Voodoo Golf

I came to this conclusion on a hazy afternoon as my plane banked low over the bayou on a bumpy descent into New Orleans. It was July (pre-Katrina) and the Big Easy was simmering in the summer swelter, the air as thick as gumbo and the mercury hovering in the 100s, not unlike my recent scores. On the drive from the airport, I passed a vacant golf course, its fairways baking in the wavy heat. Its empty acres beckoned. But I was on a beeline for other pastures: the lawns ringing the grave of Marie Laveau.

For much of the 1800s, Laveau was this city's reigning voodoo queen. Deeply feared and devoutly followed, she was said to call on spirits to dispatch favors or dispose of those who did her wrong. The record shows no proof that she meddled in match play. But that hardly mattered. I was looking for help anywhere I could get it.

I'd come to New Orleans in the throes of desperation, a golfer in a tailspin who'd exhausted every conventional cure. I'd taken lessons. I'd taken betablockers. I'd taken long layoffs, only to come back hacking even more. In less than two weeks, I was scheduled for a grudge match against a childhood buddy and grown-up golf rival, Mike.

Each year we tee it up to play for bragging rights that no one — besides the two of us — could give a cow's fart about. In the early years of our competition, when my handicap was in the single digits, I spanked Mike like a Dickens orphan. But as the calendar pages quickly flipped by in our two-man epic, Mike's game had soared while mine soured. My former whipping boy now meted out the lashes.

Running low on patience, and even lower on ideas, I'd turned my thoughts to voodoo, a plan not as silly as it sounds. When athletes speak of "mojo," they aren't borrowing from Austin Powers. They're adopting a term from voodoo, a religion that has taken root in this country as a hybrid of African and Catholic beliefs.

Even if voodoo couldn't help me find my mojo, I figured I could use it to help Mike lose his. To that end, I'd arrived in As a gentleman playing a gentleman's game, I am, by rule of etiquette, strictly opposed to coughing during my opponent's backswing. But I am more than willing to gut him like a fish, tear off his limbs and stick a needle in his eye.

New Orleans with a lock of his hair that I'd acquired by conspiring with Mike's wife, who plucked it from his comb and mailed it to me overnight express. I felt a little guilty, summoning the spirits to inject Mike with the shanks. But dark times called for dark measures.

In New Orleans, voodoo holds a divided status, considered both serious religion and hokey tool of the tourist trade. In some parts of the city, priests hold consultations in true voodoo temples. Elsewhere, tacky shops tempt travelers with made-in-China voodoo dominatrix dolls. Walking a fine line between the two, I wandered into St. Louis Cemetery, my collared shirt sticky from the outdoor sauna, and laid a sleeve of Titleists near Marie Laveau's tombstone. I asked for her blessing. Then I lit off for the city to see what her disciples could do for my game.

In the French Quarter, the famed party district, young daytime revelers were getting a jump-start on their evening benders, and the closest I came to a religious experience was a bar selling "Jell-O shots from Hell." But a short walk away, within earshot of the bands on Bourbon Street, I stumbled on the Voodoo Spiritual Temple. I pushed open the door into a small anteroom with a large fan beating slowly in the corner. Oils and ointments, beaded amulets and bracelets filled wooden shelves, and two voodoo dolls sat on a counter, spindlylimbed things with surprised-looking faces, like Gumby crossed with Mr. Bill.

"Anybody here?" I called out and turned the corner, nearly knocking heads with the lady of the house. Miriam Chamani, the daughter of sharecroppers, was raised in Mississippi. She saw visions throughout her childhood and had grown up to become a mambo, a high voodoo priestess or spiritual guide, like Bob Rotella in a flowing robe.

She asked me why I'd come, and I explained my situation.

The priestess laughed. She had a wide, friendly face and skin the shade of shoe leather. "Well," she said. "That's a new one. But I did help the Spurs win the NBA championship last year."

Miriam led me down a corridor to her workplace, a candlelit shrine whose cluttered decor looked like a downscale homage to Antiques Road Show: hubcaps, a shrunken Statue of Liberty, a petrified blowfish, a half-finished bottle of Bacardi.
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