Golf as religion, spiritual discipline

If golf is a religion, then the smell of freshly mown Bermuda grass is the incense that drifts through its rituals.

For golfers this is the smell of “eternal hope” that they can start over, according to the stressed-out young pro whose story drives the novel “Golf’s Sacred Journey: Seven Days in Utopia,” by sports psychologist David Cook.

“Each time a golfer steps to the first tee surrounded by this tantalizing fragrance he stands at even par,” muses Luke Chisholm. “We all own par on the first tee. Hope is eternal. It’s on the 18th green that one has to face the music.”

Death, of course, is the ultimate 18th green.

Which is why Chisholm ends up — now in a mainstream movie — kneeling at an empty grave in Utopia, Texas, trying to decide what epitaph he wants on his blank tombstone. Viewers who know anything about cinematic tales of redemption will not be surprised to learn that Robert Duvall plays the wise Southern sage who, with seven days of wisdom, helps save this young man’s soul and his golf game.

It’s the kind of scene that would have occurred in “The Legend of Bagger Vance” — if the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association had made that golfing parable.

The bottom line is that the independently produced “Seven Days in Utopia” represents another stage in the development of a faith-friendly branch of the movie industry. The film even features the talents of two Academy Award winners, with Duvall and actress Melissa Leo.

In the pivotal graveside scene, Chisholm tries to say thank you to the elderly Johnny Crawford, a golf pro who escaped into ranching. Duvall’s character simply points skyward.

“Don’t thank me,” says Duvall’s character, on a Sunday morning that just happens to be Easter. “Thank him, because God is in all of us. Inside each of us, if you listen, there’s a still, small voice of truth leading us, talking to us, and telling you that you can see God’s face, feel his presence, trust his love.”

The novel’s version of this scene is even more blunt, complete with a multi-page sermon on the fateful biblical encounter between Jesus, a proud fisherman named Peter and a large school of fish that had evaded the future apostle’s nets all day. Chisholm ends up confessing his sins, including that golf had been his god, and being born again.

It’s hard to be that blunt in mainstream theaters. The movie also added some new action scenes, a father-son feud and a hint of a love interest for Chisholm — a lovely horse whisperer whose story may drive the sequel.

“We wanted a big net in the movie,” said Cook. “We wanted this to be safe for everybody to go see without being hit on the head with something really explicit.”

It’s safe, but The Hollywood Reporter noted that the movie still managed to steer its audience toward an altar call — in cyberspace. The team behind “Seven Days in Utopia” must, noted the lukewarm review, be “given full credit for coming up with something new in movies: To learn what happens at the end, you’ve got to go online. After carefully building up to a climactic scene in which the underdog hero must sink a long putt to win a sudden-death playoff, the camera looks away, narration intones to the effect that the protagonist now has a higher calling so it doesn’t matter much in the big picture whether he won or not and, if you actually want to know who came out on top, you must go to”

That twist may sound corny to film critics, but it’s not, insisted Cook, who now lives in Utopia, a real town in the Texas Hill County.

During his professional career, including his time as president of the National Sports Psychology Academy, Cook said it was rare to meet an athlete who wouldn’t own up to spiritual struggles in life. Most struggle with fear.

“What I have found is that whatever helps you conquer fear only makes you stronger,” he said. “If sports is your god, it’s easy to be afraid when everything is on the line. But if you have faith, you can say, ‘The sun’s coming up tomorrow and God loves me. Why should I fear whether this little white ball goes in the hole or not? Why be afraid?’ “

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