Golf and Calvinist Protestant Christianity

Roybob’s Book on Golf: The Hucks, A Golfer’s Divine Comedy, and a Religious Philosophy of Golf.

The Golf Gods: Towards a Religious Philosophy of Golf

Golf and Calvinist Protestant Christianity

The Dutch, as early as 1296, were playing a game called “colf” or “kolf.” The game of “colf” involved a club or mallet; and, aside from the absence of holes, “colf” bore a notable similarity to what would evolve in Scotland as “golf.” We know that the Scots and the Dutch engaged in trade (Scotland’s eastern coast is but a short sail from Holland), and it is possible that the Dutch game evolved into the Scottish game of “golf.”

There is some obvious similarity between “colf” and “golf,” but relating the two to one another is not altogether unproblematic. The Dutch game invited players to hit the ball through doors rather than into holes, and the Scottish dialect lacks any forms of the word “golf” beginning with a “c” or a “k.” The Scots have spelled the name of the game in a variety of ways (gouff, goiff, goffe, goff, gowff, and golph), but not with a “c” or “k.” This could be an indication that the game and its name are both Scottish born. The word “golf” may derive from the Scottish “goulf,” a verb meaning “to strike” or “to hit.”

Whatever the case, be it the Netherlands or Scotland, golf appropriately came from a Calvinist background. I note this because both the Dutch and the Scots were primarily Calvinist, and it could only be a Calvinist background that gave birth to golf.

John Calvin (Jean Cauvin in French, 1509-1564), was a Protestant reformer, second in influence only to Martin Luther, the man who initiated the Protestant break from the Roman Catholic Church in 1517. By the end of the sixteenth century, both the Netherlands and Scotland were predominantly Calvinist. In the Netherlands or “Low Countries” Calvinism was spread among the French speaking provinces, and in Scotland Calvinism was spread through the missionary work of John Knox. Knox had studied Calvin in person at Geneva, Switzerland, where Calvin lived. In 1559, at the Home of Golf in St. Andrews, Scotland, Knox preached such a powerful sermon against Catholic idolatry that his parishioners were motivated to march on the Catholic Cathedral of St. Andrews and cleanse it of its images and altar.

Calvin’s teachings have been simplistically summarized under the acronym of “TULIP.” The “T” refers to the “Total Depravity” of humanity. Humans are mired deep in sin and are in need of redemption. Humanity’s salvation comes through the “Unconditional Election” of God, the idea that God chose whom God willed for salvation and left the remainder to the hell they deserved. In the words of Calvin, “… God adopts some to the hope of life, and adjudges others to eternal death.”[1] God saves the chosen through “Limited Atonement,” the idea that Jesus’ sacrifice was offered for the sake of the elect. Those elected will be saved because God provides “Irresistible Grace,” grace that will find a way in the hearts of the chosen. Once the elect have found their way, they cannot be lost; they enjoy the “Perseverance of the Saints.”

Golf is a game that brings players to acknowledge their “Total Depravity,” their inability to save themselves. Players know that, in addition to themselves, they must rely on the grace of the gods, those pertinent forces outside of themselves. Just when they think they have transcended to the point of becoming gods themselves, above the adversity of misfortune, committing the sin of hubris, golfers are most often flung back into the smelly abyss of their ineptitude. Golfers are aware that only a few enjoy the “Unconditional Election” of God. Only a few have been chosen to excel, those who have been blessed with distance, brains, eyes, abilities, time, patience. The vast majority know of God’s “Limited Atonement,” that they must suffer the pains of playing badly during most of their outings. Golfers are also aware, though, of God’s “Irresistible Grace.” They experience it rarely, but sometimes it seems as if God’s grace cannot be denied. There are days when nothing seems to go wrong, when winning overwhelms a player in spite of his/her inadequacies. Finally, golfers know about the “Perseverance of the Saints.” They know that, in spite of all their sins, they will persevere. They will tee it up again despite all the pits they may have fallen into on previous occasions. Paradise, after all, may come with the next shot; and even if Paradise is unrealized on the course, there is always the nineteenth hole.

The Calvinist path was individualistic in the sense that each individual stood before God, accountable for the depravity or degradation of his/her own soul. Golf is an individualistic game, holding each soul accountable for his/her own shortcomings. An author calling herself “Barbara ‘veteran of the golf war’ Mikkelson” comments that if she were “to promote one false word origin over another,” she would argue that the word “golf” stemmed from the backward spelling of “flog.”[2] Such a derivation seems appropriate; the way people play sometimes, in a good Calvinist fashion, they may as well be flogging themselves. The English born Alistair Cooke, host of a Public Broadcasting show called Masterpiece Theatre from 1971-1972, became a lover of the game in his mid-fifties. Cooke once said, “Golf was just what the Scottish character had been seeking for centuries, namely, a method of self-torture.”

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, translated by Henry Beveridge. London: Arnold Hatfield, 1599, Book Three, Chapter 21, p. 2206.

Roybob’s Book on Golf: The Hucks, A Golfer’s Divine Comedy, and a Religious Philosophy of Golf.

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