LINKS LETTER, 2006 ANNUAL EDITION

MY LIFE AS A LOSER

By Tim Philpot

Golf is a game for losers, which may be why I love it.

Almost no one who plays golf has actually won a real tournament of any kind. Country club championships, local or regional amateur events, U.S. Opens, Tour qualifiers, fourth flight club championships at the local muni, whatever. The truth is most golfers go their whole life and never win. Chris Dimarco is a Top 10 player in the world but has not won a tournament since 2002. Even the shots themselves are seldom “winners.” Golf, like life, is very difficult.

We are all a bunch of losers.

So, for a loser like me, golf has been my greatest teacher in life. Every victory or success in my life has resulted from a loss. Just like golf.

Think about it. Every great bunker shot means you hit a lousy shot to get in the bunker. Every memorable recovery shot from the trees means you sliced it or hooked it into the trees to start with. Every 30-footer holed for par means you chopped it to get there. If you want to have fun playing golf, you have to hit some pretty bad shots to get into the places from where you can hit great shots.

But nearly every win in my life has followed a loss. Nearly every gain has come in the wake of a setback.

Of course, how else would God reveal Himself to a loser?

My father was 44 years old before he first touched a golf club. I had an unusual enough childhood as it was. Dad was gone three-fourths of the time as a Methodist evangelist (an oxymoron) to preach the Good News of Christ. But that message of good news never penetrated me. In my youth, the only message that got through to me was the gospel of golf. Once my dad picked up a club, he could hardly put it down.

He’d return from a revival and somebody would say, “Well, Ford, did you have a good meeting?”

He’d say, “Well, no. I was putting bad.”

It was just a joke, but I put aside the Little League baseball I loved and grew hooked on golf. When I was 12 years old, my mom would take me to a local 3-par golf course and I would just play there by myself all day long. That’s how I learned to play—hole after hole for two years, just me and my baseball grip.

I was in the 11th grade at my high school in Lexington before there was a team for me to try out for. I had not been able to play in grades 9 and 10 at boarding school, so I found I was nothing better than the fifth man on a four-man team. Loser.

Same thing my senior year. But then our best player got suspended from school and the door swung open for the extra guy—me. I had made the team. It was a pretty good team, too, and we came close to winning the state tournament. But I was still just a very mediocre player. I was a “loser.”

With obviously no golf scholarships coming my way, I enrolled in Asbury College, a small Christian school close to home. My freshman year, on February 6, 1970, I got Jesus.

Said like that, so plainly, you may not be too interested in more of my story. The details do not matter much. But I’ll say this: My salvation experience was very real, and I wanted everyone to know that the Good News was true, not just something I had heard from my dad. I even put a small bumper sticker on my golf bag that said “Christ Died for my Sins.” Even my golf game, whether it was a coincidental or not, got better.

My sophomore year at Asbury, we formed our first golf team. And the first tournament we played, no one broke 80, except me. I shot 69, probably for the first time. So I naturally wondered if being a Christian made my golf better. The truth is, I was just getting a little older and more accomplished.

In fact, I was improving so much that I caught the attention of the golf coach at the University of Kentucky. His team wasn’t very good, so he offered me a full scholarship. Free college education meant that I could also marry a young woman named Sue, my high school sweetheart. I was off to UK and down the aisle all at once in 1971. I was 20 years old and the future looked great.

As it turned out, though, I was still just a middling golfer.

I had started at UK with this idea that since I had improved so much each year between the time I was 16 and 20, if I just kept improving at that pace each year, by the time I was 25, I would surely be on tour! But like for most guys with that dream, it didn’t happen. I topped out at mediocre. I never even came close to winning a college tournament. I was lucky to make the traveling team at all some of the time. My only highlight was beating Andy Bean one day when we were paired in the SEC tournament. I know from his cussing that day that it must have been the low point of his career, getting beat by a nobody from Kentucky.

When I was in my senior year at UK, knowing that my golf career was going nowhere, at the last minute I applied to law school. My 2.9 grade point average was not too impressive (although some of my golf buddies thought it was pretty good), so UK Law School declared me 77th alternate for admission. A bit down the list and not much hope.

Still, two days before the first day of class, I received a letter saying that there were five openings in this class. I was to show up at a certain time and place and I might get in.

I was not sure what to do at that point. But my wife sure knew. “You are going to show up,” Sue said. I was the next-to-last person to get into my class, but I was in. For the first time in my life, I started studying. And in 1977, I even graduated as a Law Journal Member, which means my grades were decent. I was a lawyer, which was a miraculous thing for Mr. 2.9 GPA.

What I was barely carrying with me by this time, however, was that attention to Christ that had been my passion during my freshman year in college. Beginning on February 6, 1970, at 1 a.m., I had been bold and verbal about my new faith. By the end of law school in 1977 and the beginning of my professional career, my religion was normal and routine. And that’s no compliment. That’s a criticism. I was even losing in my faith.

But one evening in early 1978 I found myself listening to businessman Ted DeMoss, the USA President of the Christian Business Men’s Committee (CBMC), a large ministry in the United States and abroad. Ted gave me a vision for what my life could look like. Ted was even a golfer. Ted’s words awakened something in me. My dad was an evangelist, but I knew joining the clergy wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted to be a lawyer and I wanted to be in ministry, too. CBMC was all about such a connection.

So in 1978, while learning to be a lawyer, I became very busy for God through CBMC. The ministry was all about evangelism and discipleship, but the truth is that I had no clue what discipleship really was. I woke up four years later in 1982 with no real fruit for a lot of labor. Literally no fruit. It was like practicing for weeks on end, then going out and shooting 80 in the State Amateur.

I realized in 1982 that even though I had grown up with an evangelist for a father, I had never had anyone disciple me! No older person, no more mature person, had ever come alongside me and shown me how to live for Christ. I guess I looked too good on the outside. I could talk a good game. But I was failing miserably. Again. It was very similar to my golf game actually. I never had a lesson. No one discipled me in golf, and no one discipled me in God’s ways.

So I cried out to God. I said, “I’m going to quit all this religious stuff and Christian activity unless You show me what’s for real. I am at the end of my rope.”

God showed up. An old acquaintance asked me to join a small group of men who challenged me very intensely. Today, you might call us an accountability group, but nobody was using that term back then. If you want the truth, we kicked each other’s butts. We made several spiritual commitments together, including that we would spend about an hour and a half every day in devotions. I went from zero to an hour and a half every day. We memorized Bible verses. We met weekly to see how it was going. It was hard, but it was also very profound, and it completely changed me. The change was in fact probably even greater than my original salvation experience in 1970.

Meanwhile I was finally learning through CBMC how to tell others about what I had known all along—that Jesus Christ could do things in a person’s life that no one and nothing else could. “Lifestyle Evangelism” through CBMC taught me that the key to sharing Christ was to live a life that is truly different. If that happens, eventually—and it’s usually very soon—people will ask you questions. Really, all I had to do was learn how to answer people’s questions. And with Christ changing my own life so rapidly now, I could speak from personal daily experience. I did not have to rely on a one-time experience from my college days. God was real every day!

My professional life, too, was becoming rather different.

In 1985, with eight years of mostly losses to show for my courtroom experience, I decided to take a leap forward anyway. I ran for office. I was 34 years old, and the position of County Attorney, which is our main prosecutor, opened up. I ran and was defeated in what some would call a landslide. Loser again.

I discovered something very important in that defeat. My wife hates politics. She just hates it. So I made her a promise not to get involved in politics anymore. I stayed out of politics. Heartily. For five whole years.

And then opportunity came knocking.

A friend approached me about running for the State Senate in 1990. People knew me from that previous election and got the idea that maybe politics was still in my blood. It was a very simple decision, really. I told him, “Number one, my wife hates politics. Number two, I’m in serious debt from the race in 1985. And number three, I’m going to India on a missions trip for five weeks in the middle of this upcoming campaign. I would love to be a state senator, but it would have to be handed to me on a silver platter.”

I said, “No.”

So I went to India. It was an amazing five weeks. I met Mother Teresa for the first time, and every day’s experiences were as ordained by God. We went to India not knowing what would happen, yet we looked back later and said, “Wow! We couldn’t have planned a trip like that in a million years!”

Nor could I ever have planned what was to happen when we arrived home to Lexington. When I returned in February, I discovered that the incumbent senator was “unopposed,” the filing deadline having passed while I was in India. No big deal. A month later, though, I got out of debt. I unexpectedly won the largest jury verdict in the history of our county and the other side actually paid off—one of those things you don’t expect to happen. I didn’t get rich, but it did enable me to retire my debt from the 1985 election.

Then, in June, the sitting senator, the one who was up for reelection, suffered a heart attack and died. Suddenly the State Senate seat opened up for someone selected by the local party committee, who would then run unopposed, win the November election, and take office. It would be handed to someone on a silver platter.

I was again encouraged to be that person. I went to Sue and said, “Honey, instead of it costing $100,000 and a whole year of my life to run for office, it will cost nothing and be over in two or three weeks.” And Sue said, “OK.”

I won’t tire you with the story, but because of grass roots folks who were involved, even though I had no party officials standing up for me, I won in the committee by a vote of 24-22. Two votes.

I was Mr. 2.9 GPA. I barely made it into law school. I was fifth man on a four-man golf team. I lost my first election by a landslide. I lost way more cases than I ever won. But here I was, headed to the Kentucky State Senate. It’s almost like God Himself said, “Philpot, you’re really too stupid to get elected, but I need you over there, so I’m just going to make it happen.” In truth, He handed it to me on a silver platter.

I spent eight years in the State Senate, while continuing to practice law since the Kentucky legislature is not full-time. Believe me, I had no political savvy. I had never had to play politics to get elected, so once I got there I just kept playing it straight.

That kind of approach led to a lot of controversy—in 1992, I sued the entire State Senate because they were not abiding by their own rules—but by the time I left office, we had seen a major reverse in the political makeup of the Senate as well as in key legislation on issues that were important to me and those who supported me.

When I ran for reelection in 1994 (and actually won), I promised it would be my last term. I believed in term limits and decided to practice what I preached. I had a very clear picture that I was not to stay there forever. I knew from my early morning time with God that He had a plan for me that I could not see in 1994.

He is so big that following God makes it hard to know where He is going! Like Abraham in the Old Testament, I knew that usually you have to leave one place before you know where God is going!

And it was not long before He showed me the next step. In 1996, the board of CBMC International invited me to be their president as soon as I could get free from law practice and politics. I started part-time in 1996, and eventually went full-time in the most fantastic job you could ever want.

I traveled to 65 countries, spoke to thousands of business leaders about how to awaken their nations for Christ, and got to play golf in every place you could imagine. My game was pretty bad in those years, but I learned how to give up the competition of golf in exchange for the wonder of the game in some unusual places. Crabgrass greens in Uganda, for instance. Or a course in India with a fence around the greens to keep wild animals away. I actually was told by a caddie in Kenya to “hit it over the monkey’s head with a little draw.” It was a poor man’s version of Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf.

When I was younger, the only reason I played was for the competition. I had no appreciation for the green grass or the beauty of the sky or the water or the fellowship or the camaraderie or all the other aesthetic kinds of things. Golf can be almost romantic, you know. All of that was completely missing with me. But now when I have trouble sleeping at night, I lie in bed and in my mind go somewhere and start playing golf—Turnberry in Scotland, or Sri Lanka or Honduras or somewhere. Usually I’m asleep by the third hole, but golf is now a very soothing memory for me because I’ve gotten to play all of these wonderful places.

CBMC International provided me with earth’s best job, combining my passion for golf and the God I loved telling people about. As a ministry to business and professional people, we often found the most influential people, especially in Third World nations, to be at the golf clubs. So God knew, even when I was the fifth man on a four-man team in 1969, that golf would be a major part of Tim Philpot’s ministry more than 30 years later.

Yet by 2003, Sue and I knew it was time to come home to Lexington, to my friends and my small groups and my church. I resigned from CBMC International, once again not knowing what I would do. I figured I would go back and be a lawyer, putting into practice all the things I was teaching around the world about lifestyle evangelism and discipleship.

As I was closing out my tenure with CBMC in 2003, though, my former law partners mentioned that a particular judge in town had resigned and that there would be a special election that November. They encouraged me to run. So Sue and I thought and prayed and meditated—and it sounded like the perfect thing to do.

I ran for circuit court judge. I was very confident that I would win. I had lots more legal experience than my opponent, I thought. I was older and wiser, I thought. But I lost. Again!

I was confronted once more with the fact that I am mostly a loser, just like my golf game! Golf and life continued to be extremely similar.

I hate to admit it, but facts are facts. In my life, I have lost so much more than I have won. I have found myself in the bunker, so to speak, time and time again. And yet, every time, God has pulled off the miracle shot in my life. But now, after the 2003 election, I was actually unemployed for the first time in my life.

But my old friend Ernie Fletcher was elected governor that same day. And another judge in Lexington had surprisingly won an election for the Court of Appeals, which meant a position in the local courthouse was open again—and this time it would be for Family Court and filled by appointment of the governor. My race in 2003 showed the new governor that I was serious about being back in law and Lexington, and upon his appointment, in January 2004 I took the bench as a Family Court Judge. Instead of criminal and civil cases, I would spend every day with families in crisis.

When I told the CBMC board in 2003 that I would be leaving the organization, I did something else. Sue and I prayed this prayer: “Lord, put me in the middle of the mess.” Let me tell you, Family Court is as messy as it gets.

Family Court. The two words should not even go together. Family should be a good place. After all, family was God’s greatest invention! But court means something bad has happened.

Families should not be there, but of course, they are there every day. A lot of poor people with serious issues, a lot of rich people spending their last dollars to fight with each other over who gets what, a lot of families with children being taken away and going into foster homes. Termination of parental rights, nasty, nasty, nasty divorces, domestic violence—stuff that would shock most people if they walked in to witness it just one time.

And there I am. No jury. Just me and the mess.

One hundred years from now, I truly believe I’ll be in heaven.

It’s a question I challenge people with all the time. I ask it of people who are notorious for their careful planning and attention to what’s next in their lives.

“You have the next five years planned out,” I tell them. “You have your retirement all set up. But where will you be 100 years from now?”

Because of Christ, I believe I’ll be in heaven. And in heaven, I know this: all will be well and God will reign.

But for now I’m in the middle of the mess. And I can tell you what I have discovered. He reigns here, too. He has carried me to this place, and He will carry me out of it. Bunker to green. That’s what God and golf have taught me.

COPYRIGHT 2006 LINKS PLAYERS INTERNATIONAL

  • Tim Philpot

    Tim Philpot, shown here with his wife Sue, is currently a family court judge in Lexington, Kentucky. He has served in the Kentucky state senate and as president of CBMC International, traveling to more than 70 countries.