“I Wasn’t Born to Be a Golfer”

Lessons from a U.S. Open Champion

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Satan tempts and deceives Christians into believing that the contentment we crave lies in having or achieving more.

Perhaps our dream job or a higher salary would finally make us happy. We may look for more power and influence in our workplace, church, or community, maybe convincing ourselves that we just want to reach more people for Christ. If we’re honest, though, selfish motives often sit at the root of our cravings for more in this life.

Sometimes we need someone who’s accomplished more than we could ever imagine to remind us that worldly success is ultimately empty apart from Christ.

Webb Simpson has been a voice like that for many, especially in the golf community. Simpson, 31, has won four times on the PGA TOUR, including the 2012 U.S. Open, and has been ranked as high as No. 5 in the world. He has achieved wealth, glory, and fame and accomplished goals he only dreamed about as a boy. You may not be a golf fan, but it’s easy to envy his resume.

Success and Struggle

While it may be hard to relate to someone who earns millions of dollars each year and appears regularly on national television, Simpson doesn’t view his calling as different than that of any other Christian. He may be a gifted golfer, but first and foremost, he is a beloved child of God, called to fulfill the Great Commission.

That identity has shaped how he views his “platform,” a popular topic for discussion in our digital age. He has become less concerned with how many people see what he says, and more focused on how deeply he can influence people around him. A platform built on worldly success will crumble quickly when we struggle, he says. The gospel enables us to glorify Christ in the midst of our struggles and successes.

Simpson isn’t immune from many of the same vocational frustrations Christians experience in other fields, but he can testify that the hard times are some of the most valuable.

Three Long Years

Simpson’s last victory came in October of 2013, and he now ranks 63rd in the world. How does he describe the three and a half years since his last win? “Sweet.” He has drawn closer to Jesus and to his wife, Dowd, as he tries to learn patience and let God shape him through his struggles.

The prosperity of the PGA TOUR may look enticing from the outside, but its inability to satisfy only provides further proof that wealth and acclaim aren’t what we really need. As we watch a new champion be crowned each Sunday on the 18th green, holding a seven-figure check and being cheered by thousands, it should only reinforce for us that an imperishable crown is the only crown worth pursuing. True contentment only lies in the green pastures ahead in God’s presence.

I interviewed Simpson, who’s competing in this week’s U.S. Open at Erin Hills in Wisconsin, about the lessons he has learned over the last several years:

People look at your job and say you have a unique vocation. As a Christian and a professional golfer, how do you think about the ideas of “gifting” and “calling”?

I don’t think about my gifting as that unique compared to other Christians. It just happens to be that my gift is golf, whereas another guy’s might be preaching, and another’s might be business. I think the Lord has spread us out for his purposes and for our enjoyment of him. My gifting just happens to be in golf.

I wasn’t born to be a golfer. I was born to be a child of God. If I think of myself as a child of God, beloved by the King, that makes me more focused on where he has placed me and being effective with what he has given me. 

Your question is really about identity. I have to ask myself: If golf was taken away, what would happen? How would I respond? If I start with my identity being in Christ, then if golf was taken away, my identity is secure. It won’t be impacted simply because he has other plans for me. 

I may have a bigger audience than someone else, but some of the most effective, faithful men I know live and serve for a very small audience. They’re discipling a couple of guys, doing a great job in their home, and being faithful where they are. My calling is not to be a golfer. My calling is the Great Commission, to go and make disciples, and that happens most effectively by focusing on a few people, not focusing on how many followers you have on social media. 

The tendency in our society is to be platform-minded and reach-minded. Biblical discipleship is very different. It’s intimate, relational, face-to-face. The numbers are a lot smaller, but the fruit is real.

It’s been almost five years since you won the U.S. Open. Is there something you feel like you’ve learned over that time?

I am a novice sufferer and haven’t experienced anything like other Christians are suffering, especially around the world, but the last few years have been a trial for me vocationally.

God has brought to mind the book of Job. Satan tells God that Job only loves him for what he gives him — not for who he is. I have learned to delight in God for who he is, not for what he gives me, which has been sweet to me despite the losses. I’ve had moments with my wife over meals where I’ve shed tears out of frustration, and then I’ve laughed at myself for crying over golf. But the moments are real, the feelings are real, and God is teaching me a lot through them.

Not playing as well as I’d like has given me some of the sweetest moments in my marriage, and I wouldn’t trade them for being a top-ten player. James 1 has also been particularly meaningful, counting every trial as joy (James 1:2). I’m learning to be patient in suffering, to not feel like I have to rush out of it, and to let God teach me what he’s teaching me. I have a tendency to be obsessed with fixing the problem and moving on, rather than settling in and having my ears open and my heart willing to learn.

Golf is a game where a lot is out of your control. Once the ball leaves the club face, it’s out of your control. You can’t control your opponents. Where do you see or experience God’s sovereignty in the game?

God’s command for me in the Bible is to steward the gifts he has given me to glorify him, which I think translates into me working as hard as I can as a golfer — practicing, improving, competing — in love for him and for others in my life, especially my family.

For sure, I feel alive on a golf course when I’ve put in the work, climbed into contention, and am able to pull off a win under a lot of pressure. But at the end of the day, I know that if a gust of wind blows my ball into the water, God was in control of the wind. I firmly believe that there is not a grain of sand outside of his control. Some weeks I’ll win a tournament, and other weeks I’ll miss the cut. But win or lose, I know he is always working all of it for my good, so I rest in that.

Is it a challenge personally to be known everywhere as “Webb Simpson, professional golfer”? Have you struggled with having your success and accomplishments becoming an extension of your name?

I’ve struggled with it more over the years with young people. When young people look up to me, it often sounds something like, “I would love to be that good at golf or win that tournament.” It’s hard because I know their desire to win a tournament is not bad, but I don’t want anyone to envy me for what I’ve done in golf. I want them to see the light that is inside me. That’s my hope when I’m around young people. I’d rather they be more impressed with Jesus than with me, the golfer.

I can believe the lie that I have to live up to their expectations or be a certain golfer, be a certain level of player, which falls into people pleasing. But I try to consistently ask myself: Am I trying to be a servant of man or a servant of Christ? Is my life and career causing others to want to be more like me, or more like him?

serves as Events Editor at PGA TOUR Digital, after working for seven years at Golfweek, where he covered everything from amateur golf to the majors.