Putting Golf in Its Place
It only takes a few bars of “Augusta” to confirm that spring is here. There is a promise of new life in the sound of the Masters theme song and the sight of electric green grass at Augusta National. The sun has risen in Georgia on the just and unjust and soon will come our way as well.
The game of golf has tied itself to the beauty of God’s created world like few other competitive pastimes. This is at the heart of the sport’s allure. With no standardized playing area, the designers and groundskeepers are commissioned to nest the course in the splendor of the natural terrain. “The heavens declare the glory of God,” says Psalm 19:1, and the best of links do the same, if you have eyes to see it.
But enjoying creation is one thing, and giving hours on end to playing a game can be quite another. We may be able to drink orange juice to the glory of God, but what about playing golf?
Hazards on the Links
Those of us who might defend our annual watching of the Masters, and playing eighteen every so often, should be swift to acknowledge that the game is not without its spiritual dangers. If we are to play golf to the glory of God, we will beware the aspects of the game that appeal so strongly to our indwelling sin, and our deep yearning for the new creation before its time.
Time Consumption. It’s no coincidence that “golf widow” is a popularly understood term. A single round of golf can quickly consume half a day or more. And it takes an extraordinary amount of time not only to play the game, but to hone the skills, and keep them sharp. This, in itself, is not evil, but Christians will want to wisely assess the time demands, in view of what’s at stake in this “mist” of our lives (James 4:14) and our summons to “make the best use of the time, because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:16). Eternity may give us endless days for relishing the joys of golf, but for now, we have only tastes.
Expense. Clubs, balls, shoes, bag, apparel, greens fees, club dues, cart fees, and more. Golf is a rich man’s game, and it’s worth approaching this aspect of the sport with Christian conviction. We have been rescued from the world’s patterns of wealth by a Savior who guides us not to lay up treasures on earth (Matthew 6:19). We put our hope in God, “who richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Timothy 6:17), and tells us the enjoyment is richest not when it’s hoarded, but used to bless others — “to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life” (1 Timothy 6:18–19).
Addiction. Those who know golf best can testify to how hooking it can be. You rarely ever hit what feels like the perfect shot, but when you do, that’s what you remember most, and has you itching for another round. And unlike team sports that require other people to play, golf is easily individualistic; you can scratch the itch anytime without need of a companion. But the Christian who enjoys golf will say with the apostle Paul, “I will not be enslaved by anything” (1 Corinthians 6:12).
Golf to the Glory of God
Conscious, then, of these hazards, and more, how might we keep it in the fairway and enjoy such a game in a distinctly Christian fashion?
Here are four ways, among others, to make the most of golf for our enduring joy, the good of others, and the glory of God.
1. Enjoy God in His Creation
Such is the allure of the Masters, and the game in general. Golf affords a ripe opportunity to experience the beauty of God’s creation, cultivated with skill and meticulous care by his image-bearers. For the born-again believer, freed by the Spirit from suppressing the truth of God’s eternal power and divine nature plainly on display in creation (Romans 1:18–20), golf can be an awe-inspiring and worship-fostering experience (though no replacement for corporate worship). Pray before hitting the links, sanctifying the experience to Christ, and make a conscious effort to take in the bigness and beauty of your surroundings and not get lost in the scorecard. Thank God for his beauty on display in the course.
2. Rest, Recreate, and Exercise
Golf may be, as some say, “a good walk spoiled,” but it does make for a good walk. Too often motorized carts keep us from enduring the exhilarating exercise that is walking eighteen holes with a bag of fourteen clubs on your back. As for rest and recreation, God blessed the seventh day and made it holy (Genesis 2:3). They are his design and gift, and when we keep our play in proportion, he smiles upon our acknowledgement that we are not God and need not uphold the universe with our unrelenting labors. He means for us to work earnestly, as to him (Ephesians 6:7), and has purpose in our faith-filled leisure as well.
3. Make It a Medium for Relationship
One way to redeem the time-consuming aspect of golf is meaningful conversation. Whether it’s speaking good news to a fellow saint or sharing what truly matters with an unbeliever, few pastimes unfold at such a pace that substantive interaction can occur during the contest. This is one of the key ways that golf can be made useful for the good of our neighbor. Be intentional about who you play with, and what you say.
4. Learn to Deal with Failure
One day, there will be no more failure, only victory. But until then, we limp from one mistake to another, from bogey to double bogey — and golf, like baseball, is a greenhouse for learning to deal with failure. Even the pros rarely hit a shot exactly as they hoped — how much more does golf force us amateurs to reckon with our failures and deal with disappointment?
Alongside exploring the attributes of God, the doctrines of grace, and the doctrine of sin, C.J. Mahaney gives this practical counsel for cultivating humility: “play as much golf as possible.”
In my athletic experience, I don’t think there’s a more difficult or more humbling sport. Rather, make that humiliating — because if you play at all, you know all about those shots that result in laughter from your partners and humiliation for you. No one escapes them — not even Tiger Woods, and certainly not me. (Humility, 94)
We Christians should be the people in the world least afraid of failing. We have a champion who has succeeded for us definitively in all the ways that matter most. Our ongoing sins and miscues are relativized by our union with a victor so great that he frees us to find recreation and humility where others drown in idolatry and pride. The grace of God is deep enough, and the work of Christ is comprehensive enough, that we might even play golf to the glory of God.