Golf as a Religion: The Family Traits Approach

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 as a Religion: The Family Traits Approach


Given the multifaceted nature of religion, many scholars have rejected the attempt to locate an essence of religion. They have insisted, rather, that we should think of a family of religion with several individual family members (religions) sharing many traits with the entire family but perhaps also exhibiting a few differences.

The family-traits approach to defining religion is derived from a twentieth-century philosopher named Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein argued that there are many words, e.g. the word “game,” which cannot be precisely defined. One cannot define “game” as anything played for pleasure because many people, like professional golfers, work at their games for profit. One cannot find the essence of “game” to lie in social competition, for some games are individual activities. It does not seem that “game” can be defined by any single feature. Wittgenstein suggested that words like “game” would be better defined by listing a number of “family resemblances” rather than by attempting to locate a single essence.

Although Wittgenstein did not apply his theory to religion, many of his followers have. Rem B. Edwards, for example, has suggested a number of traits which he believes are involved in religion. In the Western traditions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, for example, all of his family traits of religion are present (P), and so these Western traditions qualify as religions — appropriately so, since the word “religion” is Western in origin and usage. In Communism or Marxism, on the other hand, a significant number of family traits are absent (A), so they would qualify as only borderline religions. The idea of the family-traits approach is to determine whether or not an expression is religious on the basis of whether or not the expression has a majority of the family traits.

In Edwards’ view, as evidenced above in the far column, Golf exhibits almost none of the family traits of religion and, therefore, could not seriously be considered a religion. I wish to contend, against Edwards, that Golf does indeed share many of these traits and, therefore, can be considered a religion.

1. Belief in a supernatural intelligent being or beings

2. Belief in a superior intelligent being or beings

The supreme God of Golf, Becomingness-itself or Energy-itself, is “supernatural,” that is, “beyond the natural or ordinary.” Energy-itself is expressed in and through all that is but cannot be equated with anything that is. God or Reality-itself is not any particular person or object but, rather, the basis for all particularities. God lies beyond, or below, all that is.

The lesser gods and goddesses of golf may be regarded as “superior intelligent being or beings.” The gods and goddesses of the winds, the waters, the trees, and the soils lie beyond the golfer’s control and, in that sense, are superior beings. Further, whether or not this is actually the case, the powers of nature are also attributed with purpose or intelligence. They affect the golfer’s ball in a particular manner for a particular reason. For example, a golfer may have defied or offended the golf gods; thus, the gods sent his/her ball out of bounds. Golfers find reasons for the actions or reactions of the golf gods. See my article entitled “The Golf Gods” for further explication.

3. Complex world view interpreting the significance of human life

God or Reality-itself aims at the maximization of beauty, a harmony of intense and varied contrasts. Golfers, therefore, strive for the realization of higher perfections. The significance of human life lies in its contribution to the attainment of higher expressions of beauty. See my article entitled “A Religious Philosophy of Golf” for deeper engagement.

4. Belief in experience after death

I have often heard golfers who, for example, found their ball directly behind a tree, declare that they were “dead;” but, of course, they were speaking metaphorically. There is “sudden death” in golf, but this, too, is metaphorical. I have heard golfers speak of their “resurrection,” but they were referring to the next nine or to the next time they could play. I have even heard golfers declare that a fellow player had been “reincarnated;” but, again, they were speaking metaphorically. They believed a golfer had been born again because of a modified swing, and it appeared as though the golfer’s body had been inhabited by another soul.

I suppose views concerning life after death could be as varied among golfers as among members of more traditional religions. Golfers, as others, certainly live on through the influence they have exerted upon others: their children, members of their community, their students, their clients, et cetera. Golfers live on in history by means of memory. The question is whether they hope for more. See my articles entitled “Golf and Time” and “The Nineteenth Hole” for further discussion of this issue.

5. Moral code

6. Belief that the moral code is sanctioned by a superior intelligent being or beings

Golf has a moral code, a strict moral code that is spelled out in Rules of Golf, a publication from the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews and the United States Golf Association. In addition to defining the rules of the game, Rules of Golf also define a code of conduct or golf etiquette dictating that all golfers show consideration to one another.

Not only is there a moral code in golf, but golf is a sport in which players must have a strong sense of integrity because they are expected to call penalties on themselves. One often reported classic example is Bobby Jones in the U.S. Open at Worcester Country Club, Massachusetts. Jones’ ball moved when he was setting up to play his shot, and he deemed himself to have caused the ball to move. Consequently, he called a two-stroke penalty on himself despite the fact that observers did not see the ball move and gave him every opportunity to deny the penalty. He lost the tournament by only one stroke. When praised for his adherence to the rules, Jones replied, “You just might as well praise me for not breaking into banks. There is only one way to play this game.”

Further, the moral code of Golf is sanctioned by the God of golf. God nudges reality forward in the pursuit of harmony, and harmony is a major aim for the rules of Golf.

7. An account of the nature of, origin of, and cure for evil

8. Theodicy

Evil may be characterized as the dominance of destructive discord and unnecessary triviality (failing to obtain what one could have attained). Evil originates from the decisions of humanity (moral evil) and spontaneity among the forces of nature (natural evil). The cure for evil lies in the cooperative effort among finite expressions of reality in the creation of beauty. God lures finite expressions of reality toward higher forms of beauty, but cannot prevent the eruption of evils that result from human freedom and the spontaneity of nature. See my “Golf and Theodicy” for further explanation of this issue.

9. Prayer and ritual

Golf lends itself easily as a metaphor for life (I do not believe that is coincidental). Consequently, Golfer’s prayers abound. Here is a prayer that I wrote and would address to my Golf God.

Our God of Adventure, grant us many long days, always sunny and free of storms. Direct us down the center of the fairways where the grass is mown and the ground is smooth. Should, however, we veer into the rough, show us the best way out. Let our fairway shots hit the greens and settle not far from our goal, but should we find surrounding hazards, allow us to escape without severe penalty. Guide us gently around the doglegs, and lead us away from trees, bunkers, and lakes.

Though we may be hackers and duffers, we aspire to score birdies and eagles on the holes we play. Provide people, then, who can correct our hooks and slices, who can help us get the right grip on things, who can adjust our alignment and aim. Guide us, our God, to higher expressions of beauty, perfection, and goodness.

Should we commit acts of hubris, trying to hit unlikely shots, reaching beyond our abilities, nudge us gingerly back to reality before we fall into the deep abyss of a triple bogey. Teach us humility in victory and graciousness in defeat. Keep the rules before our eyes, and let us accept out penalty strokes with poise. When we reach our nineteenth hole, let others say that we played the game with integrity, fairness, and decorum.

Most of all, God, let us find happiness in our game, experiencing joy, fun, and delight even though the ball does not always roll our way. Amen.

Prayer reflects the golfer’s awareness of his/her own limitations.

As for rituals, they abound among golfers probably more than prayers. They may begin with practice regimens and continue with the marking of one’s ball, deciding upon a wager, ball striking routines, and end-of-the-round drinks and cigars. The rituals are often prayers in their own rights, dramatic actions designed to enhance one’s play.

10. Sacred objects and places

A golfer’s sacred objects include his clubs, his bag, and his ball. A golfer must not lose his/her ball. The ball is his/her history, his/her own little world. To lose a ball is to lose himself/herself. Looking for stray balls is like a treasure hunt in which a golfer looks for someone else’s world, his/her dents, nicks, and scrapes. A golfer’s sacred objects also include the hats he/she has collected from different courses of worship, the shirts he/she has bought from different clubs, the ball markers he/she has collected, and the logo balls he/she has acquired.

A golfer’s sacred places are the courses he enjoys playing or the courses he aspires to play. The home of Golf, St. Andrews, Scotland is perhaps Golf’s most sacred shrine, and St. Andrews is closely followed by Augusta National in Augusta, Georgia. I can remember my first trip to both locations; for me, the events were like walking into Notre Dame Cathedral de Reims or St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. I have had the opportunity to play St. Andrews, and I assure you that it was a sacred experience. See my article entitled “God, Golf, and Aesthetics” for further elaboration.

11. Revealed truths or interpretations of revelatory events

The revealed truths of Golf are those lessons contained in sacred scriptures like Ben Hogan’s Ben Hogan’s Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf (1957), Jack Nicklaus’ Golf My Way: The Instructional Classic, Revised and UpdatedSports Books) (1974), and Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book: Lessons and Teachings from a Lifetime in GolfSports Books) (1992). They are contained in videos like Bobby Jones How I Play Golf Instructional Series (1931) and Tom Watson Lessons of a LifeTime Golf 2 Disk DVDGolf Equipment) (2010).

The revealed truths of Golf are interpreted and passed on through the priests and sages of Golf, the professionals and teachers whom golfers admire because they handle the adventure so well. The professionals provide visions of perfection to which amateurs aspire, and the teachers help amateurs achieve their own perfections. Teachers inform golfers about Hogan’s “secret,” and pros lead golfers in the worship of perfect beauty.

12. Religious experience–awe, mystical experience, revelations

Golfers experience awe when something occurs that is unexpected yet delightful: when they finally execute a cut shot that they tried many times before, when they hit a drive forty yards further than they ever have, or when they drain a sixty-foot putt. Golfers enjoy mystical experiences on those days when it seems they can do nothing wrong, when they are one with God and the gods, when the outside world is forgotten and their sensations on the course are extraordinarily elevated. Golfer’s experience revelations when they find some new swing key that enables them to hit the ball better, when something begins to makes sense or feel right to them, when they get lessons after their round in the nineteenth hole.

13. Deep, intense concern

Even Edwards acknowledges the presence of deep, intense concern in Golf. Golfers, in fact, are concerned with what is ultimate, with Reality-itself and its actualization of beauty.

14. Institutionalized social sharing of some traits 1-13

The institutions of Golf are country clubs and courses. Golf clubs are access points for the courses. They provide pro shops, dining areas, locker rooms, bars, and places to smoke cigars. Men and women gather to practice, play, and socialize. They are guided by Golf pros, teachers, and group leaders. They speak of the Golf gods, of the rules for the game, of the suffering they endure, and of their revelations. Country clubs and courses are the golfers’ places of worship. See my articles entitled “The Church and the Country Club” and “The First Church of Golf.”


Contrary to Edwards, then, I conclude that Golf can be considered a religion. I am not arguing that all golfers treat the game as a religion, no more than all Christians or all Jews deal appropriately with their traditions. I am arguing that Golf can be a religion; Golf can be construed as including all the family traits of religion that Edwards identifies.

For a related article see Golf as Religion: The Functional Approach.

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

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