A Glimpse Inside The Soul Of Pro Golf

Continued (page 4 of 5)

With one million members, the Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, South Korea, is the largest Christian Pentecostal church in the world. Many regular attendees of Stevens' LPGA fellowship group are Korean. "The Korean players keep their faith closer to their chest," Stevens says. "It's not that they're less evangelical, they just present it differently."

Action speaks louder than words. But when you have global reach through media, words speak loudly, too.

"Today's golfers show a more robust, theological perspective," says Alistair Begg, the senior pastor of Cleveland's Parkside Church, a native Scot and 12-handicapper whose sermon podcasts are well downloaded. Begg is especially impressed with the commitment of players like Aaron Baddeley, who has said that if it weren't for golf, he would have become a minister.

Is there something just a tad off about professional golfers flying in private jets, driving luxury courtesy cars, clawing their way up or down that most Darwinian document known as The Money List, all while preaching about Jesus Christ, that sandaled desert wanderer of no possessions? Shirl James Hoffman, author of Good Game: Christianity and the Culture of Sports, thinks so.

Hoffman doesn't hate sports. Along his path to becoming a professor of kinesiology at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, he played high school and college sports. Hoffman is a Christian, and thinks of sports as special places where we can recover our spiritual centers of gravity. He just doesn't like what we've allowed sports to become.

Hoffman can take you through the most shocking examples of when sport has brought out the worst in people. Recruiting scandals, under-the-table payoffs, Jerry Sandusky, all perpetrations committed in the name of athletic excellence, often at Christian universities. "Elite athletes live in a world dedicated to proving one's superiority," Hoffman says. "And because of the huge prizes awarded for sports nowadays, that culture can squelch, rather than reinforce, the virtues of a life lived with God." Hoffman doesn't much like football's sustained state of mental violence, nor does he approve of the tribalism of fan behavior in huge arenas. Which is partly why he says, "I have long thought that if there is a sport that can be best synced with the Christian disposition, it's golf."

There's nothing about competing that conflicts with the Christian narrative--every golfer will agree with this to a tee. Paul the Apostle said as much in every major translation (I happen to count 18) of 1 Corinthians 9:24: "Do you not know that in a race all runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize."

Walking in the sunshine and using your blessings to rip a majestic, downright heavenly 64 or 65 on a tough golf course in tournament conditions, all while doing it with the heart of a true sportsman, that's what Christian golfers mean when they talk of "giving glory to God." It's a phrase you'll hear mentioned often in locker rooms. A man sweeping a floor can give glory to God in how he sweeps the floor, too; it just gets a little less attention.

As far as the money goes, the PGA Tour contributes $120 million annually for charity. Individually, there's no apparent disparity of giving between Christian and non-Christian golfers. As a whole, they fall toward the generous end of the pro-athlete spectrum.

Stewart Cink says he sleeps knowing he's given exactly what's right. " 'Tithes' is an old word for 'tenth,' " he says. "Each year we give away one-tenth of my earnings." (That would be more than $3 million in tithes just from Cink's on-course career earnings.)

Churches shift stances. People are born into a particular time and place, and all they can do is make the best of it. According to Hoffman, in the early 20th century, before their value to health and community spirit was truly recognized, major evangelical segments considered sports a cancer to spiritual life.

"The challenge for any Christian," says Alistair Begg, "whether they're in the sporting world, or the business world, or in arts, facing daily all the allures and enticements, is for the boat to be in the water without the water getting in the boat."

In a way, golf is its own covenant. "Golfers are adept at understanding right and wrong," Begg says. "They understand out-of-bounds. An average person might say rules and meaning are whatever you make them to be, but golfers don't talk that nonsense."

If golfers are prone to one sin, maybe it's occasional pride in the manner we call penalties on ourselves. So let's tread carefully. If there is some underlying connection between golfers and faith, let's not say it. One of the surest ways to offend someone is to project the holier-than-thou vibe.

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