John Bell '01 Golf Interview

This article was published in July 2001 in Maximum Golf Magazine, written by Tom Ferrel. Maximum Golf magazine ceased publication in 2001.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Growing up near Cleveland, John Bell dreamed of touring the world and playing in front of legions of adoring fans. He envisioned this stardom on the PGA Tour; he has achieved it as the guitarist and vocalist for the rock band Widespread Panic, which last year cracked the top 25 on Pollstar's list of top-grossing concert draws in America. But after forsaking golf for 15 years, Bell has returned to the game and found something far more meaningful than the chance to play well. He now aspires to play perfectly-no matter how he hits the ball.

At age 17, John Bell was a 4 handicap, mainstay of the golf team at University School in Cleveland, and a fixture on the Ohio junior golf scene. "There was a time when I could really play, and golf was all I ever thought about," Bell confesses as we warm up on the range at a private course near Bell's new north Georgia home. A mixture of the mundane and the bizarre, however, led him away from the sport.

"It was mostly the usual stuff," says Bell. "It started with a driver's license-between that and music and girls I got distracted. Then there was the sunburn from hell."

During the summer between his junior and senior years of high school, a shirtless Bell got blistered by the sun, to the tune of skin lesions whose scars are still visible on his right shoulder.

"I'm not talking about just a little discomfort. This was serious, and it messed up my golf game," he says. Since it was the middle of tournament season, Bell tried to play through the pain but compensated with some "weird" swing adjustments. His mechanical troubles spiraled into psychological ones.

"I got to the point where I would stand on the tee and the only thing I could see was trouble-water and trees and sand," Bell recalls. "My senior year in high school was kind of miserable from a golf perspective. I'd been used to playing in one of the top positions, and that year I couldn't hold my own. Golf just wasn't much fun anymore, and music was getting more and more interesting."

By the time he enrolled at the University of Georgia, Bell was honing his singing and guitar skills in pizza joints and dive bars and applying his English literature studies to a new love, songwriting. In February 1985, Bell played a house party with a friend and fellow guitarist, Mike Houser, and a young bassist named Dave Schools, and Widespread Panic was born. The band soon moved into a communal house and dove into the processes of writing, rehearsing, recording, and performing. By 1987, Widespread Panic was making a name for itself in college towns throughout the South. Fledgling bands travel light and work hard, and there was no room on the Widespread Panic bus-or in Bell's mind-for golf.

In 1997, after a 15-year period in which Bell played just three rounds, a friend gave him a copy of Michael Murphy's Golf in the Kingdom. Its vision of golf as a spiritual endeavor rekindled a desire to get back on the course. That, and a Nintendo Gameboy that made the rounds on the tour bus.

"On Nintendo, you could choose what pro you wanted to be. I remember I always chose Freddy Couples - how could you not want to swing like that?" Bell's virtual golf experiences further fueled his interest in giving the game another shot. "You might not believe it, but there really is some of golf's passion in that little game," Bell says with a chuckle.

He started to play occasionally, mostly at Bobby Jones Golf Course in Atlanta, a period Bell describes as "getting to know the game all over again." From his first time out, Bell knew that his thinking toward golf had to change.

"I remember standing on a tee box. I was still seeing all the trees and water and sand, and I thought to myself, 'This is no good,'" Bell recalls. "When you're writing songs, sometimes you get stuck in what you know and you have to go out and experiment with something you don't know. I might do that by tuning a guitar differently and seeing what can come out of it. It hit me that I needed to do that with golf.

"I couldn't rely on skill to get satisfaction out of golf anymore," he continues. "I mean, I still love playing a good round, but if I judged golf by how I score, it wouldn't be much fun."

Bell's solution was to focus on how he played the game rather than how well. Borrowing from Carlos Castaneda, the anthropologist famed for his research with a Mexican medicine man into psychedelic enlightenment, Bell began to seek on the course what Castaneda dubbed the "art of impeccability." To oversimplify, this refers to transcending man's basic, flawed nature by trying to do one's best in any endeavor (e.g., "It is the rare opportunity for a warrior to be given a genuine chance to be impeccable in spite of his basic feelings," per Castaneda).

"Golf can really throw you into a pit of self-awareness and allow you to see yourself the way other people see you," Bell notes. "That notion of impeccability was something I could sink my teeth into right away. It had nothing to do with score. It was a way for me to use the game to improve myself without requiring that I master it from a physical standpoint."

The essence of Bell's approach comes to light early in the round. His tee shot on a par-3 lands in deep grass along a riverbank. Bell dutifully announces that he's playing a provisional, hits a middling shot, and sets off in search of the original ball. He finds it and, long story short, gets into such trouble with it that neither of us can determine the border of the hazard and how that might affect relief. Given the casual nature of our round, even the most devout rules wonk might improvise a decision and get on with it. But Bell hews to the Rules of Golf and carefully plays the provisional and original balls under two different scenarios; eventually, both are holed, in 7 and 9, respectively.

Bell's misadventure brings to mind one of his favorite passages from Golf in the Kingdom. "The Michael Murphy character has butchered a hole," Bell recalls. "[His spiritual guru] Shivas Irons and his student ask for Murphy's score, and he tells them to 'just put me down for a 10.' Then Murphy notices them staring at him."

In his best Ohio-born, Georgia-affected Scottish brogue, Bell quotes Irons: "'Nae, Michael, methinks it was an 11.' Now, that's cold, but something about it really impressed me. If you play within all the rules, it produces a real truth."

In pursuit of that elusive art of impeccability, Bell has devoured and digested the Rules of Golf. But he's quick to point out that he's no moralizer.

"Everybody has a different approach to golf," he says. "I'll occasionally get in a situation where someone notices that I don't hit a mulligan off the first tee or that I don't accept gimmes. This is just the way I do it. I don't require it or expect it of anyone else."

After struggling through the front nine, something clicks in Bell's game. He hits a long, true drive and follows it with a 9-iron approach that jerks to a stop a foot from the hole for a tap-in birdie. On the next hole, a par-three his 5-wood shot nearly strikes the pin. On the next hole, a perfect draw around a dogleg sets up yet another masterful iron shot and an easy par. Bell's gait grows more confident, and his chin edges up, as if someone has handed him a guitar and pointed him toward a microphone.

"I don't care only about scoring," Bell says, smiling, "but that doesn't mean it's not fun to get it going like this."

The round's ebb and flow reminds Bell of a Widespread Panic show. As one of the world's foremost "jam bands," Panic relies on harnessing the moment, not on highly choreographed, polished delivery of well-rehearsed songs. "Our approach has a lot of the spontaneity and improvisation you have to use on the golf course," Bell says. "We learn a lot while we're on stage, and sometimes the best moment of the night is the recovery from a stumble. We play ourselves into situations, and we play ourselves out of them. Sound familiar?"
As quickly as Bell's game has gotten hot, however, it cools back down. Riding a wave of confidence, he tries to bite off too much of the dogleg on a short par-4, sending the ball into water flanking the right side. "Shoot," he says, holding true to another of his new tenets-no swearing on the course. After his drop, on the way to a triple-bogey, Bell's walk and tone are unchanged. Accepting the consequences of a risk are all part of being impeccable. "When you're pursuing something with pure intent and motivation, whether it's golf or music or anything else in life, you leave yourself open to possibilities," he says. "And that's the ultimate goal. You can't force something to happen. You have to create conditions that could allow it to happen."

Our round is nearly over. Bell looks out at the watery 18th. "One thing I always try to do is finish on a good note," he says. "That makes up for a lot." As if to show that there are many ways to reach a goal, Bell combines a good drive with a poor approach, a flubbed chip, and a curling, 30-foot par-saving putt. "Just the way I planned it," he says with a grin.

Adding up the scores on the road home, I realize we forgot to seek the ruling on the par-3 where Bell played two balls. With a favorable ruling, he shoots 95. In the other scenario, it's a 97. "I'll just take the 97," he says.

"That way, I know it can't really be wrong."