Staying in control, focused, in golf or life in general, is the key to success. Photo courtesy of Linda Couture

Golf & the Kingdom: faith, hope, fairways

  • September 3, 2022

In summer 2021, I had the pleasure on the local public golf course where I play to be part of a foursome of walk-ons that included a diminutive albeit athletic 30-something Asian woman.

She was a daughter of Cambodian “boat people” who spent her first five years in a Thai refugee camp. She turned out to be among the most extraordinarily talented golfers I’ve ever played with. She outdrove her larger male playing companions by 30 yards, which, as one fellow said, left him with “a whole new way to feel emasculated.” She was deadly accurate. On a 215-yard par 3, she hit a five-wood to within a foot of the pin and coolly tapped  in for a birdie.
Most remarkable was how quickly she played. I watched in awe as she walked purposefully up to her ball, set up perfectly over it without fuss, muss or 30 practice swings, then carved a perfect parabola through the air with her club and… KA-BLAM! There her white Titleist sailed, seemingly in perpetuity down the fairway.

I had to ask how she perfected what I presumed was a hard-won technique.

“It’s easy,” she said. “You just hit the ball. I watch people standing over their ball thinking-thinking-thinking. I ask myself ‘what are they thinking about?’ The ball is there for you to hit. You just hit the ball.”

Her words are vivid in memory although I have not, alas, encountered her again as summer 2022 winds down like a clock on Sunday evening. I have, though, had the delight of encountering this golfing season a book by Toronto writer Theodore Arnold Haultain, which takes 244 pages to drive home the message my erstwhile playing partner expressed in five short words. The Mystery of Golf concludes that the game/sport/act of insanity comes down to “just hitting the ball” by meeting the single requirement of keeping your eye on the ball.

In that essential meeting of eye and ball, Haultain explicates the riddle wrapped in the enigma wrapped in the mystery that is golf. Contrary to my Asian-Canadian partner’s concision, he differentiates extensively between being simple and being easy. Unlike infinitely more complex sports, golf asks of us nothing more complicated than putting a small ball in a “jam pot” several times its size. Where easiness falls off the table, he cautions, is that the jam pot can be from 100 to more than 500 yards away.

The geographical distance the ball must travel to the hole ups the ante on the physiological challenge of keeping our eye on it even as it lies right at our feet. The physiological then becomes the psychological because, as Haultain notes, golf is a flawless mirror for the way human expectation of perfection is persistently foiled by human capacity for humiliation.

Part of the mystery of golf is why we insist on playing it so inadequately. Just so, the mystery of life is why we so voraciously, and courageously, insist on living it so imperfectly. But the mystery, as it unravels slowly, teaches us that the confession of our imperfection — keeping our eye on the ball of reality, so to speak — is how we develop spiritual discipline and experience joy. Contemporary golf gurus such as Dr. Bob Rotella convey the same message in books like Golf is Not a Game of Perfect.

But underscoring the fascinating nature of The Mystery of Golf, Haultain published his inquiry into the psychological and spiritual lessons of the game in 1910. That was decades before such factors became a mainstay of the game’s literature under the marketing banner of the “mental game of golf” (a phrase with opposite meanings for golfers and non-golfers.) An emigrant from England and U of T graduate before beginning his career as a writer-researcher for Toronto journalist-historian Goldwin Smith, Haultain was an intellectual creature of the Darwinist-Deism of the late 19th and early 20th century.

Yet he found in golf, more than any other game, an analogue for art and religion. Though by no means a contact sport, he wrote, golf brings “the man, the very inmost man, into contact with the man, the very inmost man.” Golf is uniquely difficult in its often tormenting solitariness. It is played among others but always against oneself and nature. There are no teammates in a round of golf. There are not even true opponents because “just hitting the ball” to score is under entirely individual control. I can attest, as a life-long serious runner, that not even marathon running equals the utter interior isolation of golf. Played attentively, silent prayer is its affective counterpart.

Haultain cheekily ascribes this religious nature of the game to its origins in the “slow, sure, quiet, deliberate, canny even” national character of the Scots, and the “rigid and puritanical Scots Presbyterian” personality emergent from immersion in the Shorter Catechism. He pays serious due, at the same time, to the religious sense that underlies golf.

“Golf is a test not so much of the muscle or even the brains and nerves as it is a test of inmost self, of soul and spirit, of character and disposition... temperament… habit of mind… mental and moral nature,” he writes.

Indeed, Haultain contends, the obligations of golf contain the 10 Commandments. From the simple edict to “just hit the ball,” he drafts a list of 24 “thou shall nots” whose breach leads from embarrassing “foozles” to revelation of character flaws so serious that for Catholics they would necessitate confession.

Not unusually for his era, Haultain skitters away from the word sin. But his exploration of the mystery of golf leads, sinuously but inexorably, to the contemplation of the game as an exercise in virtue. He means virtue as the Church defines it: “An habitual and firm disposition to do the good (that) allows the person not only to perform good acts but to give the best of himself. The virtuous person tends toward the good with all his sensory and spiritual powers; he pursues good and chooses it in concrete actions.”

In the Catholic Catechism’s explication of virtue, Gregory of Nyssa’s words are cited: “The goal of a virtuous life is to become like God.” In The Mystery of Golf, Haultain does not explicitly claim godliness as a golfer’s goal. He does note that golf, like God, is a jealous master. Thus, his stress on the good of disciplining ourselves to fuse our spiritual and sensory power by paying attention. The virtue of attention is essential, he says, to properly do what we are called to do in golf and, by extension, in the life of faith.

“If you can so thoroughly control yourself… as to always look steadfastly at your ball till after you have actually hit it — after you have hit it, mind — (it) will enable you to… be your true, quiet, self-confident self throughout the game,” Haultain writes.

Failure to develop such virtue, on the contrary, can leave us like the Publican in Luke’s Gospel who “would not even look up to Heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘Lord have mercy on me, a sinner.’ ”

Now, that is worth thinking about long before and well after — after, mind — we have just hit the ball.

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