The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

500 BALLS BEFORE BREAKFAST

Delivered 4/10/16
Text: I Cor. 9:24-27 (Ps. 119:1-16)
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

A little golf this week, eh? The PGA Tour returns for the RBC Heritage presented by Boeing. I enjoy golf. I do not play much anymore, but I enjoy watching it and I will enjoy hob-nobbing with the players this week as the starter on either the first or tenth tee. I never played the game in my youth, but took it up finally...almost reluctantly...about 40 years ago. At the time, I was living here on Hilton Head Island, already a hotbed of golf in the early ‘70s, but I played tennis, and had since I was a boy. One day, while playing tennis, I pulled a muscle in my leg - I could walk all right but could not run. So, a friend of mine with whom I regularly played tennis (and who happened to be an executive with the old Hilton Head Company), said he would take me out to play golf. OK. People had been egging me on to try the game anyway, so...

Admittedly, part of the reason I had never played golf was that it did not look that interesting. I mean, the ball just sits there (not even a moving target), you hit it, it goes in a hole, you dig it out, hit it again, goes in a hole, and on and on and on. How tough is that? Big deal!

I used to wonder about the phrase I would occasionally hear: "golf widow." I could not fathom such appeal in any silly game. There were wonderful stories. The fellow out playing who suddenly stands at respectful attention with hat removed and held over the heart as a funeral procession passes by the course. His playing partner sees, says nothing until his friend replaces his hat and begins to approach his next shot. "What was that all about, Charlie? I've never seen you stop playing because a funeral was passing by."

Charlie answers, "It was the least I could do, Bill. She was a great lady - we would have been married 25 years next month."

It was a sunny Sunday morning, and Bill was beginning his preshot routine, visualizing his upcoming shot, when a voice came over the clubhouse loudspeaker. "Would the gentleman on the ladies' tee please back up to the men's tee." Bill remained in his routine, seemingly unfazed by the interruption.

A little louder: "Would the man on the women's tee kindly back up to the men's tee!"

Bill raised up out of his stance, lowered his driver, and shouted, "Would the announcer in the clubhouse kindly shut up and let me play my second shot?" I can identify.

My first tee time. Joe borrowed some clubs for me and arranged for us to play nine holes late the next afternoon. As we prepared to tee off, I said, "Joe, you play this game and I don't. Give me three strokes a hole and we will play for 50-cents." Fool that Joe was, he agreed - we played, I beat him, and I have been hooked on golf from that moment.

I found out that day that golf is an intensely mental game. The actual contest is between you and the course. Makes no difference how wonderfully-talented your opponent is - you can win against Jordan Spieth if you negotiate a sufficient handicap (three strokes a hole is too much, by the way). The most important six-inches in the game of golf is between your ears.

I began to play regularly. I took the game seriously. I was intensely competitive. If I played decently, OK; if not (which was most often), I was ready to eat the clubs. I can identify with the golfer who had a terrible day on the links. On the last hole he actually went into a tantrum, cursing and swearing, and beating the ground with his club. Finally recovering himself, he looked woefully at the caddy and muttered: "I guess I'll have to give it up."

"Give up golf?" asked the caddy.

"No, not golf," he said sorrowfully, "the ministry."

No danger there for me. As I have grown older, I am less intense in my approach to the game. As I mentioned, I really do not play anymore. My game was biblical - it would have been defined by a text in Romans, chapter 7, verse 19. Paul must have been a golfer because he describes my game to a tee ("to a tee," he repeated, grinning). He says, "I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do." That is Leininger golf.

To be honest, Paul was probably not a golfer. Roman emperors apparently played a relaxing game called PAGANICA, using a bent stick to drive a soft, feather-stuffed ball. Over the next 5 centuries the game developed on several continents and eventually evolved into the popular Scottish game known as GOLFE, the direct ancestor of the modern game. The first formal golf club was established in Edinburgh in 1744.(1) Paul was long gone.

But had Paul had the chance to play, I bet he would have. He apparently loved sports and over two dozen times in his writings uses sports metaphors to make a point. For example, the brief passage from I Corinthians 9. It is found in the middle of some instruction concerning self-control and notes that athletes, if they hope to be successful, will be disciplined.

A bit of background here. A question had arisen in the church regarding whether or not it was all right to eat meat which had previously been offered or dedicated to a pagan idol (and in first-century Corinth, almost all meat had). This had become a serious issue in the church because some were concerned that eating the meat would be offering tacit acceptance of these false gods; others said that since those so-called gods were not gods at all, go ahead and eat. Now Paul had been asked to play referee, and in this case, he makes everyone happy - he agrees with both sides. True, these idols were not gods, so no big deal about eating their meat; also true, some might misunderstand your eating the meat and infer a theology. Now what? The apostle says there is no need to have personal scruples about eating the meat, but be careful who sees you and the impression your action might make on them. His conclusion: "if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall" (I Cor. 8:13).

Now he moves into this subject of personal discipline. He notes that there are any number of things he does without to which he should normally have every right. For example, he says he has the right to be paid for his work in the church, but he does not exercise his right. Beyond that, he has the right to expect that not only he but a wife and family should be supported as well. In fact, in the ancient world, if teachers were NOT paid, the assumption was that their teaching was worthless. Hmm. But Paul takes pride in not accepting any compensation. Why? To prevent anyone from saying he does what he does for any reason other than a burning desire to share the gospel. If this is what it takes to help people come to know Jesus Christ, fine - it is worth it. Listen to him:

To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel... (I Cor. 9:20-23)
Now he gets into sports and this idea of discipline. Not a new idea, of course - the Psalmist in our Old Testament reading is utterly convinced that a disciplined approach to study of God's word will yield a rich harvest - "I treasure your word in my heart, so that I may not sin against you" (Psalm 119:11). Move to the New Testament and find St. Paul saying, "Athletes exercise self-control in all things." Runners do not run with no sense of direction; boxers do not simply flail about in the air. If Paul knew anything about golf, he WOULD have understood the concept of getting out on the range and beatin' balls and beatin' balls. If someone wants to WIN, the effort is disciplined.

Golf is a game that one cannot play well unless he or she works at it. And one cannot play extremely well (as those folks who will be competing at Harbourtown this week) unless one commits to HARD work. When Gary Player was here on the island designing the Dolphin Head course, I had several chances to visit with him. He once told me that he heard over and over from golfers how they would LOVE to play as well as he does. But he said that not many are willing to put in the effort to get that good. His own habit was to get up before dawn, hit 500 balls before breakfast (now you know where the title of this sermon comes from), go in for breakfast, bandage the cuts and blisters in his hands, and go back out to hit 500 more.

Does the effort pay off? It does in golf. At the moment according to PGA Tour statistics, the golfer with the lowest scoring average this year is Phil Mickelson - thru the tournament last week in Houston, his average score per round is 69.170; his winnings so far amount to $1,790,600. Not bad (probably more than today’s whole offering, he said with a grin). In contrast, go down to number 50 on the scoring list, Graham DeLaet, and find his average is 70.722 strokes per round. Only about one-and-a-half strokes per eighteen holes played separate #1 from #50. But Graham’s earnings this year are $667,605.40. Doing just a little bit better, has earned Phil over $1,100,000 more than Graham.(2) This afternoon, someone is going to be given a green jacket and then a bit later handed a large check for first prize in the Masters - last year Jordan Spieth took home $1,800,000; this year the check will be more because the total purse is a million dollars larger than last year. Next Sunday, someone will be awarded a tartan jacket and a check for $1,062,000. Second prize, probably not more than one or two strokes back will be worth $637,200. One or two strokes is not much separation after four days of competition (perhaps as little as a quarter-stroke per day) but the difference in the rewards, WOW - over $400,000!

Calvin Peete is a name you golfers my age are familiar with. He played in the Heritage 10 times, and had two top-10 finishes. Calvin died last year at age 71. He grew up in the farm country of central Florida, where he and his family made a living picking vegetables. Like any other youth, Calvin had a dream. He wanted to be a professional golfer. His friends laughed at his dream, pointing out that poor blacks just did not become pro golfers.

In the eighth grade, Calvin found it necessary to drop out of school and go into the fields to help his family earn a living. But, despite his daily labor, he always felt God intended more for him than picking vegetables. His dream of becoming a professional golfer would not die, and Calvin took up the game as an adult.

Calvin not only had the disadvantage of beginning golf at a late age, but he had to play with a left arm that would not straighten out to full extension, the result of a broken elbow when he was a child. Golfers would say it is impossible to play the game without an extended left arm. But Calvin compensated for that disability, and within six months he was shooting below 80. Eighteen months later, he was shooting below par and joined the mini-tour in Florida in 1972. In 1975, he qualified for the PGA tour - the oldest rookie ever, at age 35. He won twelve times on tour. Calvin's persistent belief that God had a plan for his life enabled him to persevere without giving up.

"It's been a long road from the fields to the fairways," Calvin said. "One a lot of people said was impossible. But you see, I knew something maybe they didn't. That God had a plan for me -- but I HAD TO BE WILLING TO WORK AT IT. When you work hard and pray hard, you have a combination that can take you places you've never imagined. It's taken me from green beans to a putting green... and far, far beyond."(3)

"I had to be willing to work at it," said Calvin. What are you willing to work at to become the Christian disciple that the Lord expects you to be? Regular public worship - never miss? Regular seasons of prayer? Regular Bible study that is intellectually demanding? Regular invitations to unchurched friends and neighbors to join you? Regular service in the name of Jesus? There is LOTS to work at. And, just like golf, it will take time, dedication, discipline. The Christian equivalent of 500 balls before breakfast.

Can you succeed? Absolutely. The wonderful thing about discipleship is that we are not all by ourselves in the effort. We can rely on the historic teaching of the church, the love and support of brothers and sisters in the church, and we can rely on the love and support of the one who sticks even closer than a brother, our Savior, Jesus Christ.

Golf. Bob Hope once said, "If you watch a game, it's fun. If you play it, it's recreation. If you work at it, it's golf."(4) He is right. Golf takes work, and so does Christian discipleship.

You may have heard about the golfer who was twenty minutes late at the first tee one Sunday morning, and the other three members of the regular foursome were almost ready to drive off without him. "I agreed with my wife," explained Jones, "that this Sunday I would toss a coin to see whether I played golf or went to church. Heads, I played golf. Tails, I went to church. Sorry I am late, but I had to toss that coin 29 times before it came up heads."

Well, church is over for now. NOW, it is time to check out the golf.

Amen!


1. "Golf," Grolier Electronic Encyclopedia, CD-ROM, 1994
2.http://espn.go.com/golf/statistics/
3. Plus Magazine, May 1989, quoted in Bible Illustrator for Windows (Hiawatha, Iowa: Parsons Technology, 1994), diskette
4. Quoted in The Reader's Digest, Oct. 1958, in The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993)

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