Mind If We Pray Through?




So a priest, a rabbi and a monk are out playing golf when - wait, you've already heard this one? Well, all joking aside, the golf course might be the one place that different religions can indeed find a kind of doctrinal oneness. After all, it's like a pilgrim's progress through worldly hazards, a quest for perfection requiring intense devotion, a journey of faith and trials leading to a bright Elysian field. A manicured green might be a glimpse of heaven, but for sinners and backsliders along the way, there's a bit of hell to pay as well.Money talks, it is often said, but sometimes it talks too much, especially to one who has chosen a life of prayer and contemplation. Rev. Mark Cooper, a monk in the Order of Saint Benedict and vice president/treasurer of Saint Anselm College, often feels the need to get away from the pressures of picking the best long- and short-term investments, putting together a budget that works and trying to meet a wide range of requests with a limited number of dollars. Somewhere between his service to God and his duties to Mammon, he manages to find time for golf."It's something I enjoy doing that lets you forget about difficult problems and work issues," says Father Mark. While offering a welcome break from the demands of both faith and finance, the game imposes its own kind of discipline and opportunity for spiritual growth."Certainly it's a game that teaches patience," he notes. "It's a game that teaches you that you should never give up. Sometimes it might seem that all is lost on a hole or a round and then you get a fantastic shot and it turns things around very quickly. So it teaches perseverance."The difficulties of the course also offer frequent lessons in humility, though not everyone is grateful for them. "Some people tend to get angry and they can spoil the fun," says Father Mark, noting that learning how to handle frustration is a big part of the game. "If you go through the day wrapped up in yourself, you can wreck somebody else's day," he says. "If you keep things in perspective, you're a little more able to interact with others." Perhaps knowing a priest is within earshot might make other golfers more conscious of their manners, or at least their language."I wouldn't say it makes them self-conscious," he says, though he does take some ribbing about his connection to a higher power. "The typical comment is, 'You must have said your prayers today,'" after he has made a difficult shot. Or, 'I really need your prayers on this one.'" John Hutson, retiring dean and president of the University of New Hampshire School of Law in Concord, is a relative newcomer to the game, having taken it up just three years ago. Now a self-confessed addict of the sport, he remains skeptical about the invocation of higher powers, on the green or in the rough."Neither cursing nor prayer works," says Hutson, who has tried both. Yet moments of spiritual ecstasy are not unknown to this career Navy officer and law school president, who might make you wonder how Saint Paul or Thomas Aquinas might have described good fortune on the fairways. A golfer might be struggling, Hutson says, when suddenly all is well with his drive, his putt and his soul."Then you hit that awesome putt or that magnificent fairway shot and you say, 'Oh, yes! There is a God!'''Hutson, 64, says people sometimes ask him why, at this stage of his life, he has taken up a sport that is "time-consuming, expensive, frustrating and addictive." It was all in the line of duty, the retired rear admiral explains."I took it up three years ago as a fundraiser for the school," he says. Frustrations come and go but the addiction remains always with him. "I might as well have taken up heroin as a fundraiser," he says.Except, of course, golf is legal, a not insignificant consideration for a law school president. And for those who don't get too carried away over a bad day on the links, the side effects of golf are much healthier."I think it initially added (stress), but now I have a pretty good perspective," Hutson says. "Occasionally, you get mad at yourself and so forth, but on balance it is a stress reliever." Ellen Musinsky, a lawyer who teaches at the UNH School of Law, has been golfing for about 20 years longer than Hutson and is even more convinced of the spiritual benefits of time spent on the links. "I am somebody who was raised Jewish and I'm an occasional temple-goer," says Musinsky, who is more than an occasional golfer. "I very much believe there is a higher spirit," she says. "I feel it very much when I am out in nature. Golf courses are just in beautiful places."Competitive by nature, Musinsky says it took a while for her to understand what golf really means to her. "I still want to play well, don't get me wrong," she says. But whether her game on a given day goes well or poorly, she finds peace below or above par. "I kind of feel connected to the greater world or at least the greater part of the natural world." She admits she wasn't always so serene about the game of golf. That, like other aspects of the game, came with practice."I learned to manage stress better," she says. "In the beginning I just wanted to get great fast. I was obsessive about learning how to do everything perfectly. That's not a good way to play golf, and I was living my life that way. Then I learned how to accept my mistakes and I got happier," she says. "I really did need to learn a lesson, that it was about peace of soul and I would become a better golfer when I accepted that. I actually think I became a better lawyer and I think I became a better family member," she says. "I didn't get as anxious when things didn't go perfectly. You really have to know that you just can't control everything, in legal practice or in life."So how long did it take her as a golfer to learn that "peace of soul"?"I would say my first four or five years," she says. "Ken Hamel will tell you I was a head case for 15 years, but don't believe him."Hamel, the senior golf pro at Crotched Mountain Resort in Francestown, has indeed observed Professor Musinsky at play for a number of years. "She's a wonderful person," he says, "and she's really done a tremendous job of improving her game and staying with it." Hamel began playing golf when he was about 5 years old, he recalls, having learned the game from his father. He played basketball, soccer, baseball and softball growing up and continued to play softball as an adult. But he still finds golf to be the most challenging game."I think you challenge yourself to get better every time," he says. "It's probably the hardest sport in the world to learn - to learn how to drive, to learn how to putt, to learn how to hit out of bunkers. The swing changes from club to club." While working on his or her swing, the golfer must also guard against mood swings on a course where one's fortunes can change more quickly than the New England weather."I try to look at the positive side," says Hamel. "Don't tell yourself, 'I didn't do this or that,' tell yourself what you have to do to make it better." That's especially important for the beginner, he says. "It doesn't do any good to put unrealistic expectations on yourself," he says. "Maybe you hit one good shot out of 10. You try to work on making it one out of nine, then one out of eight, one out of seven ..." Obviously that takes a long and persistent patience. "Oh yeah. You've got to focus and be persistent," says Hamel. "And you've got to relax out there to shoot a good round. You can't think about anything else. You've got to forget about your job or that your car broke down or what did your kid do yesterday." For one's game to improve, that mental discipline must be practiced religiously. There are disciples in the "church of golf" who are faithful in their Sunday morning attendance, including some who arrive each week for the "sunrise service.""There is one group that comes out at 6:30 every Sunday morning," says Hamel. "They like to get out early so they can get home and do their other stuff." While its rules and "doctrines" are strict, golf is a very ecumenical and interfaith activity. Tiger Woods has credited his mother and the influence of her religion in his upbringing for much of his spectacular success in golf."My mother's a Buddhist," he said in an interview on ABC-TV. '"In Buddhism, if you want to achieve enlightenment, you have to do it through meditation and self-improvement through the mind. That's something she's passed on to me: to be able to calm myself down and use my mind as my main asset."Eastern spirituality has played a significant role in training the minds of many golfers, says Priscilla Flynn, owner and director of Yoga Sanctuary LLC in Windham. She cites as evidence the movie "The Legend of Bagger Vance," a golf story based on the Hindu epic, "Bhagavad-Gita." "It's the same lessons you get from yoga," Flynn says. "You have to surrender your ego, that little 'I,' to something greater. Looked at from a spiritual perspective, you would call it 'grace.'""Yoga teaches you focus and being in the present moment," says Cathie Ryder of Yoga Matters in Sandown. "You need to have one point of thinking without being distracted." It is a practice that teaches people "to respond rather than react," she says. In other words, "When you miss the shot, you don't throw the golf club down." Golf develops character and dignity, revealed in a person's overall demeanor, says David Coates of Hudson, a FairPoint Communications employee who saves up his vacation time in order to travel to golf tournaments here and abroad. Cheating, lying or outbursts of anger not only annoy other players, they upset the "golf gods," he warns."Oh, yeah, there are golf gods," he insists. "I'm a Catholic, but there are golf gods." And it is not wise to disturb them with club-throwing fits of temper. "Leave that in the parking lot, my friend," Coates advises. "If you can't leave it in the parking lot, do not step onto this hallowed ground." And he does mean "hallowed."It's the closest thing to heaven on earth," he says. "If there's a golf course in heaven, I can't wait to get there and play 18 holes." A Miraculous FitHe may deny having mystical powers, but club fitter Ken Collins of Manchester's Kustom Clubs Fitting Center has achieved a semi-exalted status in the pantheon of golf. His name just appeared as one of America's 100 best club fitters in Golf Digest's 2011 list and he has twice been included in "World's Top 100 Club Fitters" by professional club manufacturer KZG.A "club fitter," for the unenlightened, is a golf pro who is also a matchmaker, knowing how to unite a golfer with the perfect set of equipment for his or her game. And while it's not exactly voodoo, it is part art and part science, with endless possibilities of shaft flexes, shaft weights, club head designs, lie angles, etc., to consider.Collins says there's something mysterious about the process: "It's like when you have a new suit custom tailored. You feel better, you even feel like you've lost weight. Or when you get your car washed it actually seems to drive better. Club fitting provides the same experience."And it points to a greater mystery that all golfers know about, the need to be "in the zone," to play well. "Golfers do well in springtime. First time on the course, they forget all their bad habits. Next time they go out and try to force their game and they get worse," Collins says. "There's only a second during the back swing to make your swing." You don't have time to make all the calculation, he explains, when your mind is cluttered with doubt."Think about it, you've got a 550-yard fairway and you're trying to hit a ball to within 5 strokes of a 4 1/4-inch cup," he notes. "It's like trying to hit the ball through a fork in a tree halfway down the fairway."Collins admits other games require different miracles. "With golf, you are hitting a stationary round object with a moving flat surface. In baseball you are hitting a moving round object with a moving round surface. But baseball is a reactionary type of swing, there's no time to think negatively."Collins contends that the two hardest sports to master are golf and bowling. "In all the other sports you have a team to help you look good. Even in tennis you might be playing against someone who is having a bad day. But a bowling alley or a golf course never has a bad day, so it's always just you against the course."Just you and your magical club fitter.By Rick Broussard

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