"God and the Golfer"
Dedicated to Bev Shultz, my dad who taught me golf and how to love life.
In the movie, "The Legend of Bagger Vance", Jack Lemmon's character says, "Golf is a game that can't be won: only played." How true that is. No matter how accomplished one becomes with the various aspects of the game, there is always the feeling that the round of golf just played could have been better. You will hear even the best of players recount their sterling round by acknowledging the magnificent shots played, but also admitting that parts of it could have been better. The game or sport of golf, like life, is riddled with "would-uhs, could-uhs and should-uhs."
And so it is with life. In the pages that follow I have tried to describe the parallels between golf and life. The instructor, or "Pro" will be God, as if He were taking a beginner in both the Christian life as well as the game and teaching him or her the lessons of each.
Each chapter is devoted to explaining some aspect of the game such as a particular club in the golf bag, a situation on the course during a round, or some other important aspect of the game. With that there will be a companion life lesson. Whether you play golf or not, you will find this an interesting read and you may even become a golf enthusiast---or not. Either way you may learn something as you read it as I did while writing it.
While this book is intended to be a refreshing look at how we manage our Christian life and behavior, it is not intended to be a substitute for how we manage either or both. For that one should refer to the manufacturer's handbook---The Bible.
My hope is that this will be a read that one will enjoy rather than endure. When I say "enjoy", I am serious (or is that a contradiction?). You will notice that I love humor and you will find much of that here. There is much humor to be found in the game of golf just as there are many valuable life lessons. With that it mind, let's head on out to the golf course for lesson #1.
Chapter One: Learn The Basics
Any avid football fan remembers the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers, Vince Lombardi. Whether it is legend or fact, there is a story that at the beginning of each season, Lombardi would march all of his coaches, players, veterans and rookies onto the practice field and have them form a circle around him. Everyone was stone silent as the coach was about to speak. With every eye and ear riveted on him, he would pick up the object of play and say, "Gentlemen, this is a football."
Of course all the players knew that. But what they didn't know was that the reason for Lombardi's success as a coach and his record of continued winning seasons was his emphasis on the basics of the game. Coach Lombardi knew better than anyone that if you forget the basics you begin to lose and if you remember them you will win much more often.
And so it is with golf and living the Christian life. Let's examine how this relates first to golf and then to the Christian life.
The game of golf is played by using a hard, dimpled ball that is 1.62 inches in diameter. The object of the game is to strike this ball with any one of a number of odd sticks called "clubs". Usually we think of a club as a weapon used to subdue or even kill someone. Some people occasionally use the golf club in this manner if they don't get the result expected in their attempt to strike the ball. This is not acceptable behavior, especially on the golf course.
The object of the game is to advance the ball down a stretch of mowed grass called a "fairway", using as few attempts as possible to strike the ball. One begins this process from a marked area called a "tee" and culminating play on that "hole" by hitting the ball into a hole (the cup) that is usually from 100 to over 500 yards from the tee. The cup is located on another area of even finer grass and this area is called the "green".
Note: in the winter time, or even during the summer in the hot, southern, desert parts of America the greens may actually be brown due to heat or lack of water. We still call them "greens".
So the first obvious thing to note is that golf is an outdoor sport. It is played on an expanse of earth measuring between 110 and 190 acres. This includes the fairways as well as the "rough" which is the area outside of the fairways, greens and tee boxes. The course itself from the first tee through the 18th green measures between 5500-7200 yards on average, or between 3-4 miles. This would be true if you hit every shot on the centerline of each hole played. Since this seldom if ever happens, one is more likely to travel between 5-6 miles during a round of golf. If you are walking and carrying your bag of golf clubs then this is a great way to burn calories.
It is important to remember that when you do this it is more than simply a few hours of playing a game outside. It is much more than that. Here is an opportunity to enjoy God's creation for several hours. During your round of golf take note of the wonder and majesty of the creation---trees, earth, grass, water, flora and fauna.
When I was ten years old I spent a year in bed, unable to move or feel anything in my legs. I had contracted paralytic polio just months before the Salk vaccine would be administered to all other school children. To everyone's amazement, I recovered. Many other children in the nation did not. My doctor then prescribed as much walking as I could tolerate in order to strengthen my legs and regain muscle tone.
As part of my physical therapy, my dad began to take me with him on Saturday mornings when he would play golf with his friends. There were many things about this decision that I instantly liked. I simply enjoyed walking again more than ever before. It was a great treat to be taller than I had been for too long. Standing and walking was so much better than viewing life from an elevation of only 18 inches while lying on a bed.
One of the other things I discovered at that tender age of eleven was how much I loved my dad. I simply loved walking with him. I barely noticed his playing companions because I so enjoyed just being with him. We would arrive at the golf course at dawn and I marveled at the sight of the sun just waking up, big and orange, slightly elongated, and then assuming its normal color, shape, and size as dawn became day. I remember laughing when I noticed how the morning dew had so saturated my socks that they looked like deformed donuts gathered around my now-thinned ankles. But most of all I remember the sweet, sweet smell of the fresh cut grass, and how often I would inhale deeply to quench my thirst for the wonderful aroma. What wonderful, glorious days those were, if for those reasons only.
Near the end of that summer, a new passion began to take hold. On those same Saturdays while he would be finishing play on one hole, I scurried to the next tee, dug a club and ball from his bag and tried to emulate my dad, the golfer. An excruciatingly small instant after hitting the ball on my first attempt, I was hooked! When my dad and his friends joined me at the tee and saw what I had done, his golf buddies remarked, "You better watch out, Bev, or he'll be beating you before long".
For me, golf is so much more than a game. It has become an opportunity to witness the wonder of God's creation. I still breathe deeply to smell the cut grass. I still marvel at the trees, some old and majestic, others young and struggling to grow, but each so unique. My playing partners still kid me when I help a turtle find his way back to one of the many creeks or lakes. I never forget those moments with Dad and I enjoy now, as then, the wonder and world of God's creation from the roots of the grass to the heights of the heavens.
Now for just a moment, imagine that we are going "Back to the Future". Let's pretend that after several weeks or months of golf lessons and practice, we are going to play a round of golf with friends. We begin the round of golf on the 1st tee. Oh, by the way, this area is usually not far from the "clubhouse" where you register and pay to play. You can also purchase equipment, clothing and snacks here. Many people end their round of golf here after attempting 18 times the efforts described earlier. By now, several hours have passed and the participants are either eager to get away from the trauma they have brought upon themselves or else they need time to anesthetize their bruised egos with some kind of intoxicating beverages. I recommend the former, but not the latter.
Back to the first tee. There is usually some discussion about who will "tee off" first. In reality, no one wants to be first. There is the obvious pressure of having the other players in your group (as well as the other golfers in all the other groups after yours) watching to see what kind of spectacle you will make of yourself. It is amazing what kinds of physiological dynamics are set in motion in these moments when you are expected to hit your shot. Body mechanics suddenly go awry. You find that your hands are wet and your mouth becomes dry when it would normally be the reverse.
Various muscles you never noticed before start to twitch and spasm. You become acutely aware of this and so you take deep breaths. You must be careful to remember not to hyperventilate. Imagine how embarrassing it would be to faint in the middle of your backswing as your eyes roll back into your head. So you tell yourself: "Breathe, darn it!"
So you try to regain control which you haven't had since you were invited to play by your friends several days ago. You love the idea of spending several hours with them out in nature, but you had forgotten about the pressure that comes with the territory. As you are still standing over the ball, aiming down the fairway, you look at the ball, then the fairway, then the ball, then the fairway until one of your trusted friends says loudly enough for the rest of the guys in your group to hear ( oh, and don't forget about all those other guys in all those other groups also waiting for you so they can play), "C'mon! Will you hit the ball already?"
Without looking up, you pretend you heard nothing and you begin your swing. You manage to raise your club, which by now seems to weigh several pounds more than it did when you removed it from your golf bag. Now you are at the top of your backswing and it is time to hit the ball. But instead of making a smooth, natural looking swing, you lunge at the ball. How did that happen? Because your mouth is still dry and your hands are still wet with sweat. The result is that you have mishit your ball so badly that it has only rolled to the front end of the tee box. After your fellow golfers have hit, you will need to try again from that location, again under the watchful eyes of all those other waiting golfers. You won't have to worry about the others in your group. You have taken the pressure off them and they will hit their shots in the fairway (do you still remember what that is even though you haven't found one yet?). They will also scurry past you to the sides of the fairway while you are left to try and advance (hah!) your ball, again under the ever-menacing gaze of those others waiting to tee off. As you finally proceed down the fairway toward your next shot you overhear several waiting golfers say, "Looks like it's going to be a long day."
Thank goodness that was only a dream! Maybe it would be better if we started on the practice tee. This is where we need to learn before we put ourselves in a position to perform without embarrassment.
If we are going to use our various clubs to propel the ball then we must first learn how to hold the club. Golf is not like baseball or hockey (we don't imitate Happy Gilmore). If you want to learn to play and enjoy the game, you can't put a death-grip on any of the clubs.
If we shake hands with our right hands, then that is how you place your right hand on the grip of the club. When we shake with our left hands, that is how you put your left hand on the club. Very simple. Very basic.
Then lock your hands together by laying the little finger of your right hand between the fore finger and middle finger of your left hand. This is called the Vardon grip after Harry Vardon, a great player during the early 20th century. If you are a left handed player, this will be reversed. Congratulations! You have achieved beginner status!
It may sound silly but you should do this as often as possible during your off time. It will help your hands to develop "muscle memory" and feel much more comfortable when you begin hitting golf balls.
Understanding some of the golf terminology and starting points is essential to prepare you for the next steps in your golf career. Similarly, this is equally important for those who are just now taking their first few steps in their Christian faith. One can't possibly know everything about Christianity in one afternoon.
Like Vince Lombardi, someone with experience should be there to show you, "This is a Bible", and not just any Bible. There dozens and dozens to choose from so become a conjoined twin with someone who is further along in their faith. They can help you select a Bible version that is easy for you to read and intellectually grasp. When I was twenty six years old and recovering from a severe car accident, some friends of mine visited me in the hospital. They slipped a copy of Good News for Modern Man (the New Testament written in modern English) into my bedside nightstand. When I got home I read it from cover to cover and understood for the first time who Jesus was and what the Christian faith was all about. Why? Because I could understand the language!
One of the basic things I did subsequently included attending the church my two friends attended. I would never have gone to a church where I didn't know anyone. But my friends got me started. Then, about the third or fourth Sunday, I attended but they were absent. I stayed anyway and listened very carefully to what was said. Even though that was over forty years ago, I still remember exactly where I was sitting---end of the pew next to the door for a quick escape if needed.
That wasn't necessary though. I was attentive through the sermon and the moments that followed when there was an invitation to solidify a decision I had been considering. There was no emotion involved for me. Having worked as a civil engineer I was used to weighing and measuring everything, including my thoughts and all evidence about this Jesus. As Mr. Spock of Star Trek fame would say, "It was logical." So that day I publicly, rationally, logically made a conscious decision to commit to this Christian way.
Two other things happened that were an essential part of my "basic training". First, I was encouraged to join with a group of others my age in the church that met regularly for fellowship and Bible study. This I really enjoyed for a couple of reasons. I was now with people who were decent, moral, fun folks to be with, unlike my former lifestyle. Also, I began to grow in my understanding of the commitment I had made. These new friends were helping me to maintain and understand that commitment. I later understood the meaning of "discipleship."
The second part of my basic training involved the act of baptism. The night this was to take place at the church, I invited my friends, my new support group, and my mom and dad. Again, this act involved no emotion on my part. In fact I never did feel like going out and hugging a tree for 30 minutes, nor did I see fireworks of any kind. Again, it was a logical, rational appropriate thing for me to do. It was after my baptism when a moment of intense, personal emotion occurred at my mom and dad's apartment.
Following the baptism service, my good friends Cliff and Brenda and I went to my folk's place for refreshments. While there I happened to be in the kitchen with my dad. I was shocked and will never forget what he said to me: "Robb, I am more proud of you tonight than if you had won the U. S. Open (Golf Tournament)." That was his way of telling me how much he loved me---for the first time that I remember. Perhaps now you can understand why I equate my love of golf with my love for my faith. I now had the love of my earthly father along with the love of my Heavenly Father. It is basic to who I am.
Chapter 2: Size Doesn't Matter
Master What is Important
The first club one should learn to master is the putter. actually no one ever masters the putter but the better you get with it, the lower your scores will be and the more times you will outscore your opponents. Why, you may ask, if we are going to learn to play the game of golf on expanse of land covering a hundred acres, on a course measuring several miles in length, should we start with the smallest club in the golf bag? Why not start with the Driver, the #1 One, the Big Dog, the club that hits the ball the farthest? The answer is deceptively simple: you will use this club only about 14 times during a round whereas you will use the putter much more often. As you practice and your game improves, this club will be responsible for a quarter to one half of all your strokes. If you don't master this one first it could account for much more than that. Oddly enough the reason for practicing so much with this club is to gain a proficiency whereby you need to use it less and less. The more skilled you become with this club, the lower your scores will be, which is the object of the game---lowest score wins---every time.
When I attended high and then college, the putter was my best friend. Since I was not very big or strong, most of my teammates as well as opponents could hit the rest of the clubs farther than I could. In fact, even though my scores were consistently lower than my teammates' the coach would almost always appoint the biggest, longest striker of the ball to play the number one position during team competition. Coach Barnacle in high school and Coach Bishop in college were more impressed with distance. And yet when the scores were tallied for all to see, there was my name at the top of the leader-board. Why? Because I had mastered the "short game" where it really counts. When it came to the shorter shots and putting, no one could beat me. My dad taught me that and it paid off. He was a great teacher and I was an attentive student.
So let's begin. In a round of golf lasting eighteen holes, the objective with the putter is to use it no more than twice per hole. It is normally used only on the greens. When you first begin using this club on the practice green near the clubhouse you will quickly notice how difficult it is to control the speed and distance your ball travels on the closely cut grass. It takes a lot of time and practice to be able to become consistent in your ability to control this club. Let's face it: it takes a lot of time to learn to use each of the 14 clubs in the bag. But someone who becomes skilled with the use of the putter can drive his or her playing partners to desperation.
My dad was the best putter I have ever seen, and I have played with several thousand golfers over my lifetime. Dad had developed a very smooth, effortless stroke that looked the same every time. The only thing that ever changed was the force with which he used it. Even this part was amazing. Whether the putt was a distance of four feet or forty, he always managed to get the ball close to or in the hole. He was a master with this club for gauging the correct speed and direction of the ball. Even though the norm for number of putts per round of golf is 36 (again, 2 per hole times 18 holes), he consistently managed to use less than 30 per round. Countless times I witnessed his playing partner's frustration at his uncanny ability with this club. They knew that as soon as Bev had reached the green, it was "game over". The putter is the most valuable club in your golf bag. It is ironic that in golf it's the smallest things that make the biggest difference.
The Master is What's Important
When I began my Christian journey in a small town in Northern California, I did not immediately sign up to go to Outer Mongolia to save all those souls that needed saving. Nor did I wander across the nation dragging a cross on my shoulders. Neither did I arrange to speak to groups of thousands of people like a Billy Graham. There are people like that and I am sure they are well-intentioned, good caring people. But I am not like them, except for the "caring" part.
Since I could see no farther than my own sphere of influence (actually a sphere of non-influence), I started small, in my own back yard, metaphorically speaking. I had no knowledge of my faith or of Christianity except what I had read in my little "New Testament in a Language I Could at Last Understand." I had read this book (Good News for Modern Man) but did not understand much of it. In fact six months went by before I realized that the last book of the Bible was actually called "Revelations" and not "Revolutions". Still, it was revolutionary for me.
I started small by joining the small group of other Christians my own age in the church I was now attending. There were nine of us: four couples and me. We met weekly for Bible study, prayer...and fun! I was wonderfully surprised when I learned that one could be a Christian and still have fun. The two years I was with that group were just what I needed and enjoyed. I grew in my faith and made some lifelong friends.
Another thing happened during those two years that helped concretize my faith. This same study/fellowship group was also engaged in an outreach ministry to un-churched high school kids. Once each week, my young-adult friends would meet with group of 60-70 high school youth in someone's home. Furniture was moved out of the way and kids would sit on the floor. In the span of an hour and fifteen minutes there was singing familiar songs (popular culture music rather than church hymns), fun skits and activities, and a closing fifteen minute presentation of some facet of the story of the Christian faith. This was amazing! All these un-churched high school kids listening attentively to information they (and I) had never heard before.
On weekends my young adult group would go to the school football games and other activities just show the kids they cared and to connect with them. It was several months before I realized that this was a ministry, and I was involved, in a small way. It was great! I loved this. Without realizing it I was engaging in ministry, without traveling to Outer Mongolia, and without knowing everything about everything regarding the Christian faith.
It took me several months to realize this was ministry. I've often been a bit slow on the uptake. The reader should know that it took me eleven years to complete college. Until the time of my serious auto accident, I had flunked out of college three times. I spent too much time having a "good time". But then spending these past few months engaged with my support group and also working with these kids, I learned an entirely new definition of a good time.
Then, when school let out, I was about to expand my definition of a good time. My support group along with about 40 of the high school kids we had been working with joined several other groups and together we caravan need with several bus loads to head north through Northern California, Oregon, Washington, and into Canada. Arriving at a seaport departure point, we all boarded a private ship that then sailed for eight hours up the Straits of Georgia to the Princess Louisa Inlet. If that were not enough, we were then over-astonished at what we would then see.
Sometime during the 1930's a very wealthy entrepreneur built a camp for the Hollywood set in this remote portion of Canada. In addition to cabins, meeting lodges, dining hall, etc., there was a swimming pool. But this was not just a swimming pool: it was a SWIMMING POOL! It was an Olympic size pool that had been chiseled out of the native bedrock. It was then filled by the incoming tide which meant that it was salt water and it was cold.
Every face of every passenger on board the boat was frozen in amazement. Every jaw dropped. None of us had ever seen, let alone visited, a place like this. And we would be there for a week. The entire facility was ours. The only access was by 8-hour boat trip, or seaplane. At the time we did not know that sometime that next week a singer named Bob Marley would fly in to perform for and meet the kids. At that point all of the adults became kids too.
Throughout the week there great activities that engaged everyone: hiking, rock climbing, team sports, and even swimming in the incredibly beautiful, cold swimming pool. There were also scheduled times for camp-wide "talks" or message presentations. There was a logical sequence of subjects presented that culminated near week's end with an opportunity to find a private place to reflect upon the series of messages. Campers, counsel ours, junior counselor a (which included me) participated.
I found a large boulder on which to sit and reflect. I remember as if it were just a moment ago when I said, "God, is all this that I have learned and experienced these past few months real? Is it all true?" A moment later I heard or thought I heard an in-audible voice. I know that sounds like a contradiction but it is the only way I can describe it. The "voice said only two words, two small words that I would never have thought to say. The words were, "Welcome home". And I was.
Small steps made a big difference as I grew in my new-found faith.
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