The double-bogey Christian

I played golf for the first time of the year last Saturday and it reminded me of something I wrote a few years ago after playing a round of golf at my cabin. I added a few things to the intro, but for the most part, this is what wrote two years ago…

I am not good at golf. It is a wonderful and frustrating activity. The more I play, the more I realize that golf is a sport that you can never master – no matter how much you practice. But it is a game that offers moments when it’s possible to trick yourself into thinking that you’re starting to figure things out…although you’re sure to do something (hit a shot into the woods, water or sand) and realize you have no idea what you’re doing just a few moments later. I’m convinced that I could play golf every day for the rest of my life and still be a terrible golfer. I’d still get frustrated and I’d still hit plenty of bad shots that make me want to say bad words, loudly. But I’d probably also hit at least one “perfect shot” each round that would make it all worth it and keep me coming back to play again, not quite ready to give up the dream that I’d figure it out and finally be good someday soon.

Now that the Minnesota weather is starting to cooperate and it’s safe to assume winter is finally over (probably), there are a lot of people (like me) in this area of the country who are going downstairs to get their golf clubs out of the basement, practicing their swing in the back yard and making plans to fill some of their summer days chasing a little white ball around the woods. If you think about it, the whole idea of golf is a rather bizarre and backwards thing. I mean, there are a lot of people who spend a lot of time and money on all the things involved in the game of golf (equipment, accessories, green fees, vacation time), and at many golf courses you actually have to plan ahead and reserve a time to play. Coincidentally, the courses where “tee times” are required are also more expensive. Now, assuming I’m not the only person who finds golf to be a rather frustrating experience at times (most of the time), doesn’t it seem strange that so many people are getting excited about days that will be filled with frustration. And the whole making a tee time thing…what does it say about us golfers that we take the time to actually schedule what time we will start getting pissed at ourselves? Shouldn’t those phone calls actually sound something like this?

Golf Course person: Hello, thanks for calling the golf course.
Golfer: Hi, I’d like to make a tee time for this Friday.
GC Person: Okay, what time would you like your attitude to start getting negative?
Golfer: I was hoping to start getting mad at myself around 9:00am.
GC Person: We have an opening at 9:13am, would you be willing to stay somewhat positive and optimistic for about 13 minutes later into the day?
Golfer: I suppose that would work.
GC Person: How many people will be getting angry and frustrated with you?
Golfer: There will be four of us.
GC Person: And would you like to get some exercise while getting disappointed?
Golfer: Excuse me?
GC Person: Would you like to walk or can we charge you a bunch of extra money to drive around in a glorified go-kart while complaining about how you’re playing?
Golfer: We’ll take two carts please.
GC Person: Great. We have you down for four people at 9:13 am this Friday. It will cost you each at least $50 of your hard earned money. See you then.
Golfer: Looking forward to it.

Like I said, I’m not a good golfer. But for some reason I keep playing, and every spring I get excited about getting back out on the course. There’s an old expression that says “everything I needed to know about life I learned from the game of golf” – and in some ways I think this is true – at least I know that every time I play golf I learn something…about life, about the world, and about myself.

I don’t spend a lot of money on golf. I usually play at my cabin where there is a decent 9-hole course just half a mile down the road and it only costs $10.50 per round. My dad and I (and sometimes my brother-in-law) begin many of our days on the golf course and then return to the cabin to drink coffee and eat breakfast (including bacon if we’re lucky!).

About once a summer I get the chance to be at my cabin by myself, and although it’s a place I usually associate with spending time with family and friends, it’s always nice to get away and spend some time there on my own. My dad is a great golf partner (he’s not way better than me, although I’ve still never beat him), but sometimes it’s sometimes fun to play alone without having to worry about anyone else seeing how bad I am. Of course, the problem with this – and this probably rarely presents itself – is when I hit a great shot and no one is there to witness it. I mean, what if I got a hole-in-one and no one saw it happen, would anyone believe me? (If you’ve seen me golf, please don’t answer that question.)

I wrote the following thoughts after playing golf by myself one morning at my cabin a few years ago.

Location: a golf course in northwest Wisconsin
Date: a Tuesday during the summer of ’06
6th Hole: Par 4, 289 yards, dog-leg left

I hit a hybrid 3 iron/wood off the tee. It was the perfect shot. Flying high with a slight hook that followed the turn of the fairway…everything about it felt right. It was about 9:30 in the morning, so the sun was still at a sharp angle facing down at me, forcing me to squint while watching the ball sail through the air…it was glorious! (Read that last line like Will Ferrel would say it in Old School, “it was glooorrriious!”) I slowly put my club back, picked up my bag and started walking through the wet grass to find where my golf ball’s journey had ended.

Quick aside: There are two kinds of walks a golfer can have, and many different variations of each. The first is the “I just hit a great shot and I want everyone to notice” walk (confidence, pride, puffing out the chest and walking slowly to enjoy the feeling) and the second is the “that shot sucked and I want to get to my ball right now so I can hit it again before people see where I ended up” walk (frustrated, head down, muttering words you wouldn’t say around your grandma).

Since I was golfing by myself this morning, I enjoyed the walk on my own. Soaking in the wonderful feeling of every step, knowing that I had just hit a great shot. I noticed a grounds crew worker sprinkling fertilizer on the green ahead. “I bet he’s impressed,” I thought to myself. Assuming he had seen my ball drop onto the middle of the fairway just behind him.

Because of the bright sun and wet dew, every clump of grass and leaf had a shine to it that could have been mistaken for a golf ball from a distance, and as I got closer to where I thought my ball would be, I didn’t see it anywhere. I hadn’t actually seen where my ball was because of the bright sun, but I assumed it had either rolled just off the fairway or better yet, followed the left turn and continued down the middle of the fairway toward the hole.

I checked both. There was no golf ball. I was confused, but not worried. It had to be around somewhere, since after all, I had hit the ball perfectly.

Another aside: Just like there are two ways for a golfer to walk after hitting a shot, there are also two ways for a golfer to look for a missing ball. You can look for a ball “where you think it is” or “where you hope it is.” Occasionally where you think it is, is actually worse than where it actually is; sometimes where you think it is, is the same place where you hope it is; and oftentimes where you think and hope it is, is where it will never be in a million years – no matter how well you hit it. On this morning, where I thought it was, was in the middle of the fairway, 100 yards from the hole…but there was no golf ball where I hoped there would be, or anywhere else nearby for that matter.

I looked everywhere possible for that ball, but found nothing. I couldn’t believe it. How could I hit a ball perfectly and then not find it? My pride crept into my thoughts as I continued looking. “It must be up here,” I thought. “I hit the ball great, it has to be somewhere around here…and it has to be somewhere good!”
I never did find that golf ball. Where it ended up is a mystery I guess. So what does any of this have to do with life as a Christian? After all, I titled this piece “the double-bogey Christian.”

As Christians (and/or as golfers), we often think we’re doing better than we really are. We think we’re doing things perfectly or are at least on our way toward becoming better, and even when we get lost or confused, we think we’ll find what we’re looking for and figure it all out. We assume people are impressed by us and that we have reason to walk around with a lot of pride, like we’re pretty special. We don’t want to admit that we really don’t know what we’re doing, that we’re not nearly as good as we think.

Golf is intended to be fun and relaxing, so I’ve learned that it’s best for me to lower my expectations to protect myself from getting frustrated and mad – since that’s no way to spend a morning with my dad at the cabin. It’s common for most people to shoot for par, but perhaps I am more realistic than most people. I realize that if I tee off on every hole with the goal or expectation of getting par, I will at best live up to my expectations, and at worst fall terribly short and be disappointed.

I am a double-bogy golfer, so that’s my goal.

Sure, I’ll get some bogeys, an occasional par or a very rare birdie, but when the round is done my overall score will average out to a bunch of double-bogeys.

My life as a Christian is similar to my golf game. I wake up everyday fully intending to do good and be good (call it living “par”), yet I stumble in sin and end up with a bunch of double-bogeys.

I’ve golfed enough to know that a par for me is like an eagle for Tiger Woods, but a double-bogey for me is like Tiger getting a par. It’s more realistic to step up to the tees thinking I’m going to get a bogey or double-bogey than tricking myself into expecting I’m going to get a par or birdie.

As Christians, we often fool ourselves into thinking we can live life under par (the equivalent of being perfect), as if we have everything figured out and we’ve done something to be proud of…so we walk around feeling pretty proud of ourselves. Yet, in reality, if there was a scorecard for our life, it would have a lot of numbers with squares rather than circles (note: when scoring in golf, you draw a square around a score over par and a circle around scores under par).

I am a double-bogey Christian, and if you are honest with yourself, so are you…and that’s okay. God’s grace is sufficient for me, you and everyone else doing their best to make it through 18-holes of life.

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