There’s a certain zen quality to it,” says Asha Rangappa. “You have to detach. You have to trust that if you perform all the elements without trying to control the outcome, you will get the outcome you want.”
The former FBI counterintelligence agent is talking about learning to shoot firearms at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va. But it turns out that experience is a lot like golf, a game she took up five years ago.
“If you can just let go and trust the physics of the golf swing, that’s when it works for you,” says Rangappa, now a CNN contributor and senior lecturer at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.
Rangappa, 45, first tried golf at a women’s clinic promoted by the Connecticut Bar Association, and she loved it. She signed up for more lessons, then joined a women’s league for beginners, competed in a tournament with other fellow former special agents and helped organize an FBI golf outing in New Haven, Conn.
Looking back on it, she easily could have ignored the invitation to come learn golf at Connecticut’s Lyman Orchards Golf Club. But because the event was organized by the bar association—meaning it was people she already knew—that made it vastly more appealing. She also liked that it was a women-only group. Why? “I don’t know,” she says. “Sports plus guys: There’s going to be somebody trying to flex in there.”
The instructors “literally walked us through the nuts and bolts,” she says. “That was important because it’s really easy to think of golf as intimidating if you didn’t grow up playing. My parents were Indian immigrants. They made a valiant effort to expose me to as many opportunities as possible, but I don’t think golf was even on their radar.”
It’s hard to imagine Rangappa being intimidated by much. After growing up in Hampton, Va., where her father worked as an Army doctor and her mother was an accountant, she went on to Princeton University, a Fulbright scholarship and Yale Law School.
She joined the FBI soon after the 2001 terrorist attacks. At a time when the bureau was eager to hire multilingual agents, she says, her fluency in Spanish and the Indian language Kannada put her application on the fast track. Even still, it took about nine months of drug tests, polygraph exams and other screening measures before she entered the FBI Academy.
Becoming an agent was, in her words, “incredibly challenging.” Making matters worse: She had been in a car accident a month before entering Quantico, suffering a rib injury, so she “spectacularly” failed the first day’s fitness test.
“I had never failed anything in my life before,” she says. “It was a huge wake-up call. I had to decide if this was something I really wanted to do. I just had to marshal all of my resources to meet the challenge. I trained like a maniac. I would get up at 4:30 in the morning and wrap my ribs and do sit-ups with weights on my chest. They give you another test at six weeks, and I passed that with flying colors. For me, it was a really transformative experience.”
Rangappa left the bureau in 2005, becoming associate dean of admissions at Yale Law before settling into her current role. Among the classes she teaches: Russian intelligence and national security law.
One of the things she finds most interesting about golf is the relationship between its rules and its unwritten norms, or etiquette. It’s a bit like the U.S. government, she says.
“People have realized over the past three years, particularly when it comes to the office of the presidency, that most of the things we have accepted have been norms,” she says. “People will ask, ‘Is that legal?’ Sometimes the answer is yes, but being legal doesn’t make it right.”
To put it back into golf context, you might decide not to help your opponent hunt for a lost ball—but should you?
“Yes, exactly. Golf is not fun because you win at all costs,” Rangappa says. “It’s fun because you enjoy it. And there’s a sense that you’re contributing to everyone’s mutual enjoyment.”
Her job, combined with raising two kids and appearing on CNN a lot during the Mueller investigation, has cut into her golf time lately. But she’s hoping to squeeze more golf into her schedule.
“Whenever I do play, I always find that it kind of hits me: I don’t do this enough!” Rangappa says. “It’s just such a great way to unplug and be in nature with people I like.” —PETER FINCH