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. "For the spirits," said Priestess Miriam when I asked about the rum. "And for me to wet my whistle from time to time."
When I told her that golf had been driving me to drink, the priestess confessed that she'd never played the game, but she liked to watch it on TV. "Golf takes you on a journey, and gives you a glimpse into a person's soul," she said. "It also requires patience. You must concentrate for all 17 holes." "I'd like to learn more patience," I said, wondering if I should have held out for a more golf-savvy priestess. "But what I'd really like to do is put a hex on my buddy."
At this, Priestess Miriam shook her head and frowned. Hexes, curses and pins inserted savagely into dolls were pure hokum, she said, a popular distortion that gave voodoo a twisted name. As a true practitioner, the priestess believed that all life forms had a natural balance, and that anything offkilter could be shifted back to equilibrium through spiritual counsel.
Then again, she'd never seen me swing. "So, what should I do?" I asked. "Let's see," said the priestess. "I'll ask the chicken to scratch out the answer." Sitting behind a low-slung table, she grabbed a fistful of chicken bones and tossed them like a craps player rolling dice. The bones scattered on the table, seemingly at random, but the priestess saw a pattern.
"You have an important match soon, on a Tuesday or a Wednesday," she said. "We're playing a week from Thursday." Priestess Miriam nodded. "Right," she said. "Thursday." "Can you help me get my game back by then?"
The priestess gave me a weary smile. "People want things so fast these days," she said. "The other day, I was listening to Venus." "The goddess?" I asked. "No, the tennis player," she said. "She was talking about playing her sister, how she had to learn how to compete against someone she was close to." I made a puzzled face. The priestess waved her hand.
"What you need," she went on, "is not to get fixated on your opponent. You must let your own confidence grow so you can shake the hold he has over you. Approach him in friendship, not competition. And resist the urge to experiment. Stick to one pattern." "Ah," I said. "You're saying I should trust my swing." Priestess Miriam nodded, and we sat in silence. A candle on the low-slung table flickered. Outside in the courtyard, a rooster crowed.
"Fair enough," I said as I pulled the envelope of Mike's hair from my pocket. "But just in case, how about you make me a voodoo doll?"
The priestess took the envelope.
"With material and labor," she said, "that will cost you two hundred bucks." The next afternoon, as the sun died over the Mississippi delta, I drove back to the airport, my Mike voodoo doll propped in the passenger seat. Mini- Mike looked nothing like my buddy, but the priestess had added some personal touches and Mike's hair was woven inside the doll's belly, the better to hold him under my spell.
"Don't use this to do your friend harm," the priestess warned me as she handed me the doll. "That is not what voodoo is for."
Perhaps sensing my disappointment, she added,"But you can cover the doll's eyes to blind him to the prospect of victory, or put a golf tee in his mouth if you want to quiet him down."
Thursday morning arrived, and I stood with Mike on the first tee of a tight, tree-lined course just outside Boston. "I approach this match in friendship," I told myself. But Mike was sounding cocky, making brash predictions. Irked, I reached into my golf bag, pulled out the doll and told Mike that his winning days were done. I wrenched the doll's shoulders.
"That's to make you come over the top," I said.
Mike was mystified, so I explained what I'd been up to, watching as the color drained from his face.
"Voodoo, schmoodoo," he said, trying to gather himself. But his voice lacked conviction, and his cocky smile was replaced by the quivering lips of a man who'd just eaten a bad oyster.
Unsettled, Mike stepped up to the tee and snap-hooked one into the trees. Then I split the fairway with a mammoth drive.
Watching my ball fly, I felt a surge of confidence, what the priestesses call "mojo" and Tiger calls his "A-game." My rival, I realized, would soon be reeling. True mojo is too much for any man.
On the second hole, Mike, in a fit of overcompensation, sliced his tee ball out of bounds. I recorded a ho-hum par. And so on. By the time we made the turn, the match stood four holes in my favor. Yet much to my surprise, my big lead hadn't filled me with satisfaction.
As my once-bullish buddy slouched toward the 10th tee, what I felt was pity. And a tinge of remorse. Priestess Miriam had given me the power, and told me to use it for good, not evil. Voodoo was intended to enhance my own play, not to drag my opponent down.
I stopped Mike in his backswing and told him I was sorry. He was Cindy Loo Who, and I was the regretful Grinch on Christmas morning.
"I release you from my clutches," I said, stashing the voodoo doll in my golf bag. Mike smiled, looking relieved. Then he birdied three of the next five holes. I was 3 over par, a man still clinging to a modicum of mojo, as we made our way to the 18th tee. But Mike had trimmed my lead to one.
Mike's tee shot found the fairway. Mine found the woods. I dashed into the trees, hacking at the branches like Pizarro on the plunder. But the quest was hopeless. The ball was gone.
On my lonely march back to the tee, I realized that the priestess had misled me: In golf, you have to concentrate for more than 17 holes. I felt my shoulders sagging and my mojo slipping. But at that moment, I spotted something white and shiny in the rough. I bent to pick it up, and the logo smiled at me like a sign from the spirits: a brand new Nike Mojo ball. I rubbed my eyes, convinced I was daydreaming, but the psychedelic lettering still read the same. Playing with my fresh find, I split the fairway, stuffed a wedge to a foot and salvaged bogey to halve the hole.
Mike cracked open his cobwebbed wallet and coughed up $20. I grinned and stuffed the bill inside my bag.
Months have passed. Hurricane Katrina has come and gone. But as New Orleans limps on, soaked and staggered, my doll now lounges high and dry on a bookshelf in my office. After dusting Mike, I promised myself that I would never again draw on the dark powers. As much fun as it is to torture an opponent, golf, I decided, is a game that we play against ourselves.
At least that was my thinking until today, when I got a call from Mike. He was in town, had sorted out his swing and was back to talking smack, announcing his intentions to crush me on the course the next day. Dusk was falling and long-fingered shadows crept across my office floor. An evil grin ticked the corners of my lips, and I glanced up at the doll and checked if its mouth was capable of swallowing.
"You're on," I said to Mike. On the way home I stopped at the drug store and picked up some Metamucil. I knew there were no bathrooms on the course, but I can't say I was going to feel bad for Mike. Just to be safe, I took my doll out for some greasy Mexican food.