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."
'IT'S NOT A GENIE'
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.
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."
"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."
'IT CAN GET MESSY'
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."
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.
'I'M OUT HERE TO WIN SOULS'
'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."
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.
"I can see how others might get irritated," Janzen says. "A guy leads a quiet, good life and then sees another guy get up and preach whenever the camera's on him."
"I stay pretty quiet about it," says 20-year pro John Senden, who supports a Catholic church in Dallas and another in his native Australia. "I don't distract myself with scriptures in my yardage book or anything like that. When I'm walking down the fairway and don't want to think about golf, I might just look at the tops of the trees."
"The biggest misperception out there is that Christians have it figured out," Byrd says. "That we all have our lives together and want to show people the way. I'm not perfect. I was lost, and my life was a mess. Some days I feel like I have the silliest job in the world. That's when I just try to remember to stay lighthearted like Crane, keep things in perspective."
Lighthearted is certainly a word that could be used to describe the "Golf Boys" introductory music video, "Oh Oh Oh," which secured charitable donations with almost 5.5 million views on YouTube. Any golfer who wasn't lost in a hazard saw Crane, Watson, Hunter Mahan and Rickie Fowler perform original content. Call it what you will, but you can't say it wasn't good, clean fun.
IMPACT ON ENDORSEMENTS
If a golfer is especially showing of his religion, does that affect earning potential in endorsements? A crass consideration, but one top golf agent who spoke on the condition of anonymity said, "The contracts they get are not of the magnitude they would get if they kept their religion to themselves. Ninety percent of America is mainstream. People find it off-putting, and they don't want to be proselytized to."
Louis Martin, of International Sports Management, disagrees. "It's a nonissue. Maybe every once in a while a company will say, 'No, we don't want that guy; he's too wholesome.' I say fine, then send them to somebody else."
David Carter of the Sports Business Group says you can't make a definitive statement. "Consumers want authentic athletes to whom they can relate and live vicariously through. It can reinforce a player's brand among his core constituency, but there's also definitely a fine line between presenting personal information that's going to alienate certain fans." As Michael Jordan famously said when refusing to formally support a Senate candidate, "Republicans buy sneakers, too."
"It's funny," Webb Simpson says. "I had one idea of what it would mean to be a Christian on tour before I got out here. I thought it was going to be all about having this big influence. Which is still part of it, but the older I get I realize God cares more about the little things than what you say after a tournament. It's about how you treat the volunteers, the fans. How you love your wife and kids on the road."
Does golf have its Tim Tebow coming soon? Picture next season, late on a Sunday, a fiery, wholesome-faced young rookie birdies the 17th hole to take a one-shot lead. Before he pulls the headcover at 18, he drops down on one knee.
__TWEETS THEY LIVE BY
A sampling of tour pros on Twitter__
683,627 followers @bubbawatson__
Romans 12:12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.
Understand & love my parents more now. Nothing matters but my wife & my baby boy! Golf is fun but God - Wife - Baby are my life.
To God Be the Glory!!! #Masters
Just want to say THANKS to all my twitter/facebook followers y'all help me grow in my faith, negative & positive comments help me learn.
399,617 followers @RickieFowlerPGA__
Love my haters but love my true fans even more...I'm a lover not a hater...life is way too short to worry about bringing others down!
70,945 followers @webbsimpson1__
26,000 will die today due to lack of food or water, I need not complain of anything. I am blessed man beyond measure
Thanks to everyone for the support and encouragement. Humbled to win the US Open!! Thankful to God for His grace in my life. #nosleep
If you don't want to read my tweets about certain things, it's probably a good idea to not follow me instead of getting upset about it #:)
57,709 followers @AaronBadds__
Rough day on the course today but looking fwd 2 tonight - Highlands Church at 7pm!
66,127 followers @bencranegolf__
Congrats @TimTebow on a great win!! Hmmm and u passed for 316 yards. That # ring a bell. Most pop bible verse one of my favs John 3:16
16,702 followers @JByrdpga__
First night at @Love3d house for the college golf fellowship conference! Great night in the word talking about the reliability of scripture!
3,065 followers @TomLehman2011__
Amazing...I tweeted that the leaderboard is full of people who care that today is Easter...and have gotten some very negative responses.