James Reston, the two-time Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, once sarcastically remarked that golf was, “A plague invented by the Calvinistic Scots as a punishment for man’s sins.” No doubt, a remark inspired by the fact that golf is a notoriously difficult game. Hank Aaron said, “It took [him] 17 years to get 3,000 hits in baseball. It took [him] one afternoon on the golf course.”
Paradoxically, golf is also a notoriously addicting game. It is the only legitimate sport I can think of that people keep playing after they discover that they are irreparably bad at it. There is “just something” about the game of golf that, despite all the frustration, people can’t stay away from.
Since we can’t stay away, it is important to know how we can play this difficult but delightful game to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31). That is what we will be considering in the following post.
Perry Boomer said, ‘If you wish to hide your character do not play golf.’
Golf as Idol
Golf is a game, not a god. Yet our culture does tend to deify the game of golf in two ways. The first, in a pseudo-pantheistic or new age fashion, is to identify the golf course (i.e. nature) with god. People who adopt this approach see playing golf as an opportunity to have a mystical encounter with the divine spirit that pervades the universe. In other words, golf serves as an alternative to transcendental meditation.
The other way our culture tends to deify the game of golf, which accords with what I like to call “secular polytheism,” is to worship the game itself. People who adopt this approach get their identity, meaning and purpose in life from the game. Golf, not God, is their highest priority and deepest love. One golf architect captures this sentiment perfectly when he says, “The game is like a church. It’s a philosophy of life. It’s a religion almost. It’s the gospel of golf…” Yikes!
The misattribution of glory is the fundamental error in both of these approaches. They both mistake the painting for Picasso, as it were. They “exchange the truth about God for a lie and worship and serve the creature rather than the creator” (Romans 1:25). That is, the honor and thanks that God is due is willfully misdirected and given to His creation instead.
How, then, can we play golf to the glory of God? Let’s look at 6 ways.
1. Giving Thanks.
Playing golf to the glory of God starts by acknowledging and giving thanks to God for the beauty of creation and the joy of sport (Romans 1:21). Nature is, after all, His handiwork (Psalm 19:1) and recreation was His idea. People who adopt this approach view golf as a gift to be enjoyed as God intended.
2. Properly Prioritizing the Game.
If there were a Mount Rushmore of golf, Bobby Jones would certainly be on it. Jones, the founder of Augusta National (where they play ‘The Masters’), was: “The greatest amateur golfer ever…In the eight seasons from 1923 to 1930, Jones won thirteen major championships, including five U.S. Amateurs, four U.S. Opens, three British Opens, and one British Amateur.” But do you know what was even more impressive about Bobby Jones? This titan of golf had his priorities straight. His priorities proceeded in the following order: “God, family, the law (his vocation), golf.” In other words, Jones did not allow the time he spent playing golf to interfere with time he knew should be dedicated elsewhere.
Likewise, for us, properly prioritizing the game means that the love, time and money we give to golf is not taking away from the love, time and money that we should be giving to God, our family, our neighbors or our jobs. Practically, this means we should not skimp on giving to purchase a new driver, skip out on church or work to play 18, or make a practice of missing family dinner to practice our putting.
That said, with these parameters in place we can and should play golf with joy and without guilt.
3. Playing with Joy.
Did you know that blessedness or happiness is actually an attribute of God? God is a joyful being. As the Psalmist writes, “In His presence there is fullness of joy and at His right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). And He has created us to be joyful beings as well.
John Piper says that, “Christian joy is a good feeling in the soul provided by the Holy Spirit as He causes us to see the beauty of Christ in the Word and in the world.” In other words, God wants us to be happy and have fun. Contrary to popular opinion, He is not a cosmic kill-joy. In fact, He is the Cosmic-Merrymaker! All good gifts come from Him (James 1:17)—including the gift of golf. Therefore, it does not please or honor Him (and is a contradiction in terms) for us to play solemnly or grumpily. “A Bad attitude is worse than a bad swing,” as Payne Stewart said. We should play with joy because it pleases God and brings Him honor when we enjoy His gifts.
4. Playing with Integrity.
Perry Boomer said, “If you wish to hide your character do not play golf.” Bad language, club throwing and overindulging in spirits are all too common on a golf course. But “filthy language” (Colossians 3:8), “fits of anger” (Galatians 5:20) and “drunkenness” (Galatians 5:21), “must not even be named among [Christians]” (Ephesians 5:3). When playing golf, we cannot leave our Christian virtue at home. Instead, we must conduct ourselves, “in a manner worthy of our calling” (Ephesians 4:1), as if God is walking down the fairway with us (because He is).
Playing with integrity also means that we play by the rules. This includes the “house rules” agreed upon by those you are playing with (e.g. mulligans, repositioning balls that land in divots, etc.).
In brief, we honor God by abiding by the rules of morality and the rules of the game.
5. Playing with Others.
Golf may not be a team sport, but it is a sport that is meant to be played together—in groups of up to four. The word “play” carries a relational connotation for a reason. I think by their very nature, God uses sports to bring people together, to deepen the bond of community through friendly competition. So, we glorify God by inviting others to play with us and treating them with the dignity and respect due a fellow image bearer.
6. Sharing with Others.
Finally, playing golf also provides a wonderful opportunity for personal evangelism and community outreach. We can’t spend a lifetime playing as if the Fall didn’t happen. For Christians, this means that we must leverage golf for the purpose of bringing others to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ (i.e. sharing the gospel) and to a proper enjoyment of God’s world (i.e. sharing the recreational implications of the gospel as outlined above). To that end, we glorify God by inviting our non-Christian friends and those in the community who do not have means or access to the game of golf to play with us. As Jonathan Edwards said:
The spirit of charity, or Christian love…disposes a person to be public-spirited. A man of a right spirit is not a man of narrow and private views, but is greatly interested and concerned for the good of the community to which he belongs, and particularly of the city or village in which he resides.
In summary, we play golf to the glory of God by giving
thanks, properly prioritizing the game, playing with joy, playing with
integrity, playing with others and sharing with others.
 The motive behind both approaches is the same: self-glorification. Apart from Christ, we all want to be God. And we “achieve” this end either by identifying ourselves with the supreme being (Pantheism) or by denying the existence of a supreme being (Secular Humanism).
 Personally, I think we should consider appropriating self-imposed “blue laws,” which allow us to play sports recreationally on Sundays, but prohibit us participating in or watching professional sporting events. In our society, professional sports have turned the Lord’s Day into a market day/neo-pagan holiday. Reviving the prophetic witness of Eric Liddell and expanding the prophetic witness of Truett Cathy would be a strong message against the rampant sports idolatry in our culture.
 I.e. “God delights in Himself as the supreme good.”
 This is especially true for those of us who play consistently with the same non-Christian friends.