Golf, God and Greening
This past Tuesday I found myself walking nearly five miles following a young friend of mine, Sophie, who plays high school golf. I’ve never walked eighteen holes of a golf course before. I loved it. I knew almost nothing of the game, except that spectators have to be quiet: a good “Rule #1” when you know nothing about something! I went for the love of Sophie and her mother, a friend whose company I enjoy so much I’d go pretty much anywhere she invited me.
Besides being quiet, the second thing I know about golf is that it’s played outside in lush green spaces. I look for any reason to be outside on an April day, and this past week I have been reading about viriditas and learning from an ancient abbess, Hildegard of Bingen. Viriditas is the greening power of the Divine. It’s both literal and metaphorical. The visible expression of creative life, energy and nourishment that we see everywhere in nature and depend on for our physical growth and healing is a picture of how the soul thrives, too. The greening power of God must move through us like xylem and phloem flows through plants. Anything that blocks that flow causes aridity to the soul.
I was drawn to the idea of a day on the greens and I was not disappointed. For all you golfers who want an excuse to play even more, call it soul-nourishing.
The first thing that struck me watching the girls tee off was how hard it is to visually follow the ball on a drive. I immediately lost sight of it between the blue sky, the billowing clouds and the tops of pine trees. My ears found it for me when it hit the ground. My Rule #1 about being quiet as a spectator was not just to keep from breaking the concentration of the players; turns out it was for me also. To see the game, I had to “hear” the ball.
Before I even had my definitions memorized, and I mean words like bogie, birdie, drive, and putt(I tell you I knew nothing about golf!), I discovered something I loved: the order of play is determined by who is furtherest outside. Play “from the outside in” couldn’t be more communal. For something that is labeled an ‘individual sport’, a sport in which one plays herself and the course, this surprised me. I kept thinking about it hole after hole as I watched the order of play change -the last gets to be first.
By the third hole, I realized I’d used the ‘par for the course’ metaphor quite carelessly through the years. I’ve used it to mean, “about what could be expected considering the person or circumstances” in question. In other words, ‘par for the course’ I’d used to mean “not exceptional, not special, not really even that good - just so-so, ho-hum”. My performance/achievement/productivity-obsessed self learned something important watching these these young ladies and seeing the difficulty of what they were doing.
I came to the realization (without googling the idiom) that par must be way better than I thought because it seemed achievable only to those who practice often. When I actually looked up the expression, there was that word: ‘expert’. The actual meaning is the number of strokes for an expert golfer to finish the entire course. Par for the course is way better than ‘ho-hum normal’ and ‘to be expected’. Par is what an expert shoots. Par is what you come close to when you have practiced hour after hour, year after year. And par is something with which one should be quite content. There’s no perfect in golf - just over and under par and a number of variables affect one’s game, many of them outside a player’s control. The experts stay pliable, able to adjust, green and growing.
“The glory of God is a human being fully alive,” one of my favorite quotes by St. Irenaeus, ran though my mind as I watched the game. My favorite words in this quote are “human being” and “alive”. I forget that sometimes - the whole made-of-dust, creature thing. I try to bring Superwoman to God. I hide from myself and Him. I deny my mistakes and ignore my limitations, forgetting that fully grown and fixed is close to dead.
I’m not going to be perfect this side of eternity, not even close. The course will vary, the ground will shift, the weather change, and some days I’ll drive well and some days I’ll get stuck in the sand.
I’ve always heard golf was a sport where you “play yourself”. It made no sense to me until I had walked nearly five miles and watched eighteen holes. We all knew who the “Girl-to-Beat’ in this tournament was, but she wasn’t in the group of girls I was watching. I wondered “Is Sophie thinking about her, wondering what her numbers are on every hole?” I doubt she was. She is accomplished enough to have shot par the first day of this tournament and stood to be low medalist depending on this day’s score. She’d have trained that out of herself through practice and play, knowing the futility of focusing on someone else's performance.
I’ve watched years of high school tennis with my daughter. One is constantly adjusting her game to what the opponent is doing or trying to force her to adjust or even better, to make an error. This idea of NOT thinking of the other player was new to me. Of the sports I’ve played or been a spectator to, one always considers offense and defense. In golf, competitors’ games don’t intersect until they get to the clubhouse and see one another’s score. You make no adjustments mid-game in regards to other players, only to yourself or your environment. Your game is yours; theirs is theirs. You can’t control her outcome. It’s non-attachment embodied in a sport.
As the two mothers walking the course whispered about their other children, collegians living out from under our roofs, the picture of self-containment and non-attachment was not lost on me. If Sophie were worrying about the shots ‘Girl-to-Beat’ was making, she wouldn’t be only four over par at the end of eighteen holes and low medalist for the tournament.
The power of green, quiet, and listening, making the last first, being content without perfection, making adjustments only within myself without trying to control others…
I need to watch more golf.