How My Disappointing Golf Game Taught Me Mercy

James Tonkowich | Columnist | Thursday, July 31, 2014

How My Disappointing Golf Game Taught Me Mercy

I play golf or, to put it more accurately, I play at golf. I can have moments of brilliance, but those moments are inevitably followed by, shall we say, less than brilliant moments. And I get frustrated. Last Sunday, however, I found something that might help.

I met friends at a local golf club where we sat a patio table overlooking the ninth and eighteenth holes where we watched group after group hit, chip, blast out of the sand, and eventually try to putt their balls into the holes. 

Meaning no offense to my fellow golfers, out of about twenty-five golfers, one played well. The rest played like me. “You know,” I said to my friends, “I suddenly feel better about my golf game.” 

Golf is, as my brother used to say, “trying to put a inconsequential ball into an obscure hole using inadequate equipment.” It’s difficult, as even the pros know.

As psychiatrist M. Scott Peck notes in his book Golf and the Spirit: Lessons for the Journey, golf demands that we live in a paradox. On the one hand, to play well we need self-confidence: “I can do this.” On the other hand, to play well we have to avoid becoming emotional basket cases over every mistake, which takes humility: “I will sooner or later goof up badly.”

Peck points out what he calls “one of the most important principles of golf—perhaps its most sustaining principle: No golfer is so good that he doesn’t occasionally hit a bad shot, and no golfer is so poor that he doesn’t occasionally hit a good one.”

As it is in golf, Peck argues, so in life—everyday life, married life, family life, office life, political life, spiritual life. No one is so good that he doesn’t occasionally do something stupid and sinful, and no one is so bad that he doesn’t occasionally do something wise and virtuous. Most of us are in the middle, just muddling through.

The application is obvious: cut yourself some slack. It’s also countercultural and subversive: cut other people some slack too. 

Grant Paulson, on sports talk radio in Washington, DC recently pointed out that we’ve stopped doing that. “At some point in our society,” he said, “someone would say something insane and you would turn the channel. Someone would say something insane and you would say, ‘I’m going to listen to someone else now.’ At some point we started to hear someone say something crazy and we now do, ‘I want that guy not to say anything. Get that guy off my screen. Fire him. Get rid of him.’ I don’t know when that happened where instead of going, ‘You know, I have other options,’ or ‘This isn’t for me. I’m going to go elsewhere,’ now all of a sudden it’s, ‘Oh, how dare you. I won’t stop until your life is miserable.’ ”

I don’t know when that happened either, but it has happened and it has poisoned much of American life. Rather than seeing people as fallible, mistaken, poorly informed, or unreasonable, we assume they are evil. Call people evil or “haters” and you no longer need to listen to and engage their arguments. You can attack the person and concentrate on trying to destroy them.

Our politics, moral discourse, higher education, church life, communities, marriages, and families become toxic when we ignore the fact that most people are out there on the golf course of life trying to get by amid hazards, penalties, uneven ground, poor judgment, limited skills, and all the other “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” The people around us—including those we might look upon as enemies—are probably more in need of sympathy, compassion, and mercy than anything else.

As if to reinforce these golf course meditations, my devotional reading on Monday was from St Caesarius Bishop of Arles (AD 460-542): “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy [Matthew 5:7]. ‘Mercy’ is a beautiful word: more beautiful still is the thing itself. All men wish to receive it, but the worst thing is that not all of them behave in a way that deserves it. Although everyone wishes to be shown mercy only a few wish to show it.”

Yes, I know the “golf is like life” thing has been overused, but that’s in part because it works. This week I’ll be showing my stuff (or lack thereof) on nine and 18 in front of the audience on the patio. It will be an opportunity to practice more than golf. I can practice extending mercy to myself, my playing partners, and all the other poor sinners muddling along the golf course and the course of life.

Publication date: July 31, 2014