A Glimpse Inside The Soul Of Pro Golf

Continued (page 3 of 5)

Esary isn't trying to brag but points out that FCA Golf is the most longstanding and successful of its sports-specific ministries. In team sports--basketball, baseball and football--the coach so often becomes the leader, even in prayer. Golfers out on their own, struggling with the burdens of hotels, kids, flights, baggage and missed cuts, seem particularly receptive to hearing the word. Unaffiliated with FCA, ministries that cater to mixed-martial-arts fighters are also a growing phenomenon.

"We view the Web.com players as guys who have the potential influence to impact kids," Esary says. "We're not looking for their money; we're looking to serve them. But once these guys get to the PGA Tour and look back and see that investment, see how the FCA has served them"--those players, without pressure, freely give to the FCA Golf budget, Esary says.

'What you're mainly seeing in sports is the expression of a certain kind of theology, which is probably best described as Evangelical Protestantism," says Dr. Mark Chaves, a professor at Duke University who studies religion and is the author of American Religion: Contemporary Trends. "If there's an increased visibility of religiosity in sports, it's because something has changed to make these expressions more acceptable or appropriate." Or, as Chaves also suggests, it's because a larger chunk of the Christian population that remains is evangelical, which means to accept the mission of spreading God's word as central to your life. So you flip on "SportsCenter," and it just seems that more athletes are thanking God.

"I'm out here to win souls," says Stewart Cink, the 2009 British Open champion now in his 16th full season on tour. "I want people to ask me why I'm the same guy if I shoot 64 or 77. So happens, the better I play, the more cameras are on me, the more people can see how I am."

According to Chaves, in 1970s America about 25 percent of church-going Protestants were evangelical. As mainline Protestantism has declined, that number has increased to approximately 40-percent evangelical. "American religion is definitely not increasing," Chaves says. "People can reasonably debate if it's stable or slowly declining. Nevertheless, America is still the most religious country in the Western world with the possible exception of Ireland."

Chaves is reluctant to theorize; his job is to survey data. But if he had to venture an opinion, he says the possible decay of traditional religion could be tied to the fact that people are marrying and having kids later, and more people aren't marrying at all. As the percentage of traditional families has declined, the subgroup that's most likely to attend church has gotten proportionally smaller.

"We're becoming a more postmodern, post-Christian society, and so those that remain Christian are more firm and outspoken in their decision," Jeff Cranford says. "People probably feel more free to stand up and say they're atheist, too." From my experience, most pros would rather walk you through the double bogey they made on 18 than answer questions about religion on tour. Many I approached locked up and said they'd rather not talk about it, imagining what could go wrong if their tongue slipped or a comment were taken out of context--though one player, bellied up to a bar with an afternoon tee time the next day, did confide with a knowing sneer: "Sometimes it feels like the darn Bible-study tour out here."

According to the General Social Survey, the number of Americans who attend religious services weekly declined from 42 percent in 1990 to 37 percent in 2010. People tend to over-report how often they attend, says Chaves, who points out that the most dramatic change is in the percentage of people who say they never attend, which rose from 13 percent to 23 percent across the same time span.

If religion is in decline in our society, do people have the right to be insulated from urgent expressions of faith? Is it OK for an athlete to use the celebrity platform to make people feel they should put God at the center of their lives? Clearly guys like Stewart Cink and Tim Tebow answer yes. The great justification of their success is the ability to reach exponentially more people than they ever could as a missionary, or an accountant, or a bus driver.

Cris Stevens encourages her flock of women golfers "to be a presence of the gospel out on tour," but she gets uncomfortable when a golfer's religion gets treated like an endorsement. "I'm concerned when I see athletes put on a pedestal and worshipped," Stevens says. "They live in glass houses, and then a few years later maybe they have a fall. I know how hard that must be, and I get shaky for them and for that platform for the gospel."

Subscribe to Golf Digest
Subscribe today