out a mortgage payment for my own massage bed? Hmmmm. Migun-ah have to think about that.

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