Pastoral Issues

Hitting it where it lies: The Catholic Approach to the Fairway

by Chris Beneteau

To the avid golfer, spring is a very special time of year. One that is met with great anticipation. I have yearned all winter long to once again plant my feet squarely on the first tee at my local golf course, take a deep breath and rip a three hundred yard drive down the middle of the first fairway. For me this is not just some ‘duffers dream.’ God has loaned me the ability to play this game with a competence that is the envy of many of my peers. In fact last year I shot a round of 71 (most golfers don’t break 100) and even scored a 2 on a par five. Having had the privilege of playing this game for over 20 years, I have come to see the game of golf as something very special. I am absolutely convinced that God has put this game on the earth to teach us about life and the very meaning of our existence. For those of you who are skeptical, I encourage you to read on. But be forewarned, you may, like myself become smitten with the sublime beauty that is inherent in this great game.

The late great Bobby Jones was a husband, father, scholar. He was won 13 major golf championships by the age of 28, and he was a deathbed convert to the Catholic Faith. He was once quoted as saying:

“We must play the ball where it lies.”

This quote always struck me as having some deep philosophical insight. If applied to our existence away from the golf course, the quote might look something like this:

“We must all play the cards that we are dealt in life.”

Alternatively, we can understand it this way:

“We must accept the bad with the good.”

Let’s face it, for most of us, life is pretty good. Our lives are blessed with family members and friends. We have an education, a job, and a roof over our head, clothes on our back and food in our stomach. We are also surrounded by numerous other unmerited creature comforts. We are like the little white ball resting snuggly in the middle of a beautifully manicured fairway. Unfortunately, the choice of our first parents allowed sin to enter the world, and as a result, the rosy scenario outlined above is often accompanied by pain, suffering and death. To apply a golf analogy, our ball will often go astray and become entangled in the tall grass, submerged in a water hazard or even lost. Pain, suffering and death are inevitable.

Fortunately, as Catholics, we are blessed with a Church that does not see suffering as something to be avoided at all costs. We are taught to take up our crosses each day and offer up our pain and suffering, in union with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. In other words, suffering is meant to refine us and to make us more Christ-like.

Do I always play the ball where it lies? Unfortunately, the answer is usually no. In all honesty, I cannot ever recall playing a round of golf in which my playing partners or myself have not broken at least one rule. In comparison, I cannot recall going through an entire day without committing a sin or complaining about an ailment or inconvenience. Some rules have been broken out of ignorance but like my daily sins, most have been willfully, deliberately and intentionally committed.

Our Lord Jesus Christ, in the Sermon on the Mount, told his followers to take the narrow gate, because the road to damnation is very wide and many will follow it (Cf. Matt. 7: 13-15). When one stands on the tee at a golf course, the fairway can seem very narrow, while the surrounding rough, trees and hazards can seem vast and intimidating. It would seem much easier if we could just blast the ball anywhere we wanted to. We would no longer have to worry about the straight and narrow path, but would be free and uninhibited, so we think. John Paul II has taught that true freedom comes not from doing what one wants to do but rather from doing what one ought to do. In golf as in life there are rules, and if you want to play the game well, you must hit the ball straight. Unfortunately, however, we are fallible human beings and we do make mistakes. Even golfers who play at the highest level hit shots that go astray. The more matured player, on the other hand, has learned how to minimize his mistakes. If a shot finds the rough, they immediately begin to think about what they need to do to get the ball back into play. In other words, they don’t compound their mistakes. When we sin we often compound the problem by committing more of the same sins. This is why an examination of conscience is so important because in it we learn to recognize patterns of sin, which will hopefully help us to find the fairway of goodness and virtue more often.

The Catholic Church teaches that there are two kinds of sin, mortal and venial. Mortal sins are malicious and involve a conscious, deliberate rejection of God. I have met many golfers who willfully and with full knowledge just plain cheat every time they tee it up. For example, I once played with a gentleman who regularly would miss a five-foot put and then record on his scorecard that he had actually made the putt. This would occur a half a dozen times each round. On a personal note, I did something somewhat dishonest during a tournament many years ago. After hitting a wayward drive, my ball came to rest in the trees. After assessing the situation, it seemed as if my chances of recovery would be very good. In the rules of golf you are allowed to remove any loose impediments as long as they do not improve your lie. As I attempted to dislodge a twig, my ball moved about 2 inches. And I did not call a penalty on myself. Instead, I just carried on as if nothing happened and recorded a lower score than I should have. To this day, I am still bothered by the incident - not only because I would have won the tournament by six stokes, but mainly because I had turned my back on the integrity of the game. Much like the gentleman who kept giving himself some putts, when we commit mortal sins we say to God in essence that his rules mean nothing and that we can just violate them at will. When we turn our back on God, we echo those words that are heard for all eternity when Lucifer said to our Lord, “I will not serve.”

Venial sins, though not as serious, nonetheless lessen the love of God in our hearts and weaken our resistance to temptation. Some golfers violate what I would consider to be lesser rules or the etiquette of the game. For example, they may forget to replace a divot or fix a spike mark that is in the way of their putt. They may carry too many clubs in their bag or give themselves a better lie after their ball has come to rest on a rock. Depending on the context, these violations can be more or less serious. Four ‘duffers’ out for a weekend game probably won’t take it that serious and will do things (i.e., break some of the rules) in order to make the experience more tolerable. If these same violations occur in tournament play, the consequences are obviously more serious. Just like venial sins these less serious rule infractions can add up and make it easier to engage in some serious cheating. We may begin to ignore what we consider to be the ‘little things’ or the habitual sins that are preventing growing fully in our faith. This carelessness may cause a callous to form around our heart and will ultimately reduce or destroy our ‘sense or sin’.

The late great teacher of the game Harvey Pinnick once said:

“If you want to know a man’s character, play a round of golf with Him.”

Former United States congressmen J.C. Watts put it more succinctly when he said:

“Character is doing what’s right when nobody’s looking.”

These statements are very profound and they illustrate a universal truth. In most instances, those around us will never see many of the sins that reside in the recesses of our heart. Christ understood this when He told His followers that to even think lustfully of a woman was to commit adultery with their in your hearts (Cf. Matt. 5: 27-29). This was a sin that only God would see. In the same way, our playing partners will never see most of our rule infractions on the golf course. The game of golf is unique in that it is a game that is based on the honour system. There is no one standing over your shoulder to ensure that you are not in violation of the rules. Any golfer will tell you that the game is full of rules, many of which border on the absurd or seem a bit harsh. For example, if your ball comes to rest in a sand trap, you are not allowed to touch any of the sand with your club before the ball is struck on your next shot. If you happen to accidentally touch the sand with your club, you are obligated to call a penalty on yourself. How many sports have this unique dynamic?

I think that the game of golf gives us a pretty good idea of where we are on the path to holiness. Our golf game should reflect the way we live. We should continually strive to avoid any rule infractions on the course and we should strive to eliminate even the most venial of sins in our life. It has become evident to me over the years that a person who curses on the golf course, slams his clubs, doesn’t count all his stokes, refuses to replace his divots, doesn’t rake the sand traps, is impatient and critical is someone who is probably not living the most holy of lives.

Fortunately, golf is a game in which we can learn to develop the gift of humility. Just when we think that we have made some progress, the game of golf will knock us off of our pedestal quicker than we can say 'four'. Golf reminds us that we have limitations and it often does this when others are looking. To my embarrassment, I once advanced the ball only two feet on the first tee at a golf tournament much to the laughter of my playing partners and those gathered to watch. Golf as in life, is full of ‘whiffs, shanks, duck hooks, pathetic slices', and numerous other mishaps. It serves to remind us that perfection is unattainable but should always be strived for. “Be perfect as my Heavenly Father is perfect,” said our Lord (Cf. Matt. 5: 48).

Finally, the great sports psychologist Bob Rotella who has worked with many of the top players in the game said that when we play golf we should:

“Take one look at the target, and let it go.”

Golf is a game in which our feelings and emotions often get in the way and prevent us from letting our muscles do what they were meant to do. It is a game in which we can become our own worst enemy. Life is very similar. Most of us allow our feelings, emotions or moods, to dictate our behaviour.

We must however always strive to do what is right even if our fleeting feelings try to convince us otherwise.

And now I come to the start of another golf season. It is a time of great opportunity and personal spiritual growth. Will I always play the ball where it lies? No. Will I resolve to try? Yes.

Chris Beneteau
The Catholic Legate
May 14, 2003