God and Golf

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11 August 2016 (Pasadena, CA) So let me begin this blog entry with a bit of self-disclosure…I am a theologian by training. I hold a Ph.D. from an East Coast institution of higher education and am currently on faculty at a West Coast university. I teach New Testament studies and its impact on contemporary culture. So, the topic of religion on the PGA Tour is a fascinating area of examination for me. I first became aware of the impact of religion in professional sports in 2001. That year the NY Knicks had an acute locker room divide between those who practiced religion (Charlie Ward, Allan Houston, and Mark Jackson) and those who didn’t (e.g. Latrell Sprewell, Marcus Camby, Kurt Thomas, Larry Johnson). Coach, Jeff VanGundy, chimed in on the schism by saying that it made little sense to him to have opponents gathered together (in prayer) before an NBA game. Recall, that VanGundy was tutored under Pat Riley who during his coaching tenure, did not allow his players to assist competitors off the ground (need I remind you of the Riley led Laker brawls vs. Bird’s Celtics? That was sports warfare). VanGundy felt that it compromised his team’s competitive edge (that year’s team ended up 29-53). Fast-foward to the 2016 PGA Tour. What is the impact and/or effect of religion on a tour that has many self-proclaimed Evangelical Christians? A sampling of some of these high-profile players includes: Bubba Watson, Davis Love III, Webb Simpson, Ben Crane, Aaron Baddeley, Zach Johnson, and Jordan Spieth. A brief investigation will show that weekly Bible studies are held on Wednesdays at tour events around the country led historically by outreach ministers including: Larry Moody, Dave Krueger and Jose Alvarez. Attendance ranges from a few dozen players, family members, caddies, support staff and up to 100 participants on other occasions. The meetings are labeled as non-denominational which is usually religious code for evangelical leaning. Players are also known to Tweet Biblical verses or testimonies and pass Biblical quotes via paper and pencil to each other. Players such as Watson and Simpson–after winning majors–testified to their faith commitments during post-round interviews. The Champions Tour has a reputation for being even more evangelical than its PGA partner. In contrast, the LPGA is less overtly religious from a public display or comment perspective than the PGA although many Korean players acknowledge their faith but less demonstratively. The European Tour, a much more (religiously) diverse group of players, rarely if ever encounters overt expressions of religiosity either on or off the course. This seems to be a US/masculine thing. So what are we to make of it? Here are a few thoughts from my theological perspective. I believe it is each players right to express their faith commitment(s) both on and off the course as long as it does not disparage the faith or non-faith commitments of others. This is the tricky part because faith commitments and proclamations often bleed into the realm of social and cultural stances that vary from group to group and/or person to person. And, by its very nature, evangelical Christianity (the Christianity most visible on the tour) is evangelical (proclamation based) and culturally dominant in the United States. So this overt expression of religiosity finds itself primarily in a position of theo-politico-cultural privilege on the tour. And the players who adhere to this tradition must respectfully recognize that fact. So, like any other work place, the religious convictions of an individual are their private commitments and must not affect the work environment negatively. The PGA is not the first sports institution to be exposed to this phenomenon. Tim Tebow famously prayed after touchdowns, baseball players point to the sky before an at-bat or after crossing home plate, religious paraphernalia is often visible around players necks, the sign of the cross is also publicly displayed. Even tattoos of praying hands are common. The fact is, we live in a religiously saturated culture whether we like it or not. We must take care, however, to respect the diversity that also exists in our midst. I encourage the PGA to (continue) to do the same.

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