Golf as Spiritual Ordeal

Golf, is it about relaxation? You may change our mind after reading Ian Johnston’s article.

Golf, is it about relaxation? You may change our mind after reading Ian Johnston’s article.

Golf… is the infallible test. The man who can go into a patch of rough alone, with the knowledge that only God is watching him, and play his ball where it lies, is the man who will serve you faithfully and well. ~P.G. Wodehouse

For many years, the charms of golf, for the player or the spectator, remained beyond my comprehension. After a brief trial playing the game, I abandoned it decades ago, and if I caught television coverage of a major tournament, I quickly moved on to something else. The undeniable popularity of the sport was one of those great mysteries of modern life.

Then, I had an insight, which all of a sudden opened up my eyes. It came to me in the same way divine illumination comes to visionaries, in a dream, for, as the spectacle unfolded, lo, I gazed and saw that golf is the secular embodiment of the most basic living metaphor of radical Protestantism. It permits one to experience, without the tedious necessity of attending chapel, the most powerful message lurking in the fierce and narrow Puritan heart, life as a solitary odyssey in which the flawed soul of the faithful is sternly and repeatedly put to the test. It is, in other words, the recreational equivalent of the most famous and widely read Puritan text (other than the Bible)–John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. In fact, the major details of the game are so closely patterned on Bunyan’s great novel, that the famous preacher should be a candidate for the Founders’ Hall of Fame.

Consider some of the more obvious similarities. The individual sets off alone, abandoning his communal responsibilities and leaving his family in distress at home. He carries a weighty bag on his back and a small book to guide him and to record his accomplishments. The experience requires him to make a journey through hazardous terrain with a few chance companions, some Obstinate, some Pliable, and to exercise the sternest mental and spiritual discipline as he goes. Perils are all around. Many of these are external threats (bunkers, streams, trees, rocks, rough grasses); others are mental dangers (despair, loss of focus, anger, frustration, vanity, over-confidence, nerves). A number of the physical hazards have graphic names equivalent to the Hill Difficulty, the Slough of Despond, the Valley of Humiliation, and so on: “Hell Bunker” (St. Andrews), The Coffin (Royal Troon), Amen Corner (Augusta), Church Pew’s (Oakmont), Devil’s Bunker (Pine Valley) and so on–strong reminders that what is at stake is not a pleasant stroll in the sunshine.

… for in no game is the urge to cheat stronger or the opportunity more frequent or easier to take (a nudge here, a stroke of the pencil there, now and then a false tally).

Along the way, the pilgrim-golfer must keep track of his “score” a detailed record of his accomplishments, in order to compare that against the scores of other pilgrims. The idea is to record as few errors as possible, the best score being the one with the fewest mistakes or sins. However, one is not really playing against anyone else, as in most games, for one’s accomplishments, stroke by stroke, do not depend on how or where those opponents are in the game (in many cases, a golfer might not even know his opponents’ scores). Now that the stymie has been removed from the rule book, a golf shot is not physically affected by one’s opponent’s shot (unlike what happens in tennis or badminton, for example), and the success of one’s final score is independent of the number produced by one’s fellow players. Here the opponent’s influence, if there is one at all, is entirely psychological, the panic-inducing sense that one may be falling behind, a sense of spiritual inadequacy, which can spur one onto even harder striving or harsher self-recrimination or, more commonly, both at once. As in the well-lived Puritan life, one is playing against oneself, matching one’s success against the mystical value of PAR (the Pilgrim’s Attempt at Redemption–a numerical rating for each hole denoting the number of strokes a truly “scratch” pilgrim should play in order to be successful) and one’s relation to the total of these numbers is one’s “handicap.” And no matter how few one’s recorded sins (called, interestingly enough “strokes,” a term suggesting self-flagellation), one could and should have done better. In Baggar Vance’s words, which might well be a slogan for the sternest of spiritual creeds, “You can’t win this game; you can only play it.”

To do well in the game requires one to stay on the “fair-way,” as much as possible avoiding the many cunningly placed pitfalls, which are everywhere. There are two major varieties in the physical design. In Links Golf the pilgrim-golfer is much more exposed to the vagaries of the weather (wind and rain) and the unpredictable nature of the ground, especially the acres of long grass and immense greens. This variety is especially popular in the land where the game was popularized, as one would expect in the territory of that stern Puritan ranter John Knox. In North America, of course, for all the popularity of fundamentalist belief, there is a decided preference for comfort and predictability, especially in religion, so the most basic characteristics of Links Golf have been discarded for a more lush and tame environment, where neither ground nor wind can interfere nearly so much–but the fairways are narrowed and often flanked by dense stands of trees, designed to seduce the golfer into a slice or hook, sending his ball into the forest where demons lurk.

The spiritual discipline required on this pilgrimage is intense, for in no game is the urge to cheat stronger or the opportunity more frequent or easier to take (a nudge here, a stroke of the pencil there, now and then a false tally). Where there are no witnesses, other than oneself, what’s the difference? It’s no accident that where the ball ends up from shot to shot is called a “lie,” for this game is the sinner’s crucible where unremitting temptation comes with the challenging and isolating territory. Some spiritually slack pilgrims recognize in advance that they are not up to the strain and agree among themselves to ease the tension by awarding each other a certain number of “do over” strokes in the event of a disastrous mishap. This practice is against the rules, of course, and is regarded with contempt by true believers, who convey their disapprobation by using only Irish Catholic names to refer to it: taking a Mulligan or a Finnegan or a Branagan or a Flanagan.

The journey ends at the home of all the spiritually elect, the Celestial City of the club house, where the pilgrim-golfer can mingle with other pilgrims very like himself and enjoy the spirits of the place. Such locations are normally quite exclusive, since the stern demands of the Puritan ethos do not really welcome those who are not white Anglo-Saxon Protestant males. Golf has moved with the times, of course, often rather grudgingly, and the two best players in the world some years back may have had black skins, but historically it has been the slowest of the popular games to open itself up to suspiciously foreign ethnicities, and, on the professional level, it remains the least integrated of the major sports. The country club realities of the game (the cost and conditions of membership and the green fees) make sure that, regardless of the law of the land, golfers generally mingle with people just like themselves (“Come golfing in Florida, where the players are as white as the bunker sand”). And it’s no accident that for many years there were fierce arguments about the status of women at Augusta and elsewhere or that the urban legend about the name golf being an acronym for “Gentlemen Only: Ladies Forbidden” endures in spite of all attempts to debunk it.

The nature of the game as, first and foremost, a spiritual test emerges, too, from the fact that golf requires no particularly demanding level of physical fitness. Someone like John Daley, for example, could be a top-flight player even though he was vastly overweight, spent a lot of time drinking, and warmed up for the first hole of a tournament by smoking three cigarettes in succession. No special physical fitness is required, because as children of God, we are all given the only thing we truly need, an inner spirit. If our bodies are a problem, then that’s just one more stern challenge for the spirit to cope with, en route to the promised land. And if we don’t want to face that challenge, we can bring technology to our aid in the form of a cart or electric car to move around or hire a servant to carry our bag. It’s our souls being put to the test here, not our physical prowess, so why not? This feature of the game may also explain why Seniors Golf gets such extensive television coverage. What other sport can boast televised professional tournaments for players long over the hill? Why not Seniors Track and Field or Seniors Tennis coverage? Ah, but these are games of the body; whereas, golf is the game of the ageless, tireless Puritan soul, which is not permitted to rest or retire from the game. No wonder sports psychologists are more in demand on the golf course than anywhere else!

These similarities are all obvious enough. But there are others. For the popularity of golf is designed to foster other elements of the one true faith. Take, for example, the issue of technological innovation, something dear to the hard-working Scottish Puritan ethos. No other sport employs so many PhD research types, half of them working to improve the pilgrim’s equipment so that his journey will be more successful, the other half working to control the unbridled development of new materials and thus to keep the experience a sufficiently demanding and equal challenge. No other sport requires from the player such a constant attention to expensive new technological possibilities or from the groundskeepers more frequent alterations to the terrain. If players are hitting the ball further or more accurately, then let’s alter the landscape to make it more difficult (what’s become known in the trade as “Tiger-proofing” a course).

Then, too, there are golf’s obvious links to capitalist business, the supreme Puritan “calling,” for it is the game of financial deal makers par excellence. Indeed, I received my first set of golf clubs as a university graduation present from my Scottish capitalist grandfather because he knew I would need them to succeed on Bay Street (he’d told me I was going to get a special present and, foolishly, I assumed it would be a car–the disappointment has coloured my attitude to the game ever since). Almost all American presidents and presidential candidates are required to have photo opportunities on the golf course, a de rigueur image to reassure the businessmen who donate small fortunes to their campaigns that their souls are going in the right direction.

That Puritan link explains also why the personalities of golf’s professional players are so bland and, in comparison with many major figures from other sports, so dull, at least in public. Central to the Puritan ethic is humility in the face of success and a stoical re-dedication to the enterprise in the face of failure, with no sense of Aristotelian grandiloquence or self-promotion–no showboating allowed, no heroic self-assertion, no trash talk, no victory dance, no complaining–none of those moments where the passions of victory or defeat generate some spontaneous dramatic excitement. A game in which Chi Chi Rodriguez or Lee Trevino is a “character” and Fuzzy Zoeller a “bad boy” is not going to have any cult-of-personality problems. Some years ago television coverage of a skins game put microphones on the players as a bold new possibility. It turned out to be about as dramatic as a recorded phone message at the tax office (Phil Michelson talked about the heavy traffic on the way to the tournament). There are no fights in golf, other than the peculiar combat one sees on the links from time to time and almost nowhere else, the player fighting with himself or his equipment.

This radical insight into the true nature of the game helped me understand something which had up to that point been even stranger than the popularity of playing the game, that is, the popularity of golf as a spectator sport. But now I understand. We don’t watch golf for quite the same reasons we watch other games, where we are chiefly interested in excellence on display. No. In golf what we want to see is someone very much better at the game than we are hit a really bad shot, get into trouble deep in the woods or the sand, or suffer a bad case of the yips on the green. We want to see him go through what is standard when we are out on the course ourselves. And then we want to see if he can recover. Let’s face it–nothing is more boring to watch than a flawless game of golf. As a spectator sport it generates interest by showing how the spiritually elect succumb, how they, too, for all their expertise, can run into peril on the pilgrimage.

For golf is the only game in which we are all, in a certain way, equal. I would never beat Tiger Woods in a round of golf, any more than I could beat Roger Federer in tennis. But there’s a difference. Against Federer, it’s unlikely I would be able to hit back a single serve, let alone win a point. But against Tiger Woods on the golf course at any particular moment I just might get it all together and hit a perfect shot, while he might shank one into the rough. It could happen. If he really tanked the shot, I might even tie or win the hole. And when he blows a six-foot putt or goes two or three over par, I know that I might well have succeeded where he failed. The reason for this is that golf is ruled by unexpected interventions and psychological interruptions, or, to use the proper Puritan terminology, divine grace. And God, in His infinite wisdom, might decide to give my undeserving game a sudden injection of grace (since, as the Book of Romans teaches us, God’s grace to me does not require any good works on my part), so that I unexpectedly hit the ball with the “sweet spot” of the club or sink a fifteen-foot putt and, for a moment, experience the glory of an amazing success (what Tin Cup’s more secular vocabulary calls a “tingling in the loins”). Such shots do happen enough to be familiar to most golfers, and I suspect the hope for such a glorious moment keeps people playing through many indifferent rounds. Few feelings are more inspiring than that caused by a sudden contact with perfection, which, like divine grace for the pilgrim, can come even to the most inept and undeserving duffer at any time, so long as he maintains his faith and keeps on his journey.

That equality, too, accounts for the popularity of Celebrity Golf Tournaments. Who would ever tune in to watch a Celebrity Badminton match or to see Bill Murray playing tennis or Wayne Gretzky bowling? But a golf tournament is different. There we can see that people much richer and more famous than we can ever hope to be are just like us, pilgrims with limited resources on a difficult journey to the promised land. Their flawed game reminds us of our spiritual equality.

Equality may be central to the faith, but there are a few special saints. The most celebrated is Jack “The Golden Bear” Nicklaus, now retired from the professional circuit after an extraordinary career. To celebrate the sanctity of the greatest player of the game, even though his glory days were long gone, the Scottish community wished to honour his name. Some wanted to make him a freeman of the City of St. Andrews, but that was voted down. Instead, they paid him a much higher honour, the finest tribute the Puritan heart can possibly imagine for the spiritually elect. They made Jack Nicklaus, golf’s secular saint, the very first person other than royalty to have his face imprinted on their five pound notes. Naturally, the denominations trade at par.