A Glimpse Inside The Soul Of Pro Golf

Continued (page 2 of 5)

"Will I ever work with a sport psychologist? Possibly," says Webb Simpson. "A lot of my friends who are believers go to guys like [Dr. Bob] Rotella and [Dr. Dick] Coop all the time."

Still, the boundary between matters of this world and the next, as in golf performance and God, get fuzzy for some. "It's not a genie," says Lee Janzen. "I've seen some guys come to Bible study for a few weeks thinking that if they can get that right in their lives, they'll play better. That's not the way it is."

"I don't like it when God is used as a means to an end," says Cris Stevens, the director of the Fellowship on the LPGA Tour. "There are lots of people who work just as hard and with pure faith who don't get to the top."

Jonathan Byrd once thanked God for granting him the peace to win a tournament, then received quite a bit of criticism on Twitter for it. But if people really want to know what he's feeling after accomplishing his line of work's hardest task, he says he's just being honest.

"Life gets difficult when you become a number," Byrd says. "That's how you're judged each day out here. I used to think this life was all there was, so I better squeeze in playing as much good golf as I could."

Sitting in a locker room with a distant stare after a poor round, Byrd speaks with softness and precision about how Christianity has shaped his life. Growing up in Anderson, S.C., he mostly remembers it as a list of do's and don'ts. At Clemson University, Byrd mostly stopped going to church, all while golf, school and social life became his priorities. It wasn't until junior year, he says, that "my parents' faith really became my own." In 2001, Byrd's first year on what is now the Web.com Tour, he attended the Bible-study sessions run by Ralph Howe, the 1988 U.S. Amateur Public Links champion.

"Praying to God to give me what I want, I've struggled with that," says Byrd, now a husband and father of two. "You need to be truthful with yourself. Do I want to please God so I can play good golf, or do I want to please God just to please God? It can get messy."

The organization supporting Howe on tour was FCA Golf, which is one of 13 sport-specific ministries run by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and which remains the major Christian presence on the Web.com Tour today. Now in Howe's old position is Jose Alvarez, the retired major-league baseball pitcher and scratch golfer at 56.

"It's not about religion, it's about faith," Alvarez says. "I try to teach guys what it is to have a deep, personal relationship with God."

Following the modelset by Larry Moody, the PGA Tour's chaplain since the early 1980s, Alvarez leads a fellowship session once a week. He secures a hotel meeting room or a local home where players, wives, caddies, whoever wants to come, can get together for 90 minutes. They talk, discuss scripture, and maybe say a prayer relevant to the life of someone in attendance. Alvarez wants the atmosphere very informal. Unlike Moody, who has established Wednesday night as the traditional meeting time on the PGA Tour, Alvarez has his Web.com players typically meet on Tuesday "because they get more distracted with the Wednesday pro-ams."

The Champions Tour fellowship group, ministered by Tom Randall, meets on Fridays and routinely has the largest active participation of any tour. Jeff Cranford says, "It's a more relaxed atmosphere out there. There's no cut, and it's easier to keep guys all on the same page because there are no opposite-field events. Maybe most important, guys at that stage of their life are starting to ask a lot of the same questions."

I attended a fellowship at the Residence Inn in Moline, Ill., the week of the PGA Tour's John Deere Classic. Dave Krueger, Moody's partner, who leads sessions at many tour events each season, sat in the center of a horseshoe of 25 folding chairs. Krueger wore jeans and a T-shirt, and all the attendees were similarly dressed, like they'd just returned from Panera Bread. Basketball shorts, flip-flops, iPhones. Not surprising, Ben Crane was the class clown, as well as clearly one of the most learned. Not wanting to invade what Krueger calls "their one sacred space each week on tour," I promised all attendees that everything said was off the record.

"If there has been a real growth [of Christian presence] on the tours, a lot of it is personality-driven," says Jim Esary, the national director of FCA Golf. "Which isn't necessarily the way it should be. But Christians come together when leaders lead. Jose Alvarez has an incredible gift for connecting and communicating, and people respond to that."

Subscribe to Golf Digest
Subscribe today