Like compost and kikuya grass, chlorine and swimming pools, and bananas and peanut butter, golf and religion appear compatible, but once blended they can form a peculiar taste
Hollywood has tackled golf and God with mixed results. In The Legend of Bagger Vance, Matt Damon’s mystical caddie (played by Will Smith) helps him find his “authentic swing,” and the film is mostly unwatchable. Tin Cup was hardly religious, but in the flick’s defining scene a “little gust from the gods” costs Roy McAvoy (played by Kevin Costner) the U.S. Open. Anyone who sat through Seven Days in Utopia knows the more apropos title would’ve been 98 Minutes of Misery. Perhaps the most artfully constructed religious moment in golf cinema is the depiction of a christening in Caddyshack -- and it’s for a boat.
I pursued my own golf-to-Jesus moment last month when I played a four-man scramble with three Catholic priests as part of a fundraiser for a Connecticut seminary. That morning, upon meeting my playing partners -- Father Simon Devereux of New Zealand, Father David Daly of St. Louis and Father David Steffy of Atlanta -- my chief concern had nothing to do with wayward tee shots. A lifelong Catholic, I fretted over the prospect of somehow offending them. Could I drink a beer? What if I forgot to fix a divot? Or dropped a four-letter word?
These fears proved unfounded. I proceeded to do all three, and best as I can tell, I didn’t lose my place in eternity.
On the opening hole I cracked a Bud Light and noted Father Steffy’s fluid swing. Turns out he spent his adolescence caddying at Oakland Hills, the venerable track in suburban Detroit. “My first year as a caddie I was rookie of the year, and I won a new set of clubs,” he shared after some prodding. Soon Father Steffy would receive a calling that required him to forever exit the caddie business.
“In the seminary we only play team sports like basketball or soccer, but I was ready for something new,” he said. “I knew when I joined the seminary that I’d have to give up the game -- I didn’t play from age 18 to 47.”
A 29-year break between rounds might be the ultimate cure for poor swing habits, but most of us would shudder at such a hiatus. Father Simon jumped in to assuage me. “When you find your calling -- your mission -- it’s like hitting a shot on the sweet spot,” he said. He then punctuated the thought by flushing a 7-iron. These priests know how to get their point across.
The Fathers are all part of the Legionaries of Christ, a division of the Catholic church, and they travel the world working as missionaries. Aspiring Legionaries make more than an oath of faith and a promise to hang up their golf spikes -- they also commit to a life of poverty. During our round the priests wore white polos and khaki pants, none of which were of the polyester-blended, high-performance variety. Father Simon played golf in the same loafers he wears while delivering a sermon or performing missionary work.
But the Fathers were competitive and hoped that adding a golf writer to their group would put the team over the top. (It didn’t.) We pulled for one another on every shot. We ate burgers at the turn. We had fun. When I delivered a clutch shot to the middle of one green, Father Simon quipped, “You’re our savior!” The priests hooted.
They posed a lot of questions about the game and my job. I wanted to ask them to perform an exorcism on my putter, but thought better of it. The priests agreed that spiritual connections can easily be made during a round.
“If someone is on a golf course and wants to find God, they’ll find Him,” said Father Daly. “There’s nature, but God is also in the people -- in the bonding. We’re all brothers and sisters, but we don’t always act that way in society. On the golf course we do.”
Added Father Simon: “In golf and in life there’s an ending. We often get distracted in life and forget about what comes at the end.”
That seemed like a nice concept to contemplate, but before I jotted it down in my notebook the young minister quickly added: “In golf and in life, there’s also a scorecard,” which made me drop my pen and consider just how many bogeys, doubles and “others” I may have already carded during my life’s opening nine. These thoughts did not help my golf swing.
But I also learned that it doesn’t hurt to play golf with three priests who are pulling for you. Late in the day I stood over an uphill, curling 30-footer, the kind of putt I might make twice a year. My mind was oddly calm. I thought, Just get it to the hole. I made a firm stroke and watched the ball track up the slope, bend left and drop for an unlikely birdie.
I looked over at my playing partners. None of them seemed the least bit surprised.
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