Why I Love Losers like Jordan Spieth

“They say golf is like life, but don’t believe them. Golf is more complicated than that.” — Gardner Dickinson, a longtime American tour pro

I remember watching Brian’s Song as an eleven year old trying my best not to cry in front of my sister. There is something endearing about the vulnerability of our heroes. Lou Gehrig was struck down in his prime so famously that his name became eponymous with both endurance (2,130 consecutive games played) and helpless degeneration (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS…Lou Gehrig disease)

I love winners, but somehow, I relate more closely to those who lose. I can’t imagine what it must be like to win the Masters. It’s too much. But to lose…

I can understand the agony of losers because I’m an expert. I feel closer to Jordan Spieth now after watching those gut-wrenching moments of golf frustration on Sunday. He seems even more likable if that’s possible, and more human.

I don’t have to imagine Jordan Spieth’s welling of terror in the midst of the drop zone at Rae’s Creek trying to keep the lead at the Masters while not flinching at the bottom of the swing because of an intractable thought that striking a lob wedge on the blade would send the ball deep into the darkness of man-eating azaleas.

I’ve been there. No, I haven’t hit that shot in front of millions with the lead at the Masters, but I’ve been there. I know that moment of doubt and self-loathing.

Any competitor can be gracious in victory, but most of us have been defined by failure. I’ve competed at high levels, the U.S. Amateur, NAIA All-America Team…but mostly, when I play, I lose, or should I say, I don’t finish first. Golf is extremely difficult and it reveals our darkness in lonely moments of self-loathing as well as our brilliance in exponential cauldrons of emotional fire.

Ted Williams once debated Sam Snead about the relative difficulty of hitting a baseball thrown by a pitcher with intent to either overpower or deceive a hitter. Ted needled Sam telling him how easy it was to hit a ball that was motionless, justing resting there on a tee. Mr. Snead was quick to reply, “Ted, you don’t have to go up in the stands and play your foul balls. I do.”

Golf is indeed a frustrating game, which is why I broke three wedges slamming them into the ground in anger as a teenager and trespassed with a buddy at Hillcrest Country Club on a Friday night to retrieve a 5-iron stuck high in an oak tree near the 17th fairway after I had flung it at who knows what in a moment of graceless passion.

And so I watched Jordan Spieth walk up the 18th fairway Sunday, like I was watching my own son who just happens to be the same age, as Jordan doffed his cap and patted the top of his head self-consciously exploring his androgenic alopecia as I said to myself, “Stop it Jordan…stop playing with your hair as if it’s falling out faster than your confidence. Just walk up to the green and finish, take your medicine, be a man.”

And he did. He was crestfallen, but not broken, defeated, but still a gentleman.

I bonded with Jordan yesterday in his revealing moment of vulnerability as his supreme confidence led to a moment of mythical failure.

Jordan is a modern day Achilles, the guy who was dipped in the river Styx by his mother Thetis in order to make him invulnerable. His heel wasn’t covered by the water and he was later killed by an arrow wound to his heel.

On Sunday, Jordan was dipped in Rae’s Creek by mother golf, immersed in tragic waters, shot in the heel by the gods of golfing avarice, his aim too near the flag. Once the arrow struck his heel, he knew things were coming apart, and in typical Jordan fashion, he spoke this out loud to his caddy giving voice to his fear that in this pressurized moment on the biggest stage in golf, his strength had become his weakness, he had fallen apart.

Jordan Spieth carved a divot the size of a Texas ribeye on the 12th hole at the Masters on Sunday (the swath of earth traveled nearly as far as the ball which splashed into Rae’s Creek), and I wondered how Jordan could keep from crying if he lost the Masters over an error in judgment combined with a flinch of panic that anyone who has ever played the game understands, panic at the bottom of his swing on a 70 yard pitch over water with millions watching and reacting with gasps as if he had driven an exploding trick ball into the Hindenburg as Nick Faldo was saying, “The horror, the horror.”

Jordan’s vulnerability made me think of the 10 scored on the 1st hole at Indian Springs my junior year of high school as I drilled three consecutive shots, a driver, three-wood and finally a 2 iron off the first tee and into someone’s lush back yard, out of bounds, in full view of Coach Bruno as he simply watched and shook his head.

And it made me think of why my wife rarely watches me play golf because of the horror and humor of one particular hole at Belvedere Country Club in Hot Springs, Arkansas where I recorded a prime number that is generally regarded as lucky at the casino. As I walked to the next tee, Karen casually tossed aside golf etiquette, and mentioned that I had missed one of the trees (as if given another chance I could have played the hole and hit them all instead of just three of them). That kind of hurt, because those who haven’t been in competitive golf don’t know the terror of a sudden strength-sapping  evaporation of your power to manipulate a ball with a crooked club.

Sometimes you forget how good you are. Sometimes in moments of pressure you remember your achilles heel and you fall apart. Somehow, I think Jordan is going to be alright, but just in case, as if he needs my help, here is some advice.

  1. Don’t join Men’s Hair Club.
  1. You will lose again, but not like that.
  1. It’s ironic that winning requires so much losing. And by the way, if you want to win another major, stop caring so much and just hit it.
  1. You are the best putter I’ve ever seen, better than Nicklaus, Tiger…everyone.
  1. Someday, you’ll discover that this wasn’t the worst moment of your life, but rather one of the most important.                                                                                                                   
  2. And finally, something from the Apostle Paul: “But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.”   ‭‭2 Corinthians‬ ‭12:9‬ ‭
Advertisements

Digging Resumes in the Dirt

Garden romaineWhile playing golf yesterday, someone asked if I was playing my little homemade golf course. I said, “No, I just take care of it, mow it, water it, kind of like a garden, a hobby. Just like my wife Karen, who works in her garden beside the 8th tee box. We work together at different passions but they both involve sweat and lots of looking at the ground, into the dirt, at it’s soul, it’s barrenness, it’s fertility.

Brae Burn 10th looking towards back to tee

What is it inside our nature to get our hands dirty, to dig in the dirt, to look down like stubborn mules on a plow team?

Is it the same urge that causes our necks to swivel toward the stars?

We look up for inspiration, we look down at aspiration. We look at the night sky in wonder and we look down in the dirt with sweat-dripping determination.

According to David Brooks in his book, “Recently, I’ve been thinking about the difference between the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the ones you list on your résumé, the skills that you bring to the job mar­ket and that contribute to external success. The eulogy virtues are deeper. They’re the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being — whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed. Most of us would say that the eulogy virtues are more important than the résumé virtues, but I confess that for long stretches of my life I’ve spent more time thinking about the latter than the former. Our education system is certainly oriented around the résumé virtues more than the eulogy ones. Public conversation is, too — the self-help tips in magazines, the nonfiction bestsellers. Most of us have clearer strate­gies for how to achieve career success than we do for how to develop a profound character.”

This swiveling of our necks up and down is the struggle between our résumé nature that wants to plant and grow wonderful things in the earth, and our eulogy nature that seeks to plant and grow transcendence, a reaching upward beyond our known world to a world of hope and possibility.

So much of what we see looking down with sweat on our brow is grace and truth, the garden in the tilled soil. What we look for in the dirt nourishes us, vegetables and flowers, grace and peace, a crop of hope.

Hubble Eagle Nebula Pillars of Creation
Picture from the Hubble telescope: “Eagle Nebula-Pillars of Creation”

What we gaze up at in the still of the evening is that which is very close to God, planted in toil in the garden. In an amazing reversal, we look down through our garden Hubble telescope and find the organic growing of our hearts which tells us what God is like, a master gardener growing people closer to His invisible wonder, which gives us pause and moments of upward gazing at what we might one day be.

John 1:17 The law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God. But God the only Son is very close to the Father, and he has shown us what God is like.

Building a Golf Course in My Backyard ~ Part 2

“Golf is a game of considerable passion, either of the explosive type, or that which burns inwardly and sears the soul.” Bobby Jones

Brae Burn 10th looking towards back to teeI can’t seem to get golf courses out of my head. Golf layouts stick to my brain like gum on the underside of a school desk…out of sight but always there. The south wall of my office bears a framed certificate on fancy bond paper, framed and protected by glass, suggesting that I’m a college graduate. I must confess, however, that it was ill-earned. I cheated. The results of every college test I took were enhanced by using cheat sheets. At least it felt that way to me. Much of my test taking wasn’t really process learning so much as learning by rote. I didn’t use paper for my cheat sheet. I used the many golf courses I’d played along with their landmarks as a tablet upon which to etch the answers to any test-worthy lists or points of emphasis. This is how I earned an undergraduate and a masters degree. In a sense, I’m an academic fraud, with a photographic golf course memory. I remember just about every golf hole I’ve played and can place intangible lists upon these concrete images, laying the elusive alongside the immutable.
Brae Burn 9th Tee and Fairway
My earliest golf course memory was of a small neighboring town, a winding fifteen mile drive east on U.S. highway 60. My Dad loved to play and would bring me along with his friends and I’d stick a three-iron up through my arm and side with the grip extending vertically beyond my shoulder. golf vintage hogan 3 ironI’d play along behind Dad’s foursome, bashing the ball down the fairway thirty yards a pop, then chasing it, rarely hitting it out of the fairway. That’s how I came to understand life through a ball, a bag of clubs and a hole in the ground, and that was my first impression of golf architecture, perhaps the bud of inspiration for the course that winds behind my house today.
Pencil Sketch not Identified Pencil Sketch of early Alister MacKenzie Design

In 1963, Nowata Country Club was a square plot of grass with nine holes, an old house served as the clubhouse, and there was a starters shelter just south of the first tee, supported by four weathered posts bearing a wood shingle roof. Green fees were purchased in the store across highway 60 north of tee box number one. Gnarled fence posts so crooked they were grumpy, stood as sentinels, strung with two-point galvanized wire providing an out-of-bounds judgment upon wayward shots to the right. The first three holes were bordered by roads north, south and west providing a stern test to a right-handed slicer. I learned to miss the ball left on that course. It wasn’t much, a few trees, a pond, mostly flat, you could see the entire layout in a sweeping panorama.
Golf 10 Bridge
I never paid much attention to the town at the age of four. Driving through the town with my wife recently, the street scenes reminded me of the movie The Last Picture Show with Jeff Bridges and Cybil Shepherd. Although it wasn’t so much Cybil Shepherd that I thought of while driving through Nowata, though thinking of her would be much preferable, but rather a once vibrant downtown, an echo of it’s past, weathered brick with fogged plate-glass scripted with juvenile art and hobo wisdom. This place that fascinated my Father-in-law from New Jersey as he drove through it on visits to Oklahoma, this town to which my Dad brought me, because we didn’t have a public course to play in Bartlesville then, this place was the beginning of my life-long affliction, perhaps in it’s mild form a hobby, in it’s fuller sense, a virtuous obsession, with land and water and grass and trees and hills, how they flow and how we move along these pathways chasing a dimpled ball toward a small waving flag marking our target, a four and a quarter-inch hole in the ground. Brae Burn 15th Fairway

Next: Part 3 The Spalding Dot Golf Ball and naming the course

Building a Golf Course in My Backyard ~ Part 1

My neighbors have questioned my sanity of late, asking what I’m doing in my backyard. The short answer is that I’ve uncovered a golf course in the timber and hillside southeast of our home. The long answer is more complex.

Brae Burn Hole 1
Golf 1 Flag w Grass
Perry Duke Maxwell lay dead and buried several hundred yards from where I stood waiting to hit a seven-iron from one of his famous elevated tee boxes at Dornick Hills Country Club in Ardmore, Oklahoma. Before hitting that shot, I walked to his grave to pay my respects. How poetic his netherworld perspective, his view of crisp golf shots and indifferent ones, that this ancient land once an Oklahoma dairy farm, he interpreted and shaped into a golf course. Now he lies in a state of sardonic observation, players flailing against his creation, from his cliff, his rising ground, the mound of earth he made famous by planting a golf green and tee atop.

The 16th hole from the approach area of the fairway – Dornick Hills Country Club, Ardmore, Oklahoma Golf Dornick 16th This hill from which he watches the struggle now entombs him. And so I paid respect to the man who has so often challenged and tormented and inspired me. I strolled along the ridge on a secluded pathway overgrown with vines and prairie grass, to the grave of Perry Maxwell and stood with my hat in my hands.

10th tee looking east – the bridge hole
Golf 10 Tee
I built a golf course next to my house because I saw a vision through the dense wooded hills, perhaps a vision like that which drove Mr. Maxwell to carve up a dairy farm in Ardmore. It’s in my blood. Has been ever since childhood as I turned empty tin cans into golf cups pressed into the family lawn, cutting the greens with a Lawnboy mower. Mr. Maxwell has influenced much of my architectural formation as a homebuilder and as a golfer. Practical, minimal, utilizing existing topography, accentuating natural formations, curves and hills are beautiful, don’t avoid them.

As I walked the fairways of Dornick Hills that day, enjoying the sweet aroma of bermuda clippings laying atop the fairways like confetti, a blanket of dew revealed the struggle of the golfer playing just ahead of me, footprints trailing into the left rough, then into the right front bunker, sand splashed on the green, the damp putting surface revealed the track of a ball breaking short and left of the hole, a two foot tap-in for a bogey five. This golfer had no secrets until the sun rose and burned away the revealing map of dew. Maxwell’s oaks are beautiful, arched limbs sifting sunlight like a colander, but beauty doesn’t diminish function on his courses. Oaks and maples are sentinels, keepers of the course, architectural pawns in the battle waged against warriors carrying fourteen clubs and multiple demons. Natural elements along with architectural genius seek to deny my standard of excellence…par. Par is the mark of competence, the assurance that you have conquered this undulating, scheming terrain. And this? This verdant aromatic walk in the woods and over the hills? This is an altar upon which my athletic ego is sacrificed, doglegged fairways, subtle landing area, undulating greens, shaft-bending rough, sparkling water bubbling along stones in the brook…I’m home on a Perry Maxwell golf course.

a panorama of the 15th, 9th, 10th and 1st looking NE
Golf Panorama Brae Burn

My creative muse calling me to build a golf course in my backyard, built most of the classic golf courses in Oklahoma in an era more famous for Dust Bowls and a Great Depression. Perry Duke Maxwell has his architectural fingerprints all over Hillcrest CC, Southern Hills CC, Muskogee CC, Ponca City CC, Prairie Dunes, Augusta National, Oklahoma City Country Club and Dornick Hills…even the front nine of Coffeyville, Kansas public course. I love his architectural style, utilizing existing topography while minimizing dirt movement. I saw a classic Maxwell miniature, rolling hills, elevation changes, greens with undulation…laying beneath the wooded hills southeast of my home.

a view south from the 13th tee 36 yards straight down the hill
Golf 13 Tee Brae Burn
Mr. Maxwell’s layouts have been the ideal venue of my search for perfection. A quest for enlightenment in a round of golf, and if falling short of that high ideal, perhaps settling for a little self-awareness. An awareness of the euphoric peak of my athletic accomplishment and the valley of my failure. Walking the cross-cut fairways of Mr. Maxwell’s courses, I found a place of connection. Connection with my athletic and competitive self, but also with the parts of me still unnamed, the unsure, the noble, the possible. What can I accomplish? Am I becoming myself in measured advances of progress and retreat, exhilaration and despair, birdies followed by bogies? Or is this just an illusion of progress on a gilded green fairway? Bobby Jones once said that, “Golf is a game of considerable passion, either of the explosive type, or that which burns inwardly and sears the soul.” In either instance, I’m badly charred.

Next Week — Part 2

It’s Sweet to Play Like You Are Loved

One of the most memorable rounds of golf I’ve ever played, I played angry. And it came on the heels of an exchange with a man we called Sweet, even though decorum and his given name, Edward Muir Sweet, demanded we call him, Mr. Sweet. The elimination of the honorary title, Mr., was not an insult, and the one syllable surname rolled easily off our tongues as an endearment that bridged the years separating us. He didn’t demand the formality, nor did he demand we call him by the name most used to greet him, Tid. He gave us license, and so he was Sweet, a friend, from a generation we sometimes suspected. It was after all the age of Watergate. The exchange happened between the morning and afternoon rounds of the Russell Lipe tournament hosted by Sooner High School and College High School. The year was 1977 and I had just walked off the 18th green hotter than Bobby Knight in a chair-free room at a referee convention. I’ve often wondered about the role of people and emotions in the games we play…how emotions sometimes elevate us and other times make us lose our minds and our games. tommy bolt throwing golf club Pictured is Tommy “Thunder” Bolt who won the U.S. Open at Southern Hills in 1958, but was perhaps more famous for his club throwing temper.

After storming off the 18th green, I walked into the pro shop at Adams Golf Club and approached the counter as Tid Sweet watched me walking towards his position of command and control. Sweet had a salt and pepper military flat top and horn rim glasses, along with a graceful bearing and natural rapport with the kids who played golf in his domain as golf shop manager. However, I was angry and wasn’t looking to chat. I said to Sweet, “Give me a sleeve of Titleist, a ham and cheese and a Coke.” Noticing my countenance, Sweet asked me, “How did you play this morning? You doing ok?”

He was always the gentleman although any abuse we heaped on him was returned two-fold. Sweet took time for putting contests with junior golfers and the putting clock challenge was often a masquerade for a counseling session and the conversations that often occurred between an older, wiser man, and a youngster full of bravado masking post-pubescent insecurity. And so we were challenged to not only beat Sweet in a putting contest but to match wits with someone who had seen a lot more of the world than we had, a transfusion of life from the wise to the rose-cheeked innocent in the midst of rolling golf balls on a broad expanse of tightly mown green grass. Sweet wanted to know how I was doing. I replied with one word. “79”

Golf is a game that reveals you and your score always speaks the truth. We often repeated this cliche’, “They don’t ask how, just how many.” Style matters, but in the end, only the score rings true. And so golfers wrestle the demons of self-expectation often reverting to their own statistical mean. Our self-expectation is a subliminal weakness when we are well, a visible strength when we are playing poorly. We are weakest when playing well although often blind to our softness. Our strongest moments often come in the midst of our poor play. Like the bible says, we find strength in our weakness. Sometimes that strength manifests itself in outward emotion, even anger.

I remember the first time I heard the term, “I can’t stand prosperity.” It was in the context of playing with a buddy and he was four under par and had just pulled hooked his second shot on a par five into the creek. “No cursing, no club throwing…just, “I can’t stand prosperity.” Is wealth difficult to bear? Apparently going further under par than your own sense of competitive skill is rectified by the gods of golf. We seem to have little control over that. It’s a self-regulated mechanism, returning you to a zone of comfort not unlike a thermostat that senses when you’ve gone too hot…or too cold.

Great golfers, indeed great athletes, have shoved the needle of expectation higher than anyone else. In golf, the nomenclature is “go deep” or “go low” or “unconscious.” But once you begin to go low, how do you keep your foot on the pedal. Who has the competitive nerve, the brass tenacity to go lower. A 62 somehow makes one a golfing genius. But there is baggage. There are dues to pay and few can pay them. Many have the physical talent to play great golf, but to maintain a level of excellence throughout a four-hour round of golf, that’s brave, that’s crossing into the realm of faith and belief that you are better than those around you. Maybe even better than…yourself?

Prosperity is difficult to bear indeed and yes, it does demand a huge dose of athletic arrogance and superiority. It’s not something one can fake. It has to bear some semblance of reality grounded in performance, grounded in the weight of expectation in not only your own mind but in the mind of your competitors.

It’s almost like accepting grace with gusto, without apology. Understanding that you are the one most deserving and worthy of excellence, as if by birthright. But is anger indicative of this birthright?

As I walked out of the golf shop that April day after firing a lousy 79, I told Sweet, “I’m shooting a 66 this afternoon.” Sweet just looked at me like I was a stupid kid who should just keep his mouth shut and play. But as I walked out the door, hot, angry, determined, I muttered, “Just watch, you’ll see,” and I pushed open the glass door, cleats clattering on the asphalt path to the first tee.

I parred the first hole, a short par four. Then something happened that made me more agitated…or motivated me…I’m still not sure which. My coach, Ken Bruno, was playing the adjacent eighth hole and as I walked off the second tee box walking after my tee ball, bag lashed against my back, eyes scanning the ground a step ahead, Coach said something to me. He rarely spoke to me while I was playing, but this time he did. “Keep your dauber up,” he yelled over at me noticing my head down. Maybe he had heard about my 79. I had no idea what a dauber was but it annoyed me. I already had my mind set on what was going to happen and I thought his well-intentioned admonition might take the edge off my anger. I didn’t want to keep my dauber up. I wanted to punch someone in the dauber. So I walked on. I birdied hole two. I came to the eighteenth tee five under par. All I needed was to carry the creek 220 yards out, in the fairway, then a sand wedge and a putt for 66. I missed a twenty footer and settled for par and a 67, winning the tournament. Did anger aid my performance? Or had my expectational barometer simply self-corrected? Why does anger cause some athletes to focus and others to lose their minds?

Bob Knight, the legendary Army, Indiana and Texas Tech basketball coach writes in his recent book, The Power of Negative Thinking, “recognizing, addressing, and removing obstacles to winning,” is the formula for success on the basketball court…and in life. For Mr. Knight that includes preparation and the elimination of mistakes. Victory, he writes, “favors the team making the fewest mistakes. Coach Knight won three NCAA basketball championships so it’s difficult to quibble with his coaching style, a mix of berating players, throwing chairs and identifying weaknesses for the purpose of correction, like a drill sergeant. bobby-knight-8x10-02_enl

Scott Nagy, the head basketball coach for the South Dakota State Jackrabbits is using another coaching paradigm with this team slogan, “Play like you are loved,”. According to The New York Times quoting Nagy, during the NCAA basketball tournament this past March, “We don’t run around like we’re in a lovey-dovey commune, but what I want our guys to know is that family, teammates, and coaches love them and that you don’t have to perform in order to know that you are loved.” Coach Nagy’s team speech before the conference championship game ended with this: “I want you to play like you’re loved. Play freely. Love isn’t dependent on your performance. No matter how you play, you are loved. Play with that in mind.” That’s not exactly the same as a coach who insults your manhood by telling you your jockstrap is floral pink because you won’t step up and take a charge.

Play like you are loved. Play angry. Play by removing the negatives. All three can be valid perspectives, but one aspect shared by each is this: Play freely. Each paradigm of competitive style calls for the freedom to play. Freedom from self-loathing…freedom from stiff conscious analysis…freedom from obstacles.

Each perspective allows an athlete to “let it all hang out”. In a sense we get out of our own way and let our subconscious rule our play. There are no limits, there are no obstacles, there is no doubt about our worthiness to perform amazingly well…to not only “stand prosperity” but to revel in our good performance.

I have no idea if any of this is true or not, because I’m still trying to figure out how to play optimally. Perhaps great golf is more than a 67. Could it be about being a gentleman, granting and accepting a gracious spirit of friendship, cultivating integrity in the midst of a win-at-all-cost culture, along with being a good companion in the midst of a four-hour walk on a verdant fairway? At fifty-three years of age, I’ve given up on playing angry. No longer do I slam wedges onto hardpan snapping the shaft in white-hot anger at a missed shot. As for the power of negative thinking, life’s too short to think about removing all my obstacles. So I’m choosing to play like I’m loved. It seems to make more sense to me now. Indeed, it’s Sweet to play like you are loved. I’m grateful to Mr. Edward Muir (Tid) Sweet who taught me many years ago to bear down and beat your opponent on the putting green along with how to play like you are loved…even if I didn’t realize it at the time.

Caddying for the Younger Generation – Part 2

I sat on my hotel bed the night before the opening round and read about notable players including a golfer from Shreveport named Hal Sutton who had already won the Western Amateur that summer. I’m playing with Hal Sutton who would win the PGA in 1983 and was Ryder Cup captain later in his career. And so on the biggest stage in amateur golf I would be playing with one of the best amateur golfers in the world.

The first hole at Canterbury Country Club in Cleveland is a par four dogleg right that demands a power fade to follow the shape and contour of the fairway. My friend George Johnson caddied for me that day and he handed me my driver, a laminated wood Power-Bilt with a titanium shaft (rare for the time). I teed my Titleist ball and ripped it straight down the left edge of the fairway but the ball flew rifle straight and bounced through the fairway into the left rough. A man in the gallery behind me exclaimed, “He didn’t cut it.” To which my Mom, taking offence and not knowing the subtleties of maneuvering a tee shot on a U.S.G.A. course set up for the National Amateur or of golf shot commentary and terminology, replied, “That was a gooooood shot.” Thank you Mom, but I knew. He was right. I didn’t cut it enough. The ball was in deep U.S.G.A. rough and I gouged it out with a 8 iron, then chipped past the cup to 30 feet and drained that long putt for par. I shot 78 with bogeys on the last three holes. Distraught, disappointed, I realized my chances of shooting a number in the sixties the next day to reach the next round of match play were very slim.

The second round was just down the road at Shaker Heights Country Club and Sidney Roper would caddy for me the second day. Sidney was full of vinegar and enthusiasm and he always walked fast and had this energy about him. He couldn’t wait to get started caddying in the U.S. Amateur and even though I had a disappointing first day he was excited, he believed I could come back and play well the second day.

On the first tee, Sidney gave me my driver and hustled down the hill of the tee box heading to the landing area some 280 yards out and stationed himself in the trees peering back at us. Hal hit first and smoked his drive 290 yards all carry center cut in the middle of the fairway. Then Sidney, fidgeting behind a giant maple tree, awaited my first shot. I swung hard and barely caught a piece of the ball. It may have been the worst shot I’ve ever hit. And Sidney craned his neck looking…but never saw a ball because it simply dribbled off the tee some 30 yards into the thick grass in front of the tee and I walked slowly, head down, embarrassed. I sheepishly waved at him to come back… he had overestimated the ability of his player. But Sidney never lost faith in me. I shot 74 that day. It wasn’t good enough. But it was for Sidney. Sidney is one of the reasons I never quit or give up…and to always dream bigger that you can imagine. And to not only be a person of faith…faith in yourself and in God…but faith in other people so much so that you make them better people. Sidney was that kind of encourager to me…he made me a better person because of how he perceived my talents and valued me as an athlete and as a person. In 1981, I finished tied for 5th in the National Collegiate NAIA tournament and was named to the All-America Team that year. I still compete. It’s good for me. It keeps me humble to play against “kids”. But much of success at competitive levels is about believing. I can see it in the eyes of college kids. You can easily see it in their eyes…the ones who believe…and have people who believe in them. But I’m much prouder of my family, my kids, my faith in God…than in what I’ve accomplished in golf. Still, golf has taught me about belief. Belief in hard work, belief in my talent, belief in abiding by the rules of the game and belief that what we do makes sense. Sidney was one of those who taught me about those things through the game of golf and through the game of life.

I think about Sidney every time I sing Abide With Me because it was the first song I ever led congregationally and he taught me that song along with how to beat 4/4 time, how to pitch a song and about tempo and public presence. I was sweaty-palm-scared about standing in front of a church to speak or lead a song. But he gave me the tools to lead with confidence. I think about how he abided in faith and believed…he believed in an unimaginably wonderful and gracious and boundless Creator. And not only did he abide in the holy sense of God and Church, Sidney abounded in the world, always taking interest in the hearts and souls of those he touched. He taught me about life and about golf and about a God who loves me and is proud of me, no matter how far he had retrace his caddy steps on the first hole of the U.S. Amateur in 1979. He still believed in my power to overcome a poor start on the biggest stage I ever competed upon.

Sidney died in October of 2011 at the age of 92. A day or so after he passed, his son, Sidney Roper Jr. called me and asked if I would lead some songs at Sidney’s funeral. I told him that it would be an honor. I wanted to tell the story about the U.S. Amateur and how Sidney believed in me but I thought it too long and out-of-place. So I told the story about how he taught me to lead Abide With Me and Joe David Roper, the younger son, asked me to lead that song to close the service. Sidney taught me to abide, to abound, to believe. There is nothing greater in this world than to live a life filled with hope and belief. Sidney was one who helped me see that, about myself, about other folks, about the whole of creation.

Sidney was 59 years of age when he caddied for me in Cleveland. It never seemed odd to him to pick up the bag of a 19-year-old kid and lug it around a golf course raking sand traps and tending flags and replacing divots. He did it naturally with grace and deference and class. It’s been seventeen months since I didn’t tell that story at Sidney’s funeral. I guess it was just time to say it out loud. Sidney was one of my heroes in that great cloud of witness, a faithful man who believed, an encourager who made me a better man. It’s seventeen months late, but I’m glad to share the story of how Sidney putted out every putt, walked every fairway, and when required, turned around and walked backwards. Or to paraphrase 1st John Chapter 1, “But if we walk in the fairway, we experience a shared fairway with one another, even in those moments we can’t drive the ball off an elevated tee box in moments of extreme pressure.”

Hebrews 11:40 God had a better plan for us: that their faith and our faith would come together to make one completed whole, their lives of faith not complete apart from ours.

Caddying for the Younger Generation

Francis Chan put hands over his face and agonized about whether to speak the unspeakable to a traditionally proud and spiritually cloistered group that appeared from his stage perch decidedly gray, liver-spotted hands enshrouding the candle lit flame that once was a raging bonfire. He was speaking to me and to my elders and leaders in Churches of Christ. His message was the empowerment of younger people, the enabling of their talents, the unleashing of their spirit in the Church and having the wisdom and discernment to know when to get out of the way and let God’s will and Spirit have it’s way. And so I’ve been thinking a lot about that. Brother Chan also spoke of testing everything with the Word and about humility. Humility that goes both ways. For those who are older, humility soaked in the marinating caldron of time and experience, humility that understands for all that experience, we know so little compared to God. For those young and impulsive and filled with unadulterated bull-in-a-china-shop holy intention, humility as expressed in the submissive acknowledgement that those older folks have lived and died and sacrificed far more than those seeking to uproot the moorings of tradition. And all this tempered by the understanding that our own pride, our fleshly nature often blinds us to the providential work of God moving in His Kingdom. Francis moved me to think of my life…how I’m spending the time that comprises my life. So I began to think of how I’ve been blessed by elders who’ve taught me with the blessing of encouraging words and belief…even when I had little faith in myself. I want to tell you about Sidney Roper, forty years my senior, a man who believed in me. One day, I hope to pass his gift along to other young men as a blessing, the unleashing power of divinely infused affirmation. I’m not getting any younger so I’m repenting, and my penance begins with the telling of this story.

Some folks know this about me. I played professional golf long enough to have a cup of coffee with Fred Couples, Mark O’Meara and Hal Sutton…and if I smoked, a pack of cigarettes with John Daly. I played with John in the Arkansas Amateur and he only flicked his cigarette to the ground when it was his turn to play a shot. Amazing to watch how well he played with so little intention. Anyway, I competed and played against them all. I’m easily the least famous of this group and proud of that fact. I’m somewhat an introvert and if not for the encouragement of my Dad and Sidney Roper, I could never have imagined teeing it up against the likes of players of that talent. But it’s not so much the middle or end of the round in golf that stretches me…it’s the beginning. The tee shot at the 1st hole is the most difficult shot in tournament golf. Gallery eyes fixed on me, breathtaking silence roaring in my ears like the ocean in seashells. Just don’t whiff it, get it down there somewhere, keep it on the golf course…towards the green preferably. And so one of my images of faith in myself is wrapped inside the drama of two 1st hole tee shots at the United States Amateur in Cleveland, Ohio in 1979.

Sidney Roper was the preacher at the Sixth and Dewey Church of Christ from 1958-1969. I was born into that faith community on July 25th, 1959 and Sidney was my first picture of a God messenger, a keeper of the faith and preacher of the Word. The Sixth and Dewey church building was a cream-colored brick structure with glass block windows banked at angles on the outside edges of the sanctuary and white oak pews without seat pads. I was afraid of Sidney…although at three I was afraid of any dog and most people…but he intimidated me more than most because he was wearing a suit and people sought him out. There was an aura of unapproachable adult churchiness that I feared. His fame, everyone lined up to speak to him after sermons, his ceaseless energy and the way his eyes looked into mine far too long was beyond my three-year old understanding of sociological affirmation. So I skirted the sermon greeting line running outside to climb on the ledge next to the block windows. I was just a kid. What was he seeking to affirm with too much energy and eye contact?

But as a kid, he not only included me, he welcomed me, into another sanctuary…at least it was a sanctuary for him and for me also…a golf course. And so with a club under my arm I would follow my Dad and Sidney around golf courses, beginning with the nine-hole course in Nowata, Oklahoma where the green fee was purchased in the grocery store on the highway just north of the course since there was no clubhouse at the time. I learned the game and I also learned other things like putt out every putt…there are no gimmies in golf…and how to put a whole bag of Planter’s peanuts into a fountain Coca-Cola slurping it all in one step. He always seemed full of vim and vigor and if he felt himself waning he’d go for the Coke and peanuts. He thought I was the best young golfer he’d seen and I didn’t believe him but listened mutely to his praises. It wasn’t long before I beat this man who could hit a Titleist out of sight…and he loved it and would keep telling me, you need to try out for the U.S. Amateur. But I was only eight years old so I said maybe next year. Every year he’d say “You need to try out for the U.S. Amateur” and he’d tell me about growing up in Texas, caddying for spending money and how when I made it to the U.S. Amateur, he would be my caddy. The summer of my fourteenth birthday, I shot a 74 and began to believe his words. Maybe I could play on the national stage of the U.S. Amateur.

In 1979, at the age of nineteen, I entered the U.S. Amateur and played a qualifier against other college golfers from OU & OSU and Oral Roberts University. We played at Southern Hills Country Club. I qualified for that National Amateur as Sidney and Dad followed me around the course. We then loaded into a Winnebago the following week, Mom, Dad, George Johnson, Sidney and Sue Roper and we traveled to Cleveland, Ohio…Canterbury Country Club. I remember walking in to register at the Club and afterwards a man took me to the locker room and showed me where I could change shoes and get ready to play during my stay and then he asked me to sign the U.S. Amateur program that had my name on it…my first autograph. He said you never know who would someday be famous so he just asked all the players to sign as they came through. I never became famous, but many in that field did become famous golfers…John Cook, Mark O’Meara, Hal Sutton…all players who would go on to compete on the PGA Tour and win several of golf’s Major Titles. (To Be Continued in Part 2)