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Monday, May 31, 2010

God and Golf

Let's start with Zach Johnson, who on Sunday won the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial. Walking off the 18th green, he had this to say to CBS's Peter Kostis:
I feel honored. They say everything's big in Texas, but I know there's one thing bigger and that's my God. And I want to lift this up to Him and give Him the glory, because the peace and the talent that he's given me I don't deserve. But I'm very thankful. (Image: Scott Halleran/Getty Images, via Golf.com)
Earlier this year, Golf magazine "editor-at-large" Connell Barrett mentioned Johnson in a list of 10 "new rules" for 2010 at his "Flyers" blog at Golf.com. In fact, he took advantage of the opportunity to rip Christians not once in that column, but twice.
     A few days before, conservative commentator Brit Hume, during an appearance on Fox News Sunday, urged Tiger Woods to "turn to the Christian faith and you can make a total recovery and be a great example to the world." (Video here.) Now, make of that comment what you will. But here's what Barrett had to say (in "new rule" #6):
Brit Hume must lay off the assholier-than-thou act. The Fox News Bible thumper suggested Tiger convert from Buddhism to Christianity to fix his cheatin' heart, a shockingly dumb comment. Brit, did you learn nothing from Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder? "Never go full retard."
The irony is, in rule #3 in the same piece, Barrett wrote that people should "[s]top telling the press to leave Tiger alone. He's fair game. A public figure by choice. What two people do in the privacy of a church parking lot is everyone's business."
     So, apparently Barrett thinks it's OK to go after Tiger to make jokes about him, but if you offer him some sincere advice about how he might improve himself, you're an a**hole and a retard.
     Later, for his final "new rule," Barrett wrote: "Tour pros may no longer credit the Almighty for a victory." To elaborate, he turned to "comedian/golf nut" Lewis Black, who had this to say:
I hate that .... I remember watching the Masters the year Zach Johnson won. I was rooting for him. He was a great story, this underdog. Then he opens his mouth, and it's God this and that. I said, 'Noooooo! Not another one!' Sorry, Zach, but God wasn't with you on the back nine—he was busy helping hurricane victims, where he was needed. You know, God stuff!
I understand that you might not share Johnson's beliefs, and even that you might not appreciate him proclaiming them after a victory. But I really don't understand the hostility. Where's the "tolerance" everybody always says you're supposed to have?

     I think at least part of it comes from a misunderstanding of how guys like Johnson "mix" golf and faith. There's a scene in The Simpsons where Bart and Todd Flanders – son of the Simpsons' annoying born-again Christian neighbor Ned – are about to square off in the finals of a miniature golf tournament. Homer spots Ned and his family praying before the match. "Hey, Flanders!" Homer taunts. "It's no use praying. I already did the same thing and we can't both win!" But then Flanders explains that he was actually praying that nobody would get hurt.
     And that's where I imagine Lewis Black's complaint lies. He thinks, "Why would God care who wins a stupid golf tournament when there is so much suffering going on in the world?" For one thing, if we take his complaint at face value (we should remember he's a comedian), Black clearly does not believe in God's "omni-ness," that is, His omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence. He's putting finite limits on God's ability to multi-task, to use a modern, non-theological term.
     But his larger objection, I suspect, is the idea that Johnson thinks God might want him to win more than the other guy. I will acknowledge here that there are probably well-intending Christian athletes who believe that if they pray hard enough and sincerely enough that balls will bounce their way and victories will result. But I don't think that Johnson fits that category, and he expressed as much in the press room after the tournament. When asked what it was like to play with good friend Ben Crane in the final round he replied:
We've been good friends for years. Our families are good friends. We are both Christians, so we had a lot in common. Walking with him today [at] Colonial on Sunday was great. It was an honor because we're so close. I pray for him and he prayed for me. I'm not saying that's why we play well, but we pray for peace and contentment. I think there is a lot of truth to that.
In a comment to my review of the book Straight Down the Middle, RobT said, "I personally don't think religion and sports mix too well. But spirituality/meditation, which is what I think he's getting at, does apply to sports better." And here's a mistake a lot of people make. Or, maybe call it a "misconception." (Image: Straight Down the Middle, by Josh Karp; Chronicle Books, 2010)
     I think RobT's definitions are probably different than my own. Many people think of "religion" as the formal practice of a spiritual life. As RobT seems to, they separate it from "spirituality." It's what you do on Sunday (or Saturday, as the case may be), in a specific way, as opposed to how you live your life and relate to the supernatural (or however you define it) in a more general way. Religion is outward; spirituality is inward. But when it's real, the Christian "religion," the Christian faith, affects all aspects of your life.
     Years ago I had what you might call a religious conversion: I recommitted my faith in Jesus Christ and made the practice of Christianity a central focus of my life. And an interesting thing happened (actually, a lot of interesting things happened, but only one of them had anything to do with golf): I suddenly started playing the best golf of my life. It wasn't because I started going to church on Sunday. It wasn't because God was guiding my shots or altering my swing. And it certainly wasn't because I was praying to shoot lower scores (the thought never even occurred to me).
     It was happening because I was at peace: with God, with the world, with myself. Suddenly, golf wasn't as important to me anymore. In his comment, RobT quotes the author: "What is the balance between caring and not caring? How do you care yet throw caution to the wind at the same time? Gain control by giving it up?" This is what my newfound faith enabled me to do: care less and give up control. Previously, I had too much of my self-worth tied up in being (or trying to be) a good golfer, which made bad shots sometimes feel like little personal tragedies. And this is not the mindset you want to have on the golf course! When God gave my life more meaning, it took a lot of my on-course tension away and freed me to play better – very suddenly – by probably at least five shots a round.
     I'll be the first to admit that this initial "surge" of inner peace wore off after a while, at least in terms of how it helps me on the golf course. I still get uptight sometimes when I play; I still try too hard on occasion. Maybe even frequently. But I'm able to let go of bad shots and bad rounds much better than I used to. And I enjoy golf more than I did when it held a too-lofty position in my life.
     Call it religion if you want, call it spirituality if you prefer. I call it the focus of my life. And that doesn't change – if I can help it – whether I'm off the course or on it.
     And if guys like Connell Barrett and Lewis Black can't appreciate that, then, well ... I'll just pray that no one gets hurt.

UPDATE: The fine Armchair Golf Blog has posted a condensed version of this post here.


  1. I enjoyed this post, Mike. The way I look at it, Zach gets to say what he wants when he wins and give credit where he feels it's due. In his case, it's God. And you're right, a lot of people aren't comfortable with that or are openly hostile. I don't quite get it. That's who Zach is. The "tolerance" term is bandied about a lot ... where's the "tolerance" in this situation?

  2. Wonderful post. In our society, "tolerance" is often a one-way street. It's rare when you get wisdom about God and golf in the same post. Excellent. Linked to this on my blog endtimestavern.com

  3. I often wonder why people are so hostile towards Christians and Catholics. Maybe it's our way of responding in calm, love, and non-violent ways that made us easy pickings.

    Can anyone imagine criticizing Islam or the prophet muhammad? All of the sudden, "tolerance" applies because they're scared of the death threats.

    Good post, Mike.

  4. All of this leads to a nagging question: how come Connell Barrett gets paid to write about golf and you don't?