Christians are hardly unheard of in sports. We see soccer players prayerfully cross themselves before and after a game and prominent athletes like Jeremy Lin and Usain Bolt publicly thank God for their success in their (sometimes literal) fields. However, golf’s Christians are in a completely different league from their fellow athletic believers. In no other sport has faith evolved into an established subculture of its own, where multiple PGA Tour Bible studies led by big-name players are just another club within a club and where Bible verses and prayers on social media are almost the rule rather than the exception. For Christianity to become such an essential part of the golfing world, there must be something about the nature of the game itself that makes complete trust in a higher power an inherently appealing thing. We’ve decided to put our wild guess to the test here and examine Christianity in conjunction with one of the most important aspects of golf, the mental game.
Golf vs. the world
When we say sports, you’re likely to say team. When you’re out there on the fields, you cease to become an individual and are instead a mere component of a grander scheme. Do your bit and leave the rest to the other cogs in their places. There is a sense of comfort in this state of perpetual belonging. You don’t have to do anything beyond play your role and act in accordance with the rest of your team. If you fall, they fall. If you score, they score. Basically, the nature of most games is such that you are never alone in victory or in loss.
The opposite is true of golf. On the course, the only person you have is yourself. Every birdie you score will be entirely to your credit and each gaffe can be blamed on no one but yourself. In golf, every man is truly for himself and that can be quite a lonely business. It’s easy to see then how it might be comforting to have a benevolent entity watching over your solitary progress from hole to hole. Also, the sense that he is being supported by someone, especially by a higher power, would certainly go a long way towards making a player feel more emotionally stable and focused out on the course. His unshakeable confidence that someone has his back is likely to result in better playing.
You’re not that important, really.
However, believing golfers are quick to emphasize that it’s not about rubbing a lamp and summoning a supernatural force that helps you win games. Bubba Watson, one of the most vocal Christians in the golf scene today, has said, “The Lord couldn’t care less whether I win or lose. What matters to Him is how I play the game. Obviously a few years ago I was struggling with that. I was really angry on the golf course, and I’ve changed a lot, changed who I am as a person.” This statement alone gives us fascinating insight into the role faith plays in the golfer’s psyche. It’s not about winning more or improving your handicap, but actually about being a better person through one’s game. You play not for yourself, but to become closer to a moral ideal and to better learn your place in a reality that’s bigger than you are. The benefits of this mindset are manifold. When you realize that you and your tournament wins are not particularly important in the grand scheme of things, it’s sort of like being on the team you never had. All you have to do is play your part and let God/the universe do the rest.
Also, playing with the focus off your personal achievements would tend to make anyone feel better about his chosen vocation. When you’re competing to give glory to a higher power or to improve your state of your soul, you’ll immediately find that the game is a more fulfilling exercise that has nobler implications than the mere attainment of a trophy.
Another believer, Webb Simpson, says, “We want to honor and glorify God no matter what that looks like. Whether it’s winning, surely we want to try and win, but if it’s missing the cut, we want to honor him by our attitudes in the way we treat other competitors, the volunteers.” When it matters less whether you win or lose and more how you go about winning, much of the stress cramping up your style dissipates. Jeff Cranford, president of Links Players International, puts it quite succinctly, “When you realize golf isn’t the most important thing in your life, it can free you up to play better.”
But you’re also more than just numbers
As aggrandized as the life and persona of a superstar athlete can be, he can be dehumanized just as easily. In the public eye, he is little more than the sum of his achievements. Tiger Woods is the clearest example of the treacherous nature of the business. He rose to the highest echelons of celebrity status when he was at the top of his game and plummeted to the bottom of the totem pole when his playing started to suffer after his messy divorce. To this day, he still hasn’t regained his former brilliance and is continuously treated as a has-been who doubles as something of a court jester. Were Tiger a Christian like some of his compatriots, he might have taken comfort in the belief that his public downfall did not decrease his value as a human being in any way. Dr. Bob Rotella, a sports psychologist who has worked with many top golfers, is a great proponent of the role of faith in preserving an athlete’s sense of worth. “People can feel like if you don’t achieve, you’re a terrible person or a failure,” he laments, going on to say that faith, “…allows them to be happy off the course.”
Golfer Kevin Streelman tells us what faith has done for his sense of worth, “The thing with Christianity is it’s tough for us to understand that whether you’re Mother Teresa or the Boston bombers, God loves us all the same. We all fall short of his perfection and that’s the reason the Gospel happened and Jesus had to come down and save us. When you wrap your mind around that, I think it kind of frees you up, no matter what, he loves us incredibly much, and he’s got our back no matter what.” If Tiger Woods had possessed the unshakeable assurance that there was a God who was behind him no matter how badly he played, would he still be winning majors today? Golf is intrinsically a mental game and if you can’t maintain your peace of mind off the course, you have nothing.
It keeps you on the straight and narrow
Bob Rotella has another reason to endorse faith among his high-profile clients, “…I think that the other part of it is that when you’re living on the road all the time, to have a belief in a God keeps you on the right track in terms of values and morals and how you live your life.” As anyone in the know can tell you, the life of an athlete is not particularly conducive to maintaining a healthy home life. Even if you don’t go looking for it, the seamy, materialistic side to all the glitz and the glamour often shows its face and presents itself as ripe for the taking. Moments of weakness could have serious repercussions for your career and your family unit (once again, see Tiger Woods). Because PGA players are such notable public figures, their lives are on full display all the time and no mistake goes unnoticed. Christian golfers have even more motivation to stay extra-vigilant, as anything they do and say is a reflection on the faith they publicly protest.
Paul Tesori, Webb Simpson’s caddy, is candid about pressures on Christian players to live an exemplary life, “I know my pastor at church tells us all the time, ‘Look, guys, we can’t be the ones who are complaining, bickering or getting divorced or having affairs if we are the ones trying to call more people into the living.’ People are going to look at us and say, ‘I don’t want to be a part of that.'” But he’s adamant that it’s more than just maintaining a squeaky clean public image, it’s about experiencing a genuine change of heart and conviction to lead a better way of life, “I started to do things to be more obedient to the Lord… If my daughter was watching me, I’d try to think what she would think of me at the time or if Christ was sitting with me there, would he be OK with the way I was acting.”
You belong somewhere
When it’s every man out on the course for himself, simply having a group of fellow professionals with the same struggles and ideals as you can go a long way towards assuaging your sense of isolation out there. The PGA Bible studies have made close-knit friends out of many tour players, who gather together to do devotionals and request prayer for their personal problems. They receive the support they need going through dark times and they also have a group of people who can help keep them from going awry, whether it be in faith or in life choices.
With a strong network of friends whom they are likely to see when they compete in tournaments, they are never alone even when they seem to be. It’s a good way to conjure up a sense of team spirit in the absence of a team, especially when it’s a tangible manifestation of the love of a very great God towards an individual. Also, you’re a lot less likely to be sore when your brother in Christ scores a victory against you. After all, you are all playing to worship the same God and if someone else happens to succeed at achieving that end, is there any reason not to be overjoyed for him?
If there is any sport that is temperamentally suited to the Christian faith, it is golf. Its solitary nature, achievement-based culture and emphasis on one’s mental stability all make it crucial for a player to feel like he is never alone in his struggles. With his wellbeing and worth in the hands of an all-powerful deity who offers him unconditional love and acceptance, it is small wonder then that the PGA Tour believer feels free to play as though the very forces of heaven are the wind beneath his wings.