LINKS LETTER, OCTOBER 2003

START TO FINISH

By Morris Hatalsky with Jeff Hopper

I like questions. I’ve asked a lot of them in my life, and I’ve been fortunate to receive some very good answers. So let me start you out with one—a question just for you. Here it is:

How would you like to throw out every shot you hit that takes you beyond double bogey?

That’s right, we’ll let you stop at double bogey on any hole and walk away happy not to keep embarrassing yourself. Would you take that offer?

Now, I know that for most of you, double bogey is never a good score, but it’s still better than triple or worse. In the Tour statistics, they just call those “others.” Believe me, I’d give something pretty valuable to go a whole season without any of those “others” on my card! You might do the same to go one round without one.

In 2002, I started the season as Monday qualifier, with no exempt status. I had won four times on the PGA Tour and I had turned 50 during the off-season, but I hadn’t qualified through the Champions Tour Q-school, so I had to start at the bottom of the ladder.

By the time I arrived at Park City, Utah, in late August, however, I possessed a growing confidence. I had picked up three second place finishes, and the week before in Long Island I had finished third. I was a far better technical player tee to green than I had ever been on the regular Tour. And now, in Park City, at the Uniting Fore Care Classic, I was being given that golden opportunity—nothing worse than double bogey.

Of course, under the Stableford scoring system, every guy in the field was getting the same deal, but it’s a lot of fun to play with a bit more abandon, go for eagles and birdies, and not worry about the big numbers so much. In golf, as in life, if you want to finish well, it pays to have a plan and some confidence before you start. With a really good idea of what I could do now on the Champions Tour, I had both.

When I was at the top after two rounds, I was feeling even better. And when the birdie putts started going in again early Sunday, I started growing in confidence. The last few holes were a really enjoyable walk in the park, so to speak.

I made seven birdies that Sunday, finished with 42 points to win by 12, and had essentially secured something I never dared to dream of at the season’s opening. I was to be the Champions Tour Rookie of the Year for 2002.

While all that success was absolutely shocking, I can tell you that I had answered yet another of my questions: Could I make it on this Tour, or were my professional golf days nearly over?

Starting from the basement of eligibility, I had worked my way up the ladder, and if a victory on tour means you have reached golf’s top floor, I was there. But honestly, I had no such goal when the season started. I was just hoping to get into enough tournaments to give myself a shot at earning enough money to stay around for the next season.

In the year since, I’ve been able to answer the question of Can I do it again? by winning the Columbus Southern Open in May. In Columbus, I also answered another question I probably would never have dared to ask: Can I overcome every little mistake? In those 54 holes, I never made a bogey. In fact, those 54 were the middle of a 98-hole stretch without a bogey, the longest streak ever on the Champions Tour.

But I must confess, for all the questions I ask about golf—and those that I answer without really asking them—I find these questions fall short of what matters most in life. In fact, I find that it’s very easy to tell ourselves that what we’re involved in today, whether it’s a professional golfer trying to sink a birdie putt or a mom just trying to help her kids, is the most important thing in the world. Work and family and relationships of all kinds are all very important—I certainly don’t question that! But from the time I was very young, I always wondered if there was something more to life.

I was born into a Jewish family, but my father died when I was just two. I never really knew him. Instead, I was raised by a Jewish mother and grandmother. We weren’t orthodox, I can assure you. Along with Yom Kippur and Rosh Hoshanah, we celebrated Christmas in our house. And my mother encouraged me to find out about other faiths, so I wound up in Catholic masses and Baptist Sunday schools from time to time. I believed there was a God, but I really knew nothing about Him.

In the early 70s, I married my wife Tracy, and her background was similar. Though she came from a Christian upbringing, beyond acknowledging that there was a God, she had no understanding that you could have a relationship with Him.

All that changed when I was trying to make the PGA Tour in the mid-70s and I made a golf trip to South Africa with a golf friend, Don Pooley. Don and I had known each other from junior golf and college golf in Southern California and Arizona, but we weren’t much more than acquaintances. As you can imagine, a trip all the way to South Africa can add a lot of mileage to a friendship, too.

In our conversations together, Don encouraged me to ask my many questions. Like most folks, I had one major nagging question. I was sure it was completely unsolvable. I wanted to know why, if God was so good, did He allow so much suffering in the world?

Don was no preacher, and he didn’t try to come across as one. But I thought his answers were intellectual and practical at the same time. As he honestly tried to answer my questions, he also challenged me to seek the truth. He gave me answers to some of my questions and he pointed out places in the Bible where I could read some of the answers for myself.

One thing we looked at very closely was the matter of good and evil. In talking to Don and looking at the Bible, I found that God had indeed created a good world and good people. But He had not created robots who would do His every bidding. He had given people free choice. They could obey Him or disobey Him. When they chose to disobey Him as described in the book of Genesis, they abandoned what had been so good—their perfect relationship with God. Sin entered the world.

But sin did not come alone. Evil came with it. And with the evil came suffering. It wasn’t God who was allowing the suffering—man who was causing it. All-powerful as He is, God could stop the suffering (and I believe that sometimes He does), but if He did that, we would no longer have reason to choose Him.

That was just one of the answers I found in my search for God. But I don’t want it to sound like God does not care about the suffering. He does. Very much. So He made a way for us to go on in spite of the suffering, and to live eternally without sin or suffering. That way is Jesus Christ.

Those two words, Jesus Christ, may sound like a most unlikely answer from the lips of a Jewish boy. But they’re not really. My Jewish ancestors were always looking for the Messiah, the one sent by God to save us. I believe Jesus bridges the gap between the Holy God and sinful man.

My pursuit of God was not entirely intellectual. It wasn’t just about reading a book and saying, “Well, that just makes sense!” There was faith involved. God gave me direction for my own life and in my thoughts about who I was.

It’s a lot like golf, when you think about it. You can’t play good golf just by understanding the mechanics of the game and practicing like mad. There are a lot of players with beautiful swings who have never won a thing. You also have to play by feel. You have to trust what you have learned to be true. Then you have to go with it.

In my life, when I had the right understanding and the right amount of trust, I was able to go with it. I was able to give my life to God. Tracy did the same. And through the years, God has blessed us beyond what we might have imagined.

Unlike a lot of pros, I actually enjoy watching golf on TV. When I see Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson hit an incredible shot down the stretch, I say what you probably say too: “I wish I had that shot!”

It’s easy to desire something as fun as professional golfing talent. Or you may have your eyes on some of level of success in what you do. But I have found that there is something far more important than great golf or anything else I might pursue. That something is a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. You can begin that relationship more easily than you can make the Tour, that’s for sure. You just ask God a simple question: Heavenly Father, will you come into my life?

I’m sure you already know what His answer will be.

COPYRIGHT 2003 LINKS PLAYERS INTERNATIONAL

  • Morris Hatalsky

    4 PGA Tour wins: 1981 Hall of Fame, 1983 Greater Milwaukee Open, 1988 Kemper Open, 1990 Bank of Boston Classic

    3 Champions Tour Wins: 2002 Uniting Fore Care Classic, 2003 Columbus Southern Open, 2006 Puerto Vallarta Blue Agave Classic