Playing on the Links of Life

The only time my prayers are never answered is on the golf course.” —Billy Graham

The name “Gary Player” moves further into obscurity with each passing year. His contribution to the sadistic and infuriating activity that many call golf goes largely unrecognized by its patrons today. Player once offered advice to a fan who, in his enthusiasm, asked a question the golfing legend had likely heard far too often: “Mr. Player, I sure do love the way you hit a golf ball. What can I do to hit like you?”

His response likely stung. “Well, you get up real early in the morning and you go get you a bucket of balls. Then ya hit ’em. When the bucket’s empty, you go back and get another. Hit them as well. Continue to do this long into the day. At some point many days later, your hands will finally start to bleed from open blisters. When this happens, you find you a spigot or a nearby creek and you wash all the blood off. Then you get some Band-Aids, and you put ’em on your hands…then go keep hitting. Come back in a few years and ask me again.” Sheesh, what a grump!

In my experience, golf, more than any other sport, causes trauma akin to a vigorous hazing unleashed on a fraternity plebe. First, people judge you on your appearance, and many courses require members to wear certain hoity-toity clothes, such as cardigans or knickers. If you can endure the humiliation of costume, then comes the test of endurance. You must either:

a) walk the length of Nebraska carrying a golf bag filled with fourteen clubs and three Volkswagen Beetles, or

b) navigate a small, electric car with no doors or seat belts at breakneck speeds over hilly terrain.

If you emerge intact from your anything-but-smart car, you might get a chance to play some golf.

• Square your shoulders.

• Bend your knees at a precise angle.

• Lock your elbows.

• Swing your arms around your head.

• Oh, yeah, and relax.

If you manage not to choke yourself out, you might hit the ball. Statistically speaking, you will hit the ball anywhere other than the one place you want it to go ninety-nine per cent of the time.

But oh that one percent, when it comes, will taste like Mama’s fried chicken!

The promise of the one percent ruins us, actually.  Most of us go out on the course with the idea that we can improve on that slim margin, and simply by willing it magically, attain the perfect combination of moves that took Gary Player a lifetime to achieve.

Why would anyone think such foolishness?

Because golf, when you’re not playing it, looks simple enough.  Perhaps if we made bad shots all the time, we’d realize that, but the one percent seduces us. Everything clicks, the delicate “ping” of hitting the sweet spot, the high arc, the long roll, cutting a line on the dew-glazed green and into the cup. We start thinking, hey, that was great!  I can really do this!  Then, we spend the rest of the afternoon digging craters into the fairway trying to duplicate the moment. I had the broken clubs once to prove it.

You might think this a good place for a golf-life metaphor. Well, so far, the only message I got reads, “Don’t delude yourself; quit now, before blisters form.” We all want to live a one-percent life, whether at work, with our families, or even our faith, but ninety-nine percent of the time we fail miserably. How can we get out of such a painful metaphor?

A college professor once told me that philosophers measure metaphors not as right and wrong, but as strong or weak. He claimed that the more we apply the metaphor to a truth, the more it breaks down and ceases to teach that truth effectively. In this case, the metaphor suggests that no matter how often we hit the ball, we may experience satisfaction only one percent of the time, and that Gary Player and his legendary brethren sit aloft an unreachable plateau.

But life doesn’t look like that! According to Isaiah 40:31:

“They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

In context, the verse suggests that faith in this life brings help from beyond our futile efforts. In life, maybe, waiting on the Lord and having one’s strength renewed might increase the odds of success. Consider the role of faith according to Jesus:

“If anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them” (Mark 11:23).

Keeping it in context, life holds the promise of something beyond one percent. Simply put, faith changes the game.

Have you felt the sting of a string of failures? Maybe you have lost a job, said goodbye to a loved one, broken up with a boyfriend or watched your bank account dwindle. You’re tired of waiting for one percent to roll around. Am I promising you better odds?

Nope. You might move mountains one day or fly like an eagle, but I’m not the guy who would make you such a promise.

I only want you to see the many joys of the ninety-nine percent. Failure gets a bum rap in our world. We endure failures, and we relish success. But what if failure held the same rapturous satisfaction as success? James 1:2–3 says:

“Consider it pure joy whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.”

Do you get it yet? We can find joy in failure, knowing that through it we can develop perseverance. This verse does not preach to us in isolation: the Bible extols the virtues of suffering. God says to his people through the prophet Isaiah:

“See, I have refined you, though not as silver; I have tested you in the furnace of affliction” (Isa. 48:10).

If your golf game looks anything like mine, you know something of the suppression of violent urges and the utterance of colorful metaphors. Take heart. Both life and golf will bring more failure than success. But failure in life has the potential to lead us to unparalleled personal growth and maturity.

So, thank you Gary Player, for your snarky advice. Regarding golf, I don’t know if I’ll ever take up my clubs again, but in life, I pray that I am more willing to take up my cross.

Pastor Scott