Though my score doesn’t reflect it, I love the game of golf. I enjoy playing golf; I like watching it on television; I even like playing golf video games. When I found out last year that I was being called to Little Chapel on the Boardwalk on Wrightsville Beach, one of my first thoughts was, “I am going to the golf mecca of the United States.” I had always heard about how fantastic the golf courses were in North Carolina, and though I haven’t been able to play as often as I would like, I have not been disappointed with any of the golf courses I have played since arriving here. Due to my love for the game, I enjoy reading books in which authors have attempted to compare life, and especially our Christian faith, to golf.
One of my favorite books is by Mike Linder, a Catholic priest. He wrote a book back in the mid-90s called, “Play It as It Lies,” and throughout the book he uses anecdotes from not only his own golf game, but from the professional golf tour as well to demonstrate how golf can nurture the qualities that are essential to our spiritual growth.
One of the things discussed in the book is the handicap system which is used to keep score. I am not sure how the handicap system came into existence, but I am guessing it had something to do with the understanding that golf is an easy game to play poorly (which I can attest to on all levels), but an impossible one to master. People of all skill levels must play the same layouts. Par remains the same for everyone, so simply moving up the tee markers is not enough to level the playing field.
Linder writes: “Maybe the most important reason for the development of the handicap system is the understanding that everyone plays against the course first. Regardless of who wins or loses everyone’s score is measured against par. So the handicap system adjusts par for people of different abilities, and the result is that anyone who’s having a reasonably good day can beat a pro golfer.”
As I thought about the handicap way of scoring in golf, I realized that while it is so easy for us golfers to think that we deserve our handicap on the golf course, we don’t think that anyone else deserves a break anywhere else. We want to win at all costs, and nothing else really seems to matter. And if someone is not doing something the way we think it ought to be done, we want him or her to change it to meet our way of doing things. Maybe we would be better off if we tried to recognize individual gifts in people instead of insisting that they either develop the ones we consider important or find a seat at the back of the bus, so to speak. Maybe the gifts that we fail to see or to appreciate could make a difference in the world. The tradition of golf would say that people ought to be given an even chance to display their gifts; it begins by acknowledging that those gifts are important and do make a difference.
As Linder explains: “The game encourages us to celebrate the successes and achievements of others, to understand that life is not a contest whose aim is to label people as winners and losers, but a common struggle to use what we have been given, to strive to do our best. We discover ourselves in the midst of that struggle. If we give in to the temptation to believe that the occasional success defines us, we are headed for big trouble, because we experience a lot more failures than triumphs.”
But that is where the loving of a merciful God that we worship comes in. God will never leave us alone in our struggles but will continue to guide us, and be with us when we shank our drive into the woods, or sink a 35-foot putt for birdie. And for that we can say, “Thanks be to God!”