Some of the world's top golfers open up on their faith in God and Jesus
American PGA Tour stars hold weekly Bible meetings
Bubba Watson, Webb Simpson and Stuart Cink just a few of those who are involved
Leading golf psychologist believes religion can play key role in sport
Forget hitting the greens – it’s the fairway to heaven which is on the minds of some of the world’s top golfers.
From Augusta’s Amen Corner to an Amen on every corner, these golfers practice what they preach.
Players from across the PGA Tour meet regularly at a Bible group, whose members include high-profile stars such as major champions Bubba Watson, Webb Simpson and Stewart Cink.
Each week, the group will study one particular verse, with some players such as Kevin Streelman taking that particular scripture and getting it printed onto a golf club.
For Streelman, who won his first big PGA Tour tournament at the Tampa Bay Challenge in March, his reawakening has come following a period of struggle in his personal life.
“I would lie if I said that I was previously that way,” he told CNN’s Living Golf.
“My journey has been incredible but I have been in the darkest lows to get to where I am today, to meet my wife, to be the father I hope to be.”
His conversion has made Streelman think deeply about what Christianity potentially demands of the individual.
“The thing with Christianity is it’s tough for us to understand that whether you’re Mother Teresa or the Boston bombers, God loves us all the same.
“We all fall short of his perfection and that’s the reason the gospel happened and Jesus had to come down and save us.
“When you wrap your mind around that, I think it kind of frees you up, that no matter what, he loves us incredibly much, and he’s got our back no matter what.”
On the course and off the course, the Bible group is the invisible club in the bag – some members pause midway through their rounds to read from the New Testament, meditate on holy scriptures and, of course, pray.
With crucifixes on balls, prayer books in the golf bag and scriptures printed on clubs, the Almighty’s presence is never far away for these God-fearing golfers.
“We do something before every round,” Ben Crane, an integral member of the group, revealed during an interview with CNN.
Crane, who grew up in a Christian household, wrestled with his religion during his college years before finding his way back to God.
“We do a devotional, and it’s called a player’s devotional, a bunch of us players on Tour do it,” he said.
“It’s a way of us getting our hearts warmed up before we play. We get our bodies warmed up, our swings warmed up, we get our minds warmed up, but we want to get our hearts warmed up and remind ourselves why we are doing this.
“It’s not like a Jedi mind trick. My caddy and I meet two hours and 20 before every tee time and we start with The Word and ask each other questions to reflect on it, and it gets us going, this is why we’re here.”
When the PGA Tour reaches Merion, Pennsylvania, on June 13 for the start of the U.S. Open, one man in particular will be praying for a repeat of last year’s success.
“I probably prayed more the last three holes than I ever did in my life,” Simpson, who won at San Francisco’s Olympic Club 12 months ago, revealed after his triumph.
A one-shot victory over Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell and fellow American Michael Simpson secured a first major title for the 27-year-old – a success with which he believes his religious belief was key.
“My verse that week was Second Corinthians 12:9 and the Apostle Paul’s writing,” Simpson recalled during an exclusive interview with CNN.
“In it, ‘God said to me my grace is sufficient for you for my powers made perfect for weakness’ and I just meditated on that verse all week.
“On that back nine I felt very weak, I felt physically weak, my legs were shaking, but I also felt I had a huge mountain to climb to try to beat the field at the U.S. Open and more than anything it just reminded me of that when I am weak.
“God’s powers are made perfect. He’ll help me if I ask him too, not necessarily to help me to win, help me to try to execute shots under that pressure.
“We want to honor and glorify God however that looks like. Whether it’s winning, surely we want to try and to win, but if it’s missing the cut, we want to honor him by our attitudes in the way we treat the other competitors, the volunteers.”
It’s not just some of the world’s best golfers who hold deeply religious convictions on Tour.
Simpson’s caddy Paul Tesori is just one of those who believes his life has been revitalized by religion.
Baptized in 2010, Tesori says his whole outlook on life has been transformed – and that is reflected by his blossoming partnership with Simpson.
“I started to do things to be more obedient to the Lord,” said Tesori. “My language changed, we all hang around with the boys, and want to fit in a lot more so one of the first things I changed was my language, to try and be less uncouth.
“If my daughter was watching me, I’d try to think what she would think of me at that time or if Christ was sitting with me there, would he be OK with the way I was acting. Very quickly after that I was fired from a job. I’d never been fired before.
“But in December 2010, the Lord brought me Webb Simpson and since then my walk has got 10 folds better.”
While Tesori’s faith is a source of great pride to him, he is aware of the skepticism that he encounters in espousing his beliefs.
Describing himself as a “sinner saved by Jesus” on his Twitter biography, Tesori also acknowledges the glamorous lifestyle and materialistic nature of the game opens overtly religious players up to accusations of hypocrisy.
“They look down on me and I definitely think there are a lot of Christians that are like that,” he said.
“I know my pastor at my church tells us all the time, ‘Look guys we can’t be the ones that are complaining, bickering or getting divorced or having affairs, if we’re the ones that are trying to call more people into the living.’
“People are going to look at us and say, ‘I don’t want to be part of that.’ ”
Faith in sport is nothing new – the sight of soccer stars crossing themselves on entering the field of play, kneeling to offer prayer or pointing to the sky after scoring a goal is common.
Australian golfer Aaron Baddeley recalls how he turned to the Bible during his first PGA Tour event more than a decade ago after speaking at the Easter service earlier in the day.
“I went out and on the last hole I was pretty nervous,” he said. “I quoted Second Timothy 1:7 which says ‘God did not give your spirit fear but of power and sound mind.’
“I was quoting that as I was nervous around the putt. I stood there and said, ‘This is for you, Jesus,’ and knocked it in.”
Baddeley’s tale is not unusual, and the sight of golfer and caddy standing together and reciting from the Bible no longer raises eyebrows from seasoned spectators.
Sports psychologist Dr. Bob Rotella, who has worked with some of the biggest names in golf for the past 29 years, believes faith helps athletes cope with an “achievement orientated society.”
Rotella helped Darren Clarke claim a famous victory at the British Open in 2011 and Keegan Bradley triumph at the PGA Championship in the same year.
“People can feel like if you don’t achieve, you’re a terrible person or you’re a failure,” he said.
“I think for a lot of people that believe, they think ‘Well I’m OK no matter how this turns out,’ which really takes the pressure off a putt or a shot.
“It doesn’t mean that everyone that believes in God is going to win the tournament, I think that would be a mistake to think that’s what it does.”
Rotella has worked with 74 winners from the men’s, women’s and senior tour throughout his career, gaining a unique insight into what helps the world’s top golfers succeed at the very highest level.
He has explored the idea that a belief in God helps performance
“That’s a big piece of the puzzle that these players are trying to deal with,” he said.
“On the other hand, you try to get these players to understand that God probably doesn’t really care if you win a tournament or make a putt or hit a good shot.
“If God did care about that, he’s probably not the God that we’d like to believe in, so that’s where it gets fascinating.
“But I think it allows them to be happy away from the course, and I think the other part of it is that when you’re living on the road all the time, to have a belief in a God keeps you on the right track in terms of values and morals and how you live your life.
“I think a lot of players feel there’s a sense of destiny that God gave them a gift of God and a passion for golf, because God wanted me to do some incredible things with my life.”
Zach Johnson, who won the Masters at Augusta in 2007, concurs with Rotella that his religion has helped provide perspective on his life.
“I am a believer; I believe in Christ, I believe he died for me,” the 37-year-old American, who is away from his family from months at a time and competing under constant pressure told CNN.
“I feel I’m ultimately blessed that I play this game for a living and the perspective on it is that I don’t want my identity to be wrapped in the fact that I am a golfer.
“I’d rather be wrapped in the fact that I am a Christian. I feel blessed and lucky that I can play this sport. It’s a job – that’s crazy – but I will never forget my number one priority and that’s him.”
Like many of his fellow Bible group attendees, the opportunity to talk about Christianity offers a refuge from the constant media spotlight which surrounds the Tour.
“It gives me peace about my days,” Johnson said of his faith.
“If I have a bad day, it’s irrelevant; if I have a good day frankly it’s irrelevant. My scorecard is irrelevant. The best part is when I get here and I can see my family.
“I think a lot of us Christians out here like to utilize our platform and witness what is important in our faith. If anything I would like to witness when I have a bad day, that’s really what it boils down to.”
The bond between members of the Bible group remains strong, with each week offering a new opportunity to discuss a religious tenet.
And as the word spreads, the group’s attendance figures are growing with the next generation of players fiercely proud of their religious faith.
“If you look at it from a sheer numbers stand point of view, you think ‘Wow maybe that God thing is working’ because there are so many believers on Tour,” added Crane, who regularly discusses religion with his 105,000 followers on Twitter.
“I think it’s because there are so many ups and downs with the game of golf and guys that have been out here for five to 10 years, and all of a sudden you expect to play a certain way.
“Those expectations are very hard to deal with. When you first come out on Tour you’re extremely nervous, you want to do well and your identity is so much wrapped up in how you play and that’s how other people see you.
“You think that’s how people like you, based on your performance, and with my relationship with Christ I get relief from that.”