I am a recent convert to golf. The speed of my conversion still surprises me. I imagine it was like that of the Biblical Saul who persecuted Christians until he was knocked from his horse and in an instant became Paul and the new chief marketing officer for Christianity.
For years I laughed at golfers. But I saw smart people and women I respected playing golf so I reluctantly began. I approached golf the way I approached returning to church after many years away. I wanted it but resisted it. Then I discovered that golf is spiritual. It engages the body, mind and spirit. But to learn that I had to uncross my arms, my mind and my heart.
I recognized the beauty first. I know the outdoors as sacred space. But the true work of golf happens on the inside. Every golfer knows that golf teaches humility. It requires you to have what Buddhists call “a beginner’s mind.” Golf goes on to test and teach in many more ways.
One of the gifts I find in golf is that my mind gets quiet. The part of me that constantly worries my to-do list becomes still on the golf course. I stay in the present like all spiritual teaches say we should. When I play golf I don’t regret the past or worry about the future. The spiritual sign found in every casino, “You Must Be Present to Win” is true --and possible --on the golf course.
Golf reveals temperament and character, and it provides an examination of conscience. In golf we experience all of the defects that we wish to be freed from. We are given minute-by-minute opportunities to experience our greed, pride and grasping. The driving range, putting green and the rough are places to practice mindfulness and non-attachment.
Consider the stages of faith formation that all religions share. First there is the newcomer’s enthusiasm, then reading and study, the endless time spent as we go deeper and then, as saints will attest, there is the dryness or the dark nights of the soul. The good feelings go away; you feel abandoned. That’s true in golf. You might get the yips, or the ball goes nowhere you intended. You can change your swing, and then your grip, and finally your driver, but ultimately you have to change your mind.
Stories are another anchor that golf shares with spiritual practice. Golf is narrative. It is a story with eighteen small chapters, which alternate joy, hubris, regret, heartbreak, surrender and occasional success.
Just when you think you have it nailed golf changes up on you. It is a crucible; in golf you face pride and ego and you learn to move through humiliation and heartbreak with dignity. Then you learn the deepest spiritual truth of every faith: you must surrender to win.
T.S. Eliot wrote, “To arrive where you are, to get there from where you are not, you must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.” Golfers understand. Golfers go by a way of driving ranges, skidding balls, and a great swing that misses the ball. And yet that is the way to get from where you are not, from where there is no ecstasy, to finding pleasure in golf.
Golf allows us to enact comedy, tragedy and the occasional miracle and leave happy though empty-handed. As golf coach Gio Valente says, “We are entitled to nothing in golf. Playing the game with appreciation and in good health—those are the gifts.”