It is no secret that I have long believed that sports and golf in particular serve as a worthy analog for understanding the spiritual life. I love playing with ideas—and teasing out the correlations, limitations and seeing what sticks. What do I want to pass on? What "works?" It's not only fun, it's necessary for the continued growth and vitality of my own spiritual life.
As we move into the final round of the 2021 Masters, I would like to share one analogy that I have returned to many times in the past year. The green is sacred ground and to read it properly requires both sigh and vision. The purpose of this post is to explain what that means and why it's important far beyond golf.
First, how do we know it is sacred ground? When I asked my golf team about the green as a sacred space, they answered without hesitation. They noted the obvious: golfers exhibit behaviors on the green unlike anywhere else on the golf course. For example, one would never leaves their bag or push cart on it. A golfer is expected to fix any divots and tend to any marks to keep the green intact. A good rule of thumb is to do your best to leave the space better than you found it (read: housekeeping!).
Scripture tells us that we ought to take off our shoes when entering holy ground. I know many people would love to do this on the golf course but thanks to athlete's foot, golfing without shoes is forbidden (believe me, I've seen people try….doesn't go over well). However, a golfer is ever mindful of where and how she walks on the green. For example, you are not to step on a person's line. More often than not, golfers tread lightly on the green. Sacred spaces ask us to do the same.
I often associate sacred space with the notion of pilgrimage. While the purpose of pilgrimage is to reach a meaningful destination, pilgrims discover the journey itself is just as important. It is always physically and spirituality demanding. Pilgrims grow weary but find respite in unexpected people and places along the pathway.
In golf, the green is home to the flag or pin, and the objective of each hole is to get the ball there!. It goes without saying, it isn't always an easy place to get to, either. When approaching the green a golfer ought to implement both sight and vision. In other words, they are tasked with looking hole to part and part to whole. They ought to determine: What is happening here? They should look front to back, and right to left. And as they look, they are asking What is the slope? Where are the breaks? What speed and distance do I need? This information ought to help a golfer make a good decision about how to play.
I have been able to visit sacred sites—shrines and cities, churches and memorials. And, in these places I have asked myself similar questions. I have taken a personal inventory, I am seeking clarity. I am hoping for direction beyond here and now—but for where I am going next.
The green is not a place where people rush, nor should they. Though a putt is but five, ten or twenty feet to the hole, each stroke counts the same. A golfer may get on in two and resents the game when they three-putt (speaking from a lot of experience here). Every golfer has his or her own pace and method. There's no one way to get the job done. A golfer must do what suits him or her.
The reason I spent so much time thinking about this analog is because my colleagues and I took months to determine when would be the right time to have our coaches retreat. Due to COVID, high school athletics were on put on pause in March 2020. Whereas we would have had a coaches' retreat to kick off the new school year, this school year's gathering was slated for November, then December and finally occurred in February 2021.
Given my role in the Athletic Department, there is nothing that I wanted to do more than bring coaches together for formation in the mission of our school through conversations about sports. And yet, I wasn't sure how to do that, and when to do that. I asked questions like Do we need to acknowledge what we have lost? Is it ok to look ahead? Will this be meaningful? How can the message we want to offer be relevant? In short, I was looking for a way to "read the green."
In November 2020, Dustin Johnson set the course record at The Masters by finishing the tourney 20 under par. His win is attributed to being long and strong off the tee, hitting nearly every last green in regulation and reading the greens with excellent precision. But what was most noteworthy to me is how he did that.
Dustin's caddy—his younger brother Austin uses the aim point method of reading the green. This requires sight and vision. A golfer or in this case, a caddy must feel the green with his or her feet. Straddling the line to the hole—half way between the ball and the flag—a read requires feeling the balance of right and left. Is it equal? Is one side 2-1? 3-1? This read determines where the golfer then aims the ball. In short, feel, speed, sight and vision work together to execute the putt. Austin was excellent in advising his brother for what to do and where to aim, but ultimately Dustin had to decide and to execute. He said he couldn't have done it alone.
In my own life, I like to feel the green. As with the retreat, I wanted to get a sense of the balance. I realized I might be straddling two different places where people stand. I wanted to account for both, but lean into one more than the other. We erred on the side of hope, but not without naming what we had lost and what we had mourned.
A funny thing has happened since I learned more about the Johnson method of reading the greens. I see things SO much more clearly. There are times now when I play golf and I have the line and I know it. My putting has improved dramatically and with that, so has my confidence (this might not be saying a whole lot because there was big room for improvement). I enjoy the time I spend on the green. I like paying better attention and seeing the part to whole and whole to part. I love feeling it with my feet and firing away. My hope is that this same comfort and enjoyment of reading the green will carry over to how I live my own faith. I can use the boost.
Sight and vision….care and precision….taking time and doing your best…sounds like a good way to life the spiritual life, too.