Ask a golfer—a real golfer, mind you, not the dilettante or corporate ladder climber but the deeply tanned fellow carrying a one-iron—to talk about the game and you will likely hear and see it described in a manner approaching the liturgical. He will speak reverently, using strange words (and familiar words strangely combined) and making precise gestures with his hands, as he describes how, but for a ball mark on the green, he would have done the long 14th in three.
Any golfer of faith can attest to the religious qualities of the great game—with its complex rubrics; its precious, exotic, single-purpose equipment (like a censer, a sand wedge is shiny, heavy, expensive, and useful for one thing only); and its ability to foster silent early-morning devotion. Those of a mystical bent tell of the ecstasy of holing out with a short iron and liken a missed two-foot putt to the Fiery Darts of Love. Non-Christians can chime in, too: Golf’s endless, and ultimately futile, quest for perfection speaks to the Eastern spiritualist, and even the observant Jew might express satisfaction at the redundant complexity of the Rules. (I myself can confess to having had spiritual experiences on the links. In fact, most any round you’ll catch me speaking in tongues—especially after chunking a short approach.)
Similar to, but distinct from, justice to the game is justice to self. When Ben Crenshaw carried a “No Mulligans!” sign through the streets of Austin after the 2000 election, the particular reference was to the Florida recount, but it also encapsulated a basic truth: The man who cheats at golf cheats only himself. Like a dieter who fiddles with the scale, the golfer who shrinks his handicap by improving his lie or conceding himself ten-foot putts will find in the lower numbers only false comfort.
As I say, when one talks of the religiosity of golf, one is in charted territory. Less commonly do we hear of golf as a school for the cardinal virtues. Not that golfers don’t recognize golf’s ability to test and refine a person on the natural level; it’s only that this ability hasn’t gotten as much play as golf’s mystical trappings—from Chevy Chase’s “Nananananana” to Hollywood Hinduism in The Legend of Bagger Vance.
So I propose to show how golf can be both teacher of and training ground for virtue; an instrument of purgation; and a crucible wherein human nature is prepared for grace.
At the core of justice is giving due, and in golf it is exercised in four categories.
First, there is justice to the game itself. Golf is fairly extraordinary among sports in that it is wholly self-enforced. A golfer is responsible for marking the correct number of strokes, assessing penalties to himself, and complying with the particular regulations that govern type of play (match, stroke), location of the ball (tee box, fairway, green, bunker, casual water, etc.), even the conditions and time of year. (I remember shooting in the triple digits one April morning, not long after a late snow, after hacking away at plugged lie after plugged lie, never having learned the Winter Rules concept of lift, clean, and place.) In every round of golf, there is an implied contract: Golfer will do justice to Game—and Game will cause all manner of grief to Golfer.
Likewise, there is a tacit—and again, unique—bond of justice among competitors. In most sports, opponents seek to disrupt each other through physical contact or mental gamesmanship, sometimes as part of the game, sometimes on or beyond the fringes of legality. But the spirit of golf etiquette demands that a golfer avoid anything that might harm the performance of his fellows. Watch a golfer stand bowlegged or knock-kneed over his putt to avoid his opponent’s line, and you will see this kind of justice in action. In what other game must you be mindful of where your shadow falls?
Ultimately, these forms of justice converge in the highest justice: justice to God, who is golf’s First Cause. To step up to the tee is to engage (often fickle) supernatural forces and to accept whatever they throw your way.
Chesterton said, “The only sin is to call green grass grey.” In golf one plays the ball where it lies. In both cases we are called to affirm reality: to give God His due.
St. Thomas calls prudence “the principle of all the virtues.” As rational judgment put into practice, prudence could be called golf’s foundational virtue. Every swing ought to marry fine calculation with firm execution. That there are so many things to calculate—club, distance, lie, wind, hazards, not to mention the thousand minute details of the swing mechanism itself—goes far in explaining why the quality of execution varies so greatly. Especially since (sweet madness!) the man who lingers too long on his calculations is doomed to execute none of them well.
“It would seem that if a person has hit a golf ball correctly a thousand times, he should be able to duplicate the performance at will,” Bobby Jones said. “But this is certainly not the case.” Golf prudence is a bonum arduum.
In a more popular sense of the virtue, golf offers ample opportunity for making prudent choices. I know of no better exhortation to wisdom in practical judgment than the maxim, “Know what’s in your bag”; that is, know what shots you are capable of and attempt those only. At least once a round one is faced with the choice between dashing heroism—say, a three-iron out of the rough through the uprights of a V-shaped pine—and more cautious course management. Ninety-nine times out of 100, the short wedge shot back to the fairway will lead to a lower score. So why do so many golfers choose the imprudent shot? I do not know. If you have the answer, please give Phil Mickleson a ring.
To those golfers with whole sets of irons lying at the bottom of their arch-nemesis water hazards, to those who have snapped drivers in half while still on the practice tee, golf may seem about as useful for developing temperance as a Las
Vegas prime rib buffet. Nonetheless it is so. Golf may not teach us to regulate our appetites and curb our passions (as it teaches both justice and prudence), but the links are temperance’s ideal proving ground.
Like the golf-obsessed man in another Wodehouse story who, when asked how many children he wanted to have, replied absent-mindedly, “I don’t know. What’s bogey?” a golfer can find immense quantities of his time consumed by the game. And not just in playing the game (although at five-plus hours for a weekend round at our burgeoning municipal links, on-course time is not inconsequential). Golf has built up around itself a culture unlike any other sport: golf magazines and books; instructional videos and private lessons; range time, supplemented by home chipping and driving nets; golf travel and business golf; the Golf Channel; and the rest of golf TV, from the Masters to the Greater Waukegan Open to hour-long infomercials. The temptations of golf commercialism I do not even mention yet.
A golfer draws on temperance in order to say “Enough!” to curb the natural golfing passion and direct his will to family, work, and God. Ultimately, the moderate golfer is also the better, happier golfer. Gene Sarazen advised not to play golf every day. “There is nothing worse in the world,” he said, “than getting stale at one thing.” My father calls this troppo golfo, and it is as poisonous to one’s game as contraception is to marriage or sloth to prayer.
Temperance is also of great value to that subset of golfers, the Club Hound. For some, the chance to carry around 14 finely balanced sticks that contain more exotic materials than the space shuttle (and cost almost as much) is an integral part of golf’s allure. I once knew a man who bought a new driver every month and slept with his putter, until he made a commitment to temperance in his golf equipment. That, plus my wife told me to stop.
A radio commercial I heard as a youth lingers in my mind to this day. The spot, promoting a clearance sale at a local pro shop, featured a husky Scotsman exhorting the listener: “You’ve got to be brrrave! You’ve got to be strrrrong!” with bagpipes and howling wind for background effect. It puzzled me how a sport in which there wasn’t the slightest possibility of losing a tooth or breaking a bone could require courage.
Since then I have learned to golf. And I have learned fear. Fear of stepping to the first tee with three impatient strangers and water on the right. Fear of downhill three-foot putts. Fear of long greenside bunker shots.
Fortitude is the stuff that overcomes fear, that helps you ball up your nerves, marshal your will, and keep your head down in spite of dangers. It is not to be confused with foolhardiness or abandon: These things are the evil twin cousins of fortitude, the quick, easy path. Reckless disregard for danger is no virtue. But true fortitude shows the golfer how, as Eliot put it, “to care and not to care.”
Related to fortitude is perseverance—the ability to persist in difficulty. When grounded in authentic fortitude, perseverance is the golfer’s most important ally; it is his “go-to” virtue. “No matter what happens,” said the great Harry Vardon, “keep on hitting the ball.” This singleness of purpose allows golfers to carry on despite slow or annoying partners, maddening swing hitches, and bounces and lies resulting not from the ordered interplay of physical laws but from the whim of some cruel, mischievous pagan god.
When you slice that first tee shot into the lake, causing a ripple of amusement from the mini-gallery and eliciting rolled eyes from your partners, perseverance helps you shoulder your bag and walk off the tee box with confident steps. Say you scull that long bunker shot, sending your ball skipping across the green like a flat stone over a pond into the sand on the other side. In the absence of all consolation, only perseverance—hardening into a strange, grim resolve—allows you to carry on when all you want to do is vanish into the sand yourself (having first decided to quit golf for all time). And the truly virtuous golfer will augment perseverance with patience: not mere persistence in the face of difficulty but cheerful and tranquil persistence.
In one sense, humility is similar to temperance: It is restraint of the desire to extol oneself unduly. It could also be considered as part of justice—giving proper due to oneself, looking at oneself through God’s eyes.
But I would like to treat golf humility not as part of another virtue but as first and greatest of them all. Although humility is not a cardinal virtue by the usual reckoning, Dietrich von Hildebrand called it (after St. Francis de Sales) the “consummation of all virtues” as well as a precondition for virtue. It is source and summit for golf as well.
Without humility, it would be impossible to survive the very first lesson. There is the pro, telling you to hold the club in your fingers, not the palms, in a tone normally used for addressing dribbling infants. The harder you swing, the shorter your shot. You aim your body more and more to the left, but the ball only curves ever rightward. You swing up at the ball as if cajoling a hen to fly but only succeed in hitting weak ground balls to second base. Meanwhile, teenagers and octogenarians in the range stalls around you are hitting it sweetly down the middle each time—a delicious “crack!” followed by an artful, athletic pose. The proud don’t make it past this point.
And those who do will find that golf is an ongoing road of self-abnegation. Eliot again: “Humility is endless.” Just as pride can rob a good man’s act of its merit, so too will it knock a longtime golfer’s swing out of groove, ruin his putting tempo, and shatter his concentration. That doesn’t mean a golfer must never progress beyond the beginner’s awed sense of unworthiness. But he must go beyond this sense without losing it. Even though he must develop confidence (a due and proportionate sense of his skills, which is merely humility considered as justice) in order to progress, this ought to increase, not diminish, his desire for self-abasement—much as holiness only heightens the saint’s sense of sin.
Likewise, the mystics who write of union with God also tell of an acute awareness of His transcendence, His otherness. I think this is one reason we play golf: Its impenetrable complexity and difficulty show us our distance from God, so that we might allow Him to draw us closer. It lowers us, so that He might raise us.