I admit that I play some golf. It is a maddening game. I always considered myself above average athletically, but when I play golf, I have my doubts. I am not willing to claim there is anything spiritual about golf and, perhaps, there are no spiritual lessons to be learned. It does teach me something about humility! And it may well be diabolical---devilish---which may be as close to spiritual as it gets.
I am intrigued by the scoring in golf. For those who know nothing about golf, let me explain. Any time the golf club makes contact with the ball, it counts as a stroke. Strokes are added as you play the course and the one who has the fewest strokes for eighteen holes wins the game. Most golf courses tell us “par” should be 72 strokes for eighteen holes of golf. Of course, I would not know. I cannot shoot “par” golf. It always takes more strokes for me to play an eighteen-hole golf course than that “par” golf suggests it should take.
In this sense, “par” golf is not average. Instead par golf is nearly ideal golf. Only professionals can play golf so well that we can say they play “par” golf. The rest of us play above par. Some of us play significantly above par golf. In fact, I recently heard a statistic that claims about 80% of us who play golf score more than 100 strokes on a 72-par course!
What fascinates me about the scoring in golf is the fact that a stroke is a stroke. Let’s explore that fact. To say a stroke is a stroke is simply to say any time the club touches the ball, it is a stroke. It does not matter how far you hit the ball. It is a stroke. I might have a strong day when I can hit with the longest club in my bag, namely, the driver. The good players can hit a ball more than 300 yards with the driver. I can’t hit it that far with the driver, but on a good day I can still hit it out there pretty far. That big hit is a stroke.
On the other hand, when you finally get the ball onto the green, the club to be used is the putter. Most Americans are familiar with this part of a golf game, even if they have only played putt-putt golf. Each time you putt the ball, it is a stroke. So it could be a ten-foot putt or a two-inch putt and they all count as one stroke. This is what fascinates me. A two-inch putt is one stroke, just like the 300-yard drive.
In fact, occasionally you will see a ball stop just short of the hole. There are times when I am sure I could walk up to the ball sitting right on the lip of the hole and jump up and down and the ball would fall into the hole. Nevertheless to touch it with the putter to knock it into the hole is still one stroke. That truly amazes me that stroke counts the same as a 300-yard drive! Part of me thinks that is not fair. But that’s the way the game is played. A stroke is a stroke. That’s the rule.
I wonder if this is not where the game of golf mimics the game of life. Let me put it this way. Let’s call the stroke the consequence of touching the ball with the club. The touch could be a 300-yard drive or the one-inch putt. Each stroke is a consequence. I think this parallels our actions in life. I would argue that our actions have consequences. Of course, our actions in life are much more difficult to measure than the golf strokes. And I understand not everyone agrees that our life’s actions have consequences. But I also know most spiritual traditions do think life’s actions do have consequences.
“An eye for an eye” is one way some traditions talk about it. Another tradition talks about karma. Karma is the way a Buddhist explains life’s consequences. Karma is a spiritual rule, so to speak. Just like the game of golf, we can cheat the game of life. We can cheat by not counting all the strokes. We can lie about what we actually did. We can declare our own rules. In golf there are many ways to break the rules and still claim we have not broken the rules.
It is clear the same thing happens in life. There are things I have done that should have consequences, but I claim it should not matter. On the other hand, some times I should do something and refrain from doing it. Again, I would say that it is inconsequential. I attempt to make my own rules. If I can make my own rules, then I can always be just.
Most major spiritual traditions claim that justice is blind. What I want for myself should be the same for what others get. If a stroke is a stroke, then it has to be the same for you as it is for me. Too often, however, I want the advantage. And sadly, sometimes I am willing to cheat or lie to get that advantage. But I don’t want any consequences for having done so.
This is where golf and life differ. Ultimately, whether I cheat and lie in golf does not matter. I can deceive myself about being a better golfer than I really am. Or I can alienate friends and golf partners when I cheat. Otherwise, life goes on.
But in life, there is more at stake. Lying and cheating have consequences. A stroke is a stroke. I doubt these are consequences that send us to hell. But to play the game of life by your own rules does create hellish situations for those around us. And ultimately, it condemns us to be a much lesser person than we can be. And that is spiritually very sad.