A Glimpse Inside The Soul Of Pro Golf

How religion has emerged in a world where the meek don't inherit the money title

Religion on tour
November 2012

When an athlete thanks God after a win, it's an awkward moment for a diverse nation. If that doesn't end the interview, the presenter usually follows with a question that couldn't possibly elicit a religious response. No matter where you're seated in the stadium, or standing in the gallery, or watching from one of the 258 million TV sets in America, your reaction to the remark will be precisely as unique as you.

The mainstream teaches that bringing up religion in public is sort of akin to bringing up politics in front of Uncle Chuck at Thanksgiving dinner: If you want everyone to have a nice, relaxing time, it's just something you don't do. But being outside the mainstream isn't the same offense that it once was.

After winning the 2012 U.S. Open at Olympic Club, Webb Simpson told Bob Costas of NBC, "I probably prayed more the last three holes than I've ever done in my life." No doubt some fans were uplifted by this open affirmation of faith from a man so young and fine. To others, the comment landed somewhere near as out of place as the birdcall made by the boozy Englishman in the bonnet who was tackled at the awards ceremony (see survey below).

Sophie Gustafson, a five-time winner on the LPGA Tour, voices what's perhaps the most common affront of the affronted. "If there even is such a thing [as God]," she wrote in an email, "I hope he/she/it has better things to do than help someone win a sporting event."

But is this the message believers really intend? That heaven roots for the New York Jets ever since they signedTim Tebow, or pulls for believers at Olympic Club? (Lee Janzen, Scott Simpson and Billy Casper, all vocal in their faith, also won U.S. Opens there.)

"The Lord couldn't care less whether I win or lose," Bubba Watson said in August, in the collected version of the voice that cracked in April when he thanked his "Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ" after putting on a green jacket. "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."

Jeff Cranford is the president of Links Players International, a nonprofit ministry "whose chief desire is to link golfers around the world in Christ." Once a regular crusader on mini-tours, the trim and handsome 48-year-old now finds his way doing lots of things other than competing, namely writing books and attending Bible coffee chats at country clubs as well as using his inside status with prominent players to get them to speak about their faith at outreach events.

"That God is like some hand that comes out of the sky and pushes a ball back in bounds, that's not what anybody means at all," Cranford says. "Only someone who was very immature in his faith would think something like that. When a player gives credit to Jesus, it's for substantively changing his heart and making him a different person. Which can have psychological and physiological implications. When you realize golf isn't the most important thing in your life, it can free you up to play better."

If you're any sort of golfer, no special spiritual belief is required to recognize that bad shots come from being tentative, and that tentativeness is the opposite of a state of faith. Whether that faith is in your yardage, the position of your right arm in the backswing, the existence of divine heaven in the afterlife, or in the prospect that you could have anyone's wife because it's your BMW parked in the space reserved for the club champion, what we do know is, good golf comes from slinging the club with the proper mix of confidence and abandon. If Tiger Woods has shown us anything, it's that souls at peace and great golf tend to go together.

Golf and religion survey

In his public apology, Woods addressed the need to change his selfish behavior and said that returning to his Buddhist faith would be part of the process: "Buddhism teaches that a craving for things outside ourselves causes an unhappy and pointless search for security."

Dr. Joe Parent is the author of the book Zen Golf and other golf books. He has coached several elite pros, including Christian players, in what he calls mindful-awareness training. "Buddhist psychology is not the same as Buddhist philosophy," Parent says. "Psychology is about how the mind works and how we experience reality. We work a lot with the breath as an anchor for being in the present moment. When players come to me, it's because they recognize a special kind of insight that isn't the usual way of thinking."

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