By Chris Rodell
Hopeful travelers from all walks of life tote golf clubs to the globe’s most godforsaken corners convinced, no matter how remote, there is always bound to be an open tee box and an understanding starter. Funeral directors in retiree golf hot spots are reporting a spike in the number of dearly departed duffers who extend that same sunny sort of optimism to the afterlife.
“It never used to happen,” says Stephen McMillan of the McMillan-Small Funeral Home in Myrtle Beach. “Now, at least once a month, there is a golf-themed funeral with all kinds of clubs, spikes, balls, scorecards going into the coffins.”
Clearly, for many of America’s 27.4 million golfers, including many top professionals, getting a good tee time is something they expect out of any decent afterlife.
“Oh, man, there has to be golf in heaven,” says Ben Crenshaw. “I’ll golf with my father, Harvey Penick, the people who raised me to love the game. Who’ll win? Maybe nobody. Maybe we’ll all just play for the pure enjoyment. There won’t be any scores, just a great day golfing on a beautiful course.”
Hogwash, says Bruce Lietzke. He believes anyone hoping for golf in heaven will wind up all wet -- and not just from tears of reflection. "Of course, there's no golf in heaven,” Lietzke says. "Heaven is bass lakes as far as the eye can see. Golf is one hell of a game."
How true. Even the very best golfers confess their inability to master the game leaves a void in their souls as vacant as an unreplaced divot. “Heaven is absolutely golf free,” says Jesper Parnevik with a solemn sort of Old Testament conviction. “This game tortures souls who foolishly conclude that one day they may truly excel at it. Isn’t that what hell’s supposed to be? An endless series of pains and frustrations? And doesn’t that pretty much sum up what golf’s all about?”
Yes, but many golfers will confess to feeling closer to God on a golf course than they ever do in a pew. To them, golf is already a quasi-religion unto itself with its own holy sites (Augusta, Pebble Beach, St. Andrews); its apostles (Arnold Palmer, Bob Hope, Tiger Woods); its Wise Men (mystical caddies who can accurately reveal a putt will defy logic, not to mention gravity, and break UPhill); its holy communion (halfway house hot dogs and 19th hole libations); and an abundance of inspirational miracles (six golfers dropped out so unknown John Daly could qualify and win the 1992 PGA Championship). Already golf is the only earthly game to have been enjoyed in the heavens. In 1971, Alan Shepherd smuggled a makeshift 6 iron aboard Apollo 14 to hit some balls into the great black yonder.
And weren’t some of the earliest Christian believers simple shepherds, the same humble calling practiced by the dune-crawling Scots who invented “goff?”
So there’s enough evidence to stipulate blessed golfers ought to be entitled to some golf. But whose golf? What courses? Again, opinions diverge.
“I know all the greens will be contoured like funnels,” says Jerry Pate. “Every putt will be a gimme birdie. That’ll be heaven.”
Really? Such redundant perfection sounds an awful lot like the 1959 Twilight Zone episode “A Nice Place to Visit” in which smalltime hoodlum Rocky Valentine gets killed by the police during a botched robbery and finds an afterlife crowded with everything he’s always craved. Beautiful women adore him. Fawning chauffeurs drive him to fancy casinos where he wins every single jackpot. But eventually he gets bored. He tells his proper host, Pip, played by the very sophisticated Sebastian Cabot, that he’d like to lose once in a while so he could, y’know, enjoy some competition. He wonders aloud if he’d be better off in “the other place.”
That’s when Pip sears him with a penetrating gaze. “You don’t understand, Mr. Valentine . . . This is the other place!” If Pate ever hears the bloodcurdling cackle that follows, he’d rethink his wish about an eternity of swirling birdie putts.
Hale Irwin thinks the courses will be tailored to magically offset our weaknesses: “If you’re one of those big faders, every hole on every course will just keep bending, bending, bending around to the right.”
The bonds of foursome fellowship are something every golfer mentions when asked about a heavenly round. Chris DiMarco confesses to wanting a friendly match with the notoriously unfriendly Ben Hogan. Jason Bohn mentions a few dead presidents. Deceased fathers, God bless ‘em, are universally mentioned with a poignancy that practically weeps. Most of us learned the game at their knees, worshipped them, grew up, sassed them, made peace, rejoiced together over their grandchildren, wept at their passing and now ache with desire to see them hop into a cart for one more drive to that first tee.
“To get the chance to play golf with my father again, man, that would be heaven,” says Irwin. Crenshaw says he never knows where to look after a big golf thrill since the 1999 passing of his 85-year-old father. The late Charles Crenshaw Sr. was there for so many of his greatest moments.
“For me, one of my greatest golf memories was acing number 8 at St. Andrews with my father right there,” he says. “If you could pick one course in the world to have an ace, that would be it. And to have my father standing there, it was just the greatest. We just looked at each other with a look I’ll never forget as long as I live. It’s a look I dream about one day seeing again.”
Those are fine sentiments, if somewhat pedestrian. Nobody mentioned, for instance, golfing with dead Beatles. Making no morbid predictions, it’s a pretty safe bet that Paul, 65, and Ringo, 66, will be there in, say, 30 years. It being heaven, John and Paul will have set aside their petty differences and, hallelujah, Yoko won’t be there to meddle. If splitting up the Beatles doesn’t get you banished to hell, you’ll probably have to watch out for pickpockets and those who’ve committed far lesser crimes against humanity than the one she’s guilty of perpetrating.
It’s curious to speculate that heaven may be a bit of a letdown for one select group of wise men here on earth: members of Augusta National, the place every golfer on earth someday hopes to play.
Jerry McGee thinks so much of the place he hopes to do something posthumously he says he never achieved as a mere PGA mortal: He wants to hit the 12th green at Augusta.
In his will and against Augusta’s firm wishes are precise instructions that his family rent a plane and sprinkle his ashes on the place he considers heaven on earth. “It’s the only place where, when I missed the cut, I’ve cried. It’s magnificent. When you walk down the fairways of Augusta, you’re walking with all the great ghosts of golf’s past.”
Now, he’s taken steps to ensure he’ll be one of them. His burial at tee is illegal -- it’s considered littering without the property owner’s consent -- but inspirational. Who wouldn’t rather spend eternity on a plush tee box instead of in a confining pine one.
So, of course, to Hootie Johnson’s horror, um, let’s call it “Augusta North” will be overrun with beer-bellied slobs driving, gadzooks, carts straight down the fairways, peeing in the pines and generally behaving like John Daly on a three-day bender. Our heaven may be Hootie’s hell. And even classier sorts may pose problems. Imagine getting stuck late afternoon coming into Amen Corner behind a foursome consisting of, say, Mother Theresa, Mahatma Ghandi, Pope John Paul II and John the Baptist -- they’re bound to be buddies. Good people, sure, but you wouldn’t want to get behind that bunch of dawdlers in a sun-racing round at Augusta.
Any thorough consideration of the topic requires a look at the only rule book with more unread pages than the ones published yearly by the PGA. It was time to consult the Holy Bible and the people who read it.
According to a man who worships one God and is chummy with another, the answer is, sorry, no golf in heaven. The Reverend Clark Kerr is the pastor of the Latrobe, Pennsylvania, Presbyterian Church and a member of Latrobe Country Club, home course of Arnold Palmer.
Kerr refers us to Revelations, Chapter 21, and its detailed description of, alas, a golfless heaven. It says, “. . . and the streets of the city was pure gold, transparent as glass.” He doesn’t sound the least bit disappointed his -- and our -- golfing days are numbered. “I love golf,” he says, “but I’m quite sure heaven will be so much better. We’ll spend eternity in the loving presence of the Lord, praising and worshiping Him.’”
Only the heretics would dispute that He is worthy of such enduring adulation, but the description puts to mind Mark Twain who was told heaven’s a place where no one smokes, drinks, eats, reads, or does anything but express joyful contentment. Twain’s response: “You know my current way of life. Can you suggest any additions, in the way of crime, that will reasonably ensure my going to some other place?”
Pastor Andy Odom, retired from the First Baptist Church of Harlingen, Texas, offers a hopeful dissent for those praying there will be golf in heaven. In fact, the 10-handicapper is so convinced there is golf in heaven he’s already penciled himself into a foursome that will keep profanity-prone wisecrackers on their toes: Moses, Jesus Christ and Paul the Apostle. “Golf’s a game that instills so many of the values -- integrity, responsibility, honesty -- we need to get to heaven. Many people of faith will disagree with me, but not one person this side of death can say for sure whether or not it’s true. The really big surprise will be whether or not we get there at all.”
No, the really big surprise will be if we get there and find out we’ve become, yikes, David Duval? A man often characterized as golf’s most tortured soul says he’s serenely confident he knows everything there is to know about heaven.
Because, he says, he lives it every single day.
“I think I’m in heaven right now,” he said, a statement the marketing department at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort & Spa might like to have preserved for commercial purposes. But he was right. It could well have been heaven. The splendid southwestern Pennsylvania resort is nestled in the foothills of the Laurel Mountains. Much of the obscure imagery found in Revelations could apply to the Nemacolin’s lavish five-star Falling Rock Lodge. The floors and walls shimmer like gold, beds have a cloud-like softness and angelic butlers see to your every need.
Duval made the remarks during the long stretch of futility that’s been his professional career since plummeting from the pinnacle that was the 2001 British Open victory. Still, he’s convinced he’s already in heaven. “I have a beautiful wife and four wonderful children we adore,” he says. “How can heaven be any better than that?”
Maybe he’s right. Maybe heaven is simple satisfaction with our situation. We’re all given the opportunity to appreciate life’s little bits of heaven. Look hard enough and, truly, it’s all around. It’s there in a lover’s tender kiss, the rapturous embrace of a child, the soul-soothing sight of a small white ball soaring far down the center of a whisker-wide fairway.
Can heaven wait?
On some fair days, on some fairways, it can certainly seem so.