God, Golf, and Aesthetics
The Golf Gods: Towards a Religious Philosophy of Golf
God, Golf, and Aesthetics
The God of Golf is a God of Adventure who works for that which is beautiful, who lures golfers towards the realization of a harmonious intensity of patterned contrasts. The beauty to which golfers are attracted may be visible in many aspects of the game, such as the swing and the relationships the game tends to cultivate, but the beauty to which God directs is perhaps most apparent in the courses golfers play.
Golfers, to some degree, tend to be romantics. They are romantics at least in the sense that they appreciate the manicured beauty of nature. The cultivated beauty in nature is, in turn, a reflection of their God. God participates in or is the energy behind the process of becomingness by means of which nature expresses itself. Is it any wonder, then, that the game of Golf, played on gorgeous venues, evokes strongly religious sentiments?
Campers may see a striking sunrise over a mountain top. Hikers may marvel at massive redwood trees that overwhelm humanity’s puny existence. Backpackers may see thousands of stars from a remote mountain top at night. Boaters may catch the sun setting on the ocean horizon. Cruise ship passengers may sail into the crater of a volcano whose eruption created a scenic island. Zip line riders may look across a lush, tree-ridden gorge. Tourists may peer down from a mountain over a quaint village. These are experiences that evoke a sense of religious awe from many people. There is no mystery, then, as to why golfers who enjoy the beauty of their courses experience the same religious awe.
The sense of God in nature is expressed well in a Romantic poem entitled “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,” by William Wordsworth, an Englishman often regarded as the leader of Romantic poetry in the nineteenth century. In the poem, Wordsworth reflects upon his visit to the ruins of a medieval monastery situated on the banks of the Wye River in Southwest England. He describes his sensation.
… And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye, and ear — both what they half create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognize
In nature and the language of the sense,
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.
The “presence” which disturbs with “the joy of elevated thoughts,” the “sense sublime” which is “deeply interfused,” the Energy which “impels … all objects of all thought,” which“ rolls through all things,” which is “the anchor” of purest thoughts, and which is the “guardian” of souls, that Energy is God. Because humans sense Divine Energy in the beauty of nature, they love “the meadows,” “the woods,” “the mountains,” all the beauties of this “green earth.”
Similarly to Wordsworth, golfers find God in the beauty of Augusta National, Pebble Beach, Black Diamond, Bandon Dunes, The Tournament Players Club, Kingsbarns, Royal Troon, Turnberry, or any number of other magnificent venues. Golfers sense at these places of worship the Power of Becomingness that prods the world onward toward pleasing creative expressions.
Additionally, the beauty of a course need not be merely superficial or physical beauty in order to elicit the sense of God. Beauty, as the old adage goes, is more than skin deep. The experience of an overarching unity constituted by intense yet reconciled diversity can be elicited from a course with a noble and dignified history as well as from a course with scenic views. In fact, the nobility and dignity of the course add greatly to the intensity or magnitude of the experience. Consequently, courses like St. Andrews or Muirfield, while not, perhaps, overwhelmingly pleasing to the eye, can still be beautiful because of the strength or meaning their history contributes to a golfer’s experience.
In 1932, at the fiftieth anniversary of The Country Club of Brookline Massachussets, Francis Ouimet, as the guest of honor and featured speaker said, “To me the property around here is hallowed. The grass grows greener, the trees bloom better, there is even warmth in the rocks you see around here. And I don’t know, gentlemen, but somehow or other the sun seems to shine brighter on The Country Club than on any other place I have seen.” Ouimet, of course, won the U.S. Open at Brookline in 1913. The history and weight of Ouimet’s experience at Brookline contributed immensely to his own aesthetic appreciation, and it continues to contribute to the appreciation of those who have the pleasure of playing at Brookline today.
A beautiful course is varied, intense, and ordered. It has lake holes, tree-lined holes, ocean holes, dog legs right, dog legs left, and straight-a-ways. It is well maintained and manicured. The traps are raked, the greens are smooth, and the grass is plentiful. It is neither too difficult nor too easy. It allows for gambles, but it also demands a price if the gambles fail. It is grueling at times, relaxing at others. If the course has an interesting history, that is all the better. If the golfer knows that Bobby Jones and Walter Hagan clubbed it out on a course, his/her pleasure in playing that course is enhanced. If Hogan and Sneed went to war on a course, if Nicklaus and Watson dueled it out there for an Open Championship, if Norman and Mize went toe to toe there, the course commands the golfer’s attention and respect. “Amen Corner,” “The Road Hole,” “The Postage Stamp Hole,” and “The Island Green” are all names that elicit intense memories as well as particular places. The memories add to the golfer’s vision or experience of beauty, and it is to a heightened vision or experience of beauty that God directs.
 Mark Frost, The Greatest Game Every Played: Harry Vardon, Francis Ouimet, and the Birth of Modern Golf, Hyperion, New York, 2002, p. 470.