Spiritual golf lessons #1: The fundamentals
For some light-hearted but encouraging holiday reading, here is the first in a series of three short lessons from the most frustrating, challenging and beautiful game of all.
I wrote these little pieces a few decades ago as scripts for TV spots. They were filmed at the Coast Golf Club by Anglican media and broadcast on Channel 7, probably at 5am. Whether any tape still exists I don’t know.
I’ve adapted and updated them for their encore performance here. Feel free to share them with believing and unbelieving friends.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been called a fundamentalist.
It’s not a compliment.
It’s a word reserved for the lunatic fringe. A fundamentalist is a deluded fanatic who believes that the underlying basic truths of his particular religion or moral code are absolutely true and unvarying.
Fundamentalists stubbornly stick to their rigid beliefs, even when the world and popular culture and technology and every right-thinking person have left them far behind.
And this is why they are unpopular. Fundamentalists are figures of derision.
Unless they happen to be golfers.
All good golfers are fundamentalists.
It matters not that you have equipped yourself with a new set of graphite-shafted, boron-infused, steel-forged irons with ‘HVF technology’ (Hits Very Far™).
If you haven’t mastered the fundamentals of golf, and continue to practise them, you’ll always be the kind of frustrated, inconsistent hacker that … well, that I once was.
There are certain unvarying foundational principles that every half-decent golfer has mastered. (And I don’t mean wearing a loud, polyester polo-shirt that you wouldn’t be seen dead in at any other venue—although it helps.)
Ben Hogan famously identified five golfing fundamentals:
a well-formed grip on the club
a relaxed, balanced, athletic stance
a smooth coiled backswing that stores energy
a smooth, accelerating downswing around a still centre
a full follow-through
You could argue about whether these are the five, or whether others should be included, but every half-decent golfer observes some version of these fundamentals. They give them their own twist and personal expression. But the fundamentals remain the same, because they are grounded in the physics of how to hit a very small stationary ball as effectively as possible with a long, thin stick.
In golf (and in many other areas of expertise) we accept that there are certain underlying, unchanging, fundamental realities that we build on.
Strangely, though, when we apply the same concept to our understanding of life more generally, people object.
Anyone who wants to assert that there are absolutes—some fundamental, unchanging truths about us and our world, that we need to accept and respect—well that person is a fundamentalist and beneath contempt.
It’s very strange. Judging by our attitude to fundamentalists, we seem to have persuaded ourselves as a society that there aren’t any fundamentals. Only fanatics believe in fundamentals. Reasonable people like us can only wearily shake our heads, and make things up as we go along.
Which makes about as much sense as taking up golf, paying no attention to the tried and true fundamentals of the game, and insisting on re-inventing it, moment by moment, according to our own individual whim.
The real question is this: if there are fundamentals not just for golf but for life and morality in our world, where do we find them? Who has access to them? How can we discern between the various claimants who say that they are proclaiming the fundamental truths of existence?
This, in fact, is one reason for the modern world’s aversion to fundamentalists. We have lost confidence in the notion that anyone might have access to fundamental answers. There is only one thing the modern anti-fundamentalist is certain of, and that is that we can’t be certain. The truly pitiable and dangerous figure is the person who claims certainty about the truths of existence—such a person is a fundamentalist.
This form of anti-fundamentalist certainty makes no rational sense. If there are ten different people claiming to have the fundamental answer to a question, then it is possible that they are all mistaken. But the existence of multiple suggested answers doesn’t make uncertainty the only valid option. It’s very possible that one or more of the answers are correct.
But that would require testing the claims of each answer, and weighing the truth value of each. And this is the last thing that our world wants to do. They don’t want to investigate who Jesus was and whether the claims he made were true. For that matter, they don’t want to investigate Islam and see whether its claims stand up to scrutiny, or are in fact a load of rubbish.
Easier by far to assert with fundamental certainty that no-one has the answers, or could possibly have the answers. And that way, we can keep living the way we want to.
Christians, of course, claim that the fundamentals of human existence are very possible for us to find—because they have been revealed in history by the God who created all things, and who finally and climactically revealed himself in Jesus Christ.
You may believe that this claim is true, or not. We could have a good discussion about that.
But it’s not wrong to hold to a set of fundamentals like this, and to practise them. It can’t be.
Just ask Tiger Woods, one of the world’s foremost fundamentalists.
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And for the many of you who are desperate to know, the photo is taken looking back down the 18th at the beautiful North Carolina Country Club, a course I played not long after doing a ‘Trellis and Vine’ workshop in Raleigh.