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Original Issue

Getting Religion

Stop me if you've heard this one: A rabbi, a priest and a
minister are on the 1st tee at Merion. Gazing down the fairway,
the rabbi notices bunkers ahead and says, "If I don't
understand the desert, who does?" The priest looks out and says
that the ways of golf, like the ways of God, "keep us in
balance and harmony and safely down the middle." The
minister--a Presbyterian and therefore familiar with the game's
Calvinist roots--reaches for his driver and says something
about the "mortification of the soul," his predestined fate.

The punch line? There isn't one, because this isn't a joke. Our
holey trinity from the Philadelphia area--Rabbi David Gutterman,
Monsignor Joseph McFadden and the Reverend Jesse Garner--is quite
real. They are three serious men with serious callings, yet all
are charmed by golf and the fellowship of the links. What can
they teach us about our own worship of the game? Where beginneth
the lessons?

In the ecumenical spirit of the season--or maybe because of the
way I've been praying over putts of late--I asked these three
wise men to join me on a search for golf's spiritual meaning. I
would arrive in my hair shirt. They would show up in their robes.
That our pilgrimage would take place where Bobby Jones had
achieved Grand Slam sainthood and Ben Hogan had pulled off an
Open miracle turned our round into a certified religious
experience, even if the quality of our play frequently desecrated
hallowed ground.

Right off the 1st tee, walking up the fairway, Rabbi Gutterman
reveals a sacred connection: "The journey of Abraham, the
founding father common to all, began with the call from God: Lekh
Lekha--'go and walk, go and journey.' What a metaphor! Isn't
every round a personal journey, like Moses' on the mountain or
Christ's in the wilderness? The journey is about how we keep
ourselves in play."

He is not talking about keeping the ball in the short grass.
"This is about knowing yourself," explains Monsignor McFadden.
"To play your best, you have to look at yourself and your
abilities honestly. If you're not being honest with yourself,
you're not being honest with your life, and you're not being
honest with the Lord. Call it course management or life
management. Golf tests that."

Golf also tests our humility, self-control, courage, perseverance
and character. Good shots aren't always rewarded, and bad shots
aren't always punished--"The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh
away," says Monsignor McFadden--yet we're asked to handle both
with equanimity and play the ball where it lies.

The petty larcenies we try to hide affect our relationship with a
Higher Authority. Says the Reverend Garner, "If you cheat because
you think you can get away with putting down a 5 instead of a 6,
you will always think you can get away with cheating anywhere.
You can't." Adds Monsignor McFadden, "In golf we police
ourselves. We call penalties on ourselves. That's what the Lord
calls on us to do--monitor ourselves." Says Rabbi Gutterman, "If
someone has integrity on the course, that carries through."
(Needless to say, there were no clerical errors on our scorecard
at Merion.)

Golf's tests are great, but so are the rewards. "When you hit
that shot that turns the right way," says the Reverend Garner,
"you feel yourself coming into alignment with something greater
than yourself. It's not only the shot; it's also where you are.
It's the leaves, the trees, everything."

Rabbi Gutterman calls this feeling "harmonic convergence."
Monsignor McFadden agrees and adds, "To appreciate what nature
has given us on a golf course is to appreciate the grandeur of
life and its Author. Accepting that this didn't happen by
accident is a religious feeling." As is the Reverend Garner's
parable. "How much do you hate to lose a ball?" he says. "How
long will you look for a lost ball? How good do you feel when you
find it? God can't stand to lose a person. He looks for lost
people for a very long time."

Is the Reverend Garner suggesting that golf's lost souls--I count
myself among that number--are destined to play the game for
eternity or until we get it right? If so, the best golf joke will
have been on us.

Golf Plus will next appear in the Jan. 20, 2003, SPORTS

COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS SOUL MATES Golf is next to Godliness for (from left) McFadden, Gutterman and Garner.

A rabbi, a minister and a priest are on the 1st tee at Merion.
Only this isn't a golf joke.