LINKS LETTER, 2002

GOLF ON THE BRAIN

By Wally Armstrong with Jeff Hopper

In case you haven’t figured it out by now, you can’t always see what’s coming. Whether you like it or not, life is full of surprises. And for whatever reason, they often come from the unlikeliest of sources. One of the biggest surprises in my life came from a face-to-face encounter with one of the greatest players in the history of the game.

The game I’m talking about, of course, is golf. It wasn’t the only game I grew up playing as kid, though. In my Indiana neighborhood, there were probably 20 other boys like me. We loved sports, and we played them all the time.

As a kid, I excelled at baseball, wrestling, and golf. I gave them equal time. But by the time I got to high school, my golf game had developed well on the little nine-hole course among the cornfields near my home. After wrestling season was over my freshman year, I was faced with a choice: baseball or golf.

I chose golf for the same reason I liked wrestling. It was an individual sport where you could “make your own destiny.” You could practice as hard as you wanted and as long as you wanted and see a lot more rewards for your efforts. And you could practice without having to have a whole team there.

So I participated in junior tournaments, which were a thrill each summer, and I won a few of those. Then I won the high school state championship in 1963, and I found myself headed to the University of Florida on a golf scholarship.

The program was just getting going when I showed up at Florida. The university had recently purchased the Gainesville Country Club course, and we had some good players. Well, that may be an understatement. Four of us ended up playing the PGA Tour—me, Lorrie Hammer, Steve Melnyk, and Bob Murphy, who won the NCAA individual championship when I was a junior.

We finished second and third in the nation while I was at Florida. But with Murph and Melnyk there, I was a steady number two guy, an honorable mention All-American. I never won a college tournament, though I finished second a couple of times. So I set my sights on becoming a college golf coach. I had no aspirations for the PGA Tour.

The year after I graduated, I stayed at Florida to do master’s work in health and human performance—what the regular folks call P.E. Under the legendary Conrad Rehling, I was able to study golf. And I mean study. I researched how people play. I would study the golf team and establish correlations between balance and grip strength and that sort of thing. I also wrote a paper on the mental side of golf, how people used mental images to play.

In the long run, if you know my inventive side, you can see how all that study has come in handy. But let me get to that a bit later.

I was a busy guy at the University of Florida and my mind was always at work. So it was only a matter of time, I suppose, before I let myself consider some of the bigger issues of life—you know, things outside of golf.

During my senior year, I had the sense that I was going down the wrong road in my life. I was drinking too much and I was into a lot of things I knew I shouldn’t be into. Truthfully, I was living a double life. To the coach I was an All-American golfer, but there was the other side of me in the fraternity house and with my teammates. I didn’t have any control of my life. I was just hanging in there and trying to figure out what life was all about.

That’s not to say that I was totally irresponsible. I was involved in student legislature and athletic council and the lettermen’s club. I knew how to play the good kid role. So well did I do this at times that soon after I started attending Fellowship of Christian Athletes meetings, they asked me if I would be an officer. I said, “Sure, if I can help out.”

The next thing I knew, they had appointed me chaplain! I like to tell people that I was the first chaplain that ever lived who didn’t have a prayer.

But who you hang out with really does matter, and your friends can rub off on you. So by continuing to go to FCA meetings, I was bound to hear the message of Jesus Christ and how I could have a personal relationship with Him.

For me, this happened at a meeting where the speaker was Ander Crenshaw, who has since gone on to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. That night, Mr. Crenshaw spoke about how we each need and can have a relationship with Christ. I was so interested in what he had to say that I followed him to the next meeting, which was with Campus Crusade. Before the night was over, I had made a decision to follow Christ myself.

With the business of working on my master’s degree and this idea that my life was now Christ’s, I walked away from golf for about a year. The golf I had always been around didn’t seem very “Christian” to me, because of the swearing and the drinking. So I spent my time working on my research and receiving some discipleship training from some Campus Crusade guys on campus.

Near the end of this year, PGA Tour player Dave Regan, who had been runner-up to Jack Nicklaus in the PGA Championship in 1963, invited me to come down to Orlando and speak to some players on the Rollins College and Stetson University golf teams at his home. I was supposed to give a three-minute testimony. It took me 45 minutes! I just poured out my heart to these guys that I had played against. I was so thrilled with what God had done in my life that I couldn’t stop talking.

What happened after this meeting was important, too, though. Dave pulled me aside and said, “You know, Wally, you don’t have to give up the game. You can use this game.” Over that preceding year, I had never really looked at it that way. The way I figured it, it was either golf or God.

The next step was that Dave invited me to come out and caddy for him on tour. So I went up to North Carolina to work his bag for a week. When I got there, he said, “You know, we have a Bible study out here.”

I was shocked. “A Bible study?”

So I went to this Bible study. Dave and I were there, and Gary Player, and a pro from New Orleans named Bob Stanton. It wasn’t a big crowd, but our purpose was sure: we helped Bob come to know Christ. I was just blown away.

Then Dave proceeded to open the door to that big surprise I was telling you about. But at this point it was innocent, and even disappointing. Dave said to Gary, who was the top player on Tour at the time, “Gary, Wally’s out here. He’s a young Christian. He wants to be a golf coach. Can he ever caddy for you?”

Gary hesitated. “Well, I have this caddie that I’ve had for years, and it would be really hard. Besides, I haven’t seen Wally caddy.I don’t know if I can take a risk on that—not that I have anything against you, Wally.”

I understood his answer. “That’s OK,” I said.

The next week the Tour moved to Preston Trail in Dallas. I had to hitchhike to New Orleans with my big University of Florida staff bag, then catch a $35 flight to Texas. When I got to the airport, I had no idea how I would get to the golf course, but I saw a rookie pro I knew from college and he encouraged me to hop into the courtesy car with him.

“They won’t know you’re not a player,” he said. “You’ve got your big golf bag.”

So I rode out to the club with him, and when I got out of the car, Dave happened to be coming right around the corner. I got to talking to him, and before I knew it, they had taken my luggage into the locker room! Dave said, “Let’s go in and have some lunch.”

“I can’t go in there,” I told him. “I’m a caddie.”

“Come on!” he said. So we walked in the front door at Preston Trail and there was Byron Nelson, standing right there. Dave shook his hand and introduced us. Byron had been working with Dave on his game, so in the next few minutes I was having lunch with the two of them and commentator Chris Schenkel. Arnold Palmer was sitting at the next table. All I could think was, This is like heaven, you know.

As we were eating, Dave suddenly looked over my shoulder and saw Gary Player standing in the doorway. Gary called him over and they talked for a few minutes.

When Dave returned, he spoke right to me. “You can’t believe it, but Gary’s caddie had to go back to New York City. His wife is sick. He wants to know if you can caddy for him.”

So my second week out, I picked up the number one bag on Tour. I caddied for Gary for three tournaments, a working relationship that may have spoiled like the bunch of bananas I left in Gary’s bag one night. They went rotten and ruined his rain gear and his gloves and everything.

But it was Gary Player who was the golf legend who presented me with one of the biggest surprises of my life. It wasn’t anything he gave me. It was something he said.

We were standing on the range together, and he said, “Let me see you hit a couple balls.” He even let me hit his clubs. I hit a few shots on the range and he looked at me and—I’ll never forget this—he said, “You know, Wally, you should be playing golf. You have such a better impact if you’re a player and you’re sharing your faith than you will if you’re somebody who’s an outsider sharing your faith.”

Like no other words, those words really impacted me. No one had ever said to me, “You can play. You have a good swing.” Now here was one of the game’s greatest players telling me that I belonged in golf. It wasn’t just that I could be there, as Dave had told me that night in Orlando. It was that I should be there.

I went home to Florida about three weeks later, and there was a bag, woods, irons, gloves, balls—all sent to me from Gary Player. Does a golfer need any greater sign from God?

Still, I wondered. Could I really marry these two forces in my life—golf and God? I mean, for so long, golf had been my god. That was when I met Jim Hiskey, who in Dave’s words was “kind of like a Paul” out on Tour. His purpose there was to serve God. Jim and I sat at a restaurant in Indianapolis for three or four hours and just talked about golf and faith. He encouraged me to walk with God and reach the world for Christ through golf. I left that lunch with Jim knowing what I wanted to do. I wanted to serve God through golf.

I had to get through another kind of service first. I was in the ROTC, and I owed the Army a two-year stint. I was sent to Texas, where among other things I met my wife, Debbie. It is still easy to see God’s hand in that arrangement 32 years and three kids later!

As amazing was the way God prevented an interruption in my golf while I was stationed in Texas. The first day I went out to the golf course on the base, I played with the colonel who was in charge of this 1,000-member golf course. We got to talking and he found out that I was a golf pro and had worked in the shop at the course at the University of Florida. Right there, he invited me to run this Army course. And for my two years in the Army, that’s what I did. I never wore a uniform!

I played a bunch of Army tournaments on the all-Army team, and as my duty neared its end, a colonel at the base said to me, “I’d like to sponsor you on the Tour.” So I went through the regional qualifying school and then on to the national qualifying tournament in Florida. I missed qualifying that first year by about seven spots. But my purpose was firm, so I worked as an assistant pro and waited for the next fall. This time the qualifying tournament was in California, and I missed by three spots. I thought, Wow, so close. I decided to give it one more try.

That year I played mini-tours in Florida with a bunch of other young, aspiring players—Mark Hayes, Joe Inman, and Gil Morgan, to name a few. We would play three 36-hole tournaments a week. It was crazy! We literally played 30 tournaments in ten weeks. It was hard work, but it was great preparation for Tour school.

And there was still this other side to my vision. Before I headed to the qualifying tournament that year, Debbie and I went through Campus Crusade staff training. We had decided that during that next season, 1974, we were going out on Tour. Either I would be playing as a Tour professional, or I would be raising support through Campus Crusade and helping Jim Hiskey. At the qualifying tournament, the matter was settled. I finished fifth. I was a PGA Tour player!

In the years that followed on Tour, God did indeed open up a lot of doors because I was a player, just as Gary Player had told me. Rik Massengale committed his life to Christ, then Larry Nelson. Players and their wives were seeing the need for more than golf in their lives. And the fellowship was a vital part of it all. We would travel together, a lot of us—the Zarleys, Massengales, Nelsons, Tewells, Gilders, and us—staying in the same hotels and raising our kids as playmates and friends.

That helped, because the Tour was a real grind then. Only the top 60 each year remained exempt for the following season (today it is the top 125). For a guy like me, that meant playing 34 or 35 tournaments a year and sneaking in during the last one or two events. One year, I actually played golf 90 straight days, with practice rounds and pro-ams and tournament rounds thrown in.

But ten years after he had encouraged me to play golf for a living, I walked the fairways of Augusta National with Gary Player in a practice round for the Masters. Seve Ballesteros and Rik Massengale, whom I had helped come to Christ, played with us. It was one of the greatest rounds of my life, just to play with those guys and see what God had done, allowing me to be out there.

By 1984, I couldn’t make the grade on Tour anymore, and I lost my card. It was a disappointment, to be sure, but it didn’t really affect my life’s purpose that went all the way back to that evening at Dave Regan’s and that lunch with Jim Hiskey. I was still able to use my golf to show Christ to others.

What ended up happening was that I fell back on my master’s studies of years before at the University of Florida. At the time I had often wondered why I was researching golf rather than playing it. But when my years on Tour ended, I set to work on all kinds of projects that kept me in touch with golf—books, videotapes, teaching devices, and games.

I had kept a journal during my playing days, and from those writings, I began to put my experiences on paper. If you have ever read any of the In His Grip books I was privileged to write with Jim Sheard, you know that many of those experiences have occupied my thoughts ever since.

It is my great desire now to keep using the language of golf to help golfers understand what God has done for them through Christ. Someone said to me recently that country clubs are full of some of the world’s neediest people. Men and women join clubs because they seek genuine friendship. Men, especially, play golf and cards and drink together because they are dying for somebody to care.

Somebody does care. His name is Jesus Christ. In my life, He has helped me find a balance between the pursuits of earth and the rewards of heaven. I am amazed—and I am certain other professionals are as amazed as I am—that every time I speak, people come to Christ. It overwhelms me. But that is the hunger that is in their hearts. You can’t satisfy that hunger with golf. But God may use golf to get your attention and draw you to Him.

COPYRIGHT 2002 LINKS PLAYERS INTERNATIONAL

  • Wally Armstrong

    Wally Armstrong long held the rookie record at The Masters. He was instrumental in founding Links Players, and he continues as a minister through golf to this day. His instructional theories and practices are employed around the world, and he is a popular writer, speaker and instructor wherever he goes. His books include In His Grip with Jim Sheard and The Mulligan with Ken Blanchard.