There was a time in my life (a long time ago!) when I played at least 9 holes of golf every day. While married and raising kids, I did a lot less of it. Yet, some of my best “visits” with parishioners were on the golf course. In 2005, that all changed when I was in a car accident. My back has never been the same. I’ve never been able to twist and torque my body to swing a golf club. It’s possible that I could try and reinvent my swing. However, it hasn’t been a priority for me with all of life’s responsibilities.
So, I have mostly taken to the occasional weekend watching golf on TV. I enjoy both the competition and skill of the professionals, and the stunning beauty of the courses they play. This weekend was the Masters, which is probably the greatest and the best of the four major golf tournaments played each year. Yesterday was an amazing final day of the tournament. Tiger Woods, who hadn’t won a major tournament in over ten years, and had not won the Masters since 2005, came out of the pack to win.
I found myself unusually glued to the TV watching him. As the holes progressed, I became more and more vested into Tiger’s performance. By the time the final three holes were played, I was hanging on every stroke. And when he putted on the 18th green, I went nuts. Seeing him hug his kids and everyone congratulating him brought a well of tears to my eyes. So, I am now asking, why did I have such an emotional reaction?
Because I know the story of Tiger Woods. He was a golf prodigy at a young age. He won his first of his five Masters tournaments at age 21. It looked as though he was going to completely shatter every golf record in the books. Then, his life began to unravel. He was arrested for drunken driving; multiple affairs were discovered as many women came forward; divorce from his wife; years of competitive golf ravaged his body with several knee and back surgeries. Tiger didn’t even play one round of golf in a nearly two-year stretch. Indeed, it appeared he was done with golf.
Yesterday’s victory was more than winning a golf tournament. Tiger’s victory was an incredible comeback story. That, however, was not really what brought me to tears. It was what I observed from him as he walked and played the course yesterday. This was clearly a different Tiger Woods. The younger Tiger approached golf with a must-win attitude. I heard him, quite often, swear at himself before the censors could catch it on televised tournaments. He moved about with a steeled compulsion as if he must win; must be better; must be on top; must be the best. It resulted in more victories; more prestige; more money; more women; more everything. It was an almost demoniacal obsession to play flawless and victorious golf. Even when he was the golf’s world number one, Tiger set about reinventing his swing in the attempt to be an even better golfer.
Then, Tiger experienced a hard fall from grace; which was inevitable when the compulsive and neurotic self is in the driver’s seat. However, yesterday I saw a much more relaxed Tiger. He was incredibly composed and extremely patient in how he approached his round of golf. He had a very different look in his eye. Yes, he wanted to win. Yet, he didn’t seem to be obsessed; as if just being on the course and in the mix of competition again was enough for him. Tiger’s creativity around the course seemed spontaneous and free, as opposed to his earlier years where his imagination could only seem to picture conquering the golf course.
This was a story of redemption played-out in front of us all while we watched the Masters. So, when Tiger Woods won, without the neurotic need to do so, the tears came. Truth be told, I relate to the neurotic self. I resonate with the younger years of driving to be the best preacher in the world and the compulsion to read, study, and learn everything I could to be on the very top of my game as a minister of the gospel. I never experienced a fall to the degree of Tiger, yet I know the feeling of being toppled through years of ministry wear and tear; of wondering if my body and soul would be able to do pastoral work again.
I am curious as to how Tiger Woods changed. I suspect through all his inner crap and outer conflict that he eventually discovered the real Tiger underneath all the compulsion and drive. Yesterday was his greatest triumph, in more ways than winning a golf tournament. He was unusually calm. He had determination, yet it did not seem to dominate his actions. I saw a person enjoying the experience. In the post-victory interviews, Tiger indeed acknowledged his profound gratitude for the ability to play and to play at a high level.
I don’t know if Tiger will win again. I don’t know how much golf he has in him. At 43-years-old with his body ramshackled together through so many surgical interventions, it is quite possible that retirement is near. Yet, whatever happens, I feel privileged to have watched not only a phenomenal golfer; I have observed a real transformation of a person.
I suppose I see a lot of myself in Tiger Woods. There are, certainly, many ways we are dissimilar. There are also ways we are similar. I relate to being on a journey of self-transformation. I can look back in hindsight and see myself driven to perform, as if some other person were at the wheel of my life; obsessed with being a successful and competent pastor (whatever the heck that really looks like); and, living with a compulsion for more knowledge, more insight, more skill. Conversely, I now find myself moving about the hospitals I serve with a bit of what I saw in Tiger yesterday – a patient and calm demeanor of being present to patients, and, with greater challenge, present to my own emotions and self.
So, today, and every day, I hope to be present. I don’t want to force myself to do ministry in that old compulsive sort of way, as if sheer willpower and dogged determination could bring about accomplishment of goals. No, I want to feel the freedom of spontaneous compassion and allow the Spirit to send me to patient rooms; to be relaxed and fully attentive to the person in front of me without thinking about lunch, the next visit, or anything else. I want to go home and be fully present to my wife, even to the ridiculous pester pup dog in front of me. I want to be present to my girls and my grandsons without them seeing that look on my face that tells them I’m still at work, or off somewhere deep in my brain conniving ideas and forming thoughts for some future project or deadline. I want to be present to the God who is ever-present with me; who is always and fully attentive to the entire scope of my life – who joins me on the two-steps-backward-three-steps-forward herky-jerky personal walk – always exhibiting grace, patience, and demonstrating a calming presence with me.
I saw a glimpse of the divine in Tiger yesterday, which is perhaps why so many people later in the day commented that they responded with tears welling-up in their eyes, too. For we together saw connection, not compulsion; and, relationship, not self-retribution. Maybe that’s why I see so many patient tears. Maybe they see with me some of that divine presence. If so, I thank God for it.
There is a reason that a redemption story compels us and brings us to tears. We have a Redeemer who has displayed for us the ultimate drama of redemption. In this Christian Holy Week, believers in Jesus across the world remember that the King of all creation, the One to whom all things hold together, was humiliated, berated, tortured, and killed. He was laid in a tomb. His followers were beside themselves with grief, loneliness, and wondering what was going on and what was going to happen. Yet, death did not have the last word. Love conquered the grave. Suffering led to glory. The care of the One led to the care of the many.
As we journey together through this Holy Week, may we pay attention to the story of Jesus. May we be present in how our own individual stories fit into God’s grand narrative in the world. May we know the grace of redemption and of the Redeemer who makes it possible.