(Please see Corrections & Amplifications item below.)
In 2006, when a U.S. Ryder Cup team rich in born-again Christians descended on the K Club in Ireland for the biennial matches, the British press published several reports about the team’s conservative leanings, both religious and political. One headline referred to “Saint Tom” in reference to Tom Lehman, the team captain, who wore a bracelet inscribed with the letters W.W.J.D. (“What would Jesus do?”). Another, written by a liberal American journalist, Bruce Selcraig, quoted commentator David Feherty saying: “I think a lot of Europeans find that conservative Christian thing as frightening as conservative Muslims.”
European attitudes toward America have improved slightly since 2006, but this year’s Ryder Cup team, which travels to Celtic Manor in Wales for the Oct. 1-3 event, is no less religious than its predecessor. The captain, Corey Pavin, and several of the players (not to mention Mr. Lehman, who returns as an assistant captain) are born-again Christians. Three of Mr. Pavin’s four discretionary “captain’s picks”âStewart Cink, Zach Johnson and Rickie Fowlerâare regulars at the PGA Tour’s weekly Bible-study sessions. Messrs. Pavin and Lehman are also frequent attendees, along with team members Bubba Watson and Matt Kuchar. (The fourth pick, Tiger Woods, claims Buddhism as his religion.)
No one but stray bloggers has alleged that Mr. Pavin made his decisions based on religionâas golf picks they’re fairly unassailable. But the subject is close to the surface.
“It’s going to be an issue, for sure. The British tabloids will hop on it and hit it hard,” predicted Paul Azinger, the 2008 U.S. Ryder Cup captain and himself a born-again Christian.
Mr. Pavin declined to comment about how or whether his religious beliefs will be a factor in how he captains the team. Through a spokesman, he said it was a private matter.
The Ryder Cup never fails to waken fierce emotions among athletes unaccustomed to being part of a team. The Europeans, who hail from many different nations, have dominated lately. Wounds still fester over an incident which some European players saw as rude and jingoistic: At the 1999 matches at the Country Club in Brookline, Mass., the U.S. team stormed the 17th green after Justin Leonard dramatically holed a 45-foot putt in his singles match against JosÃ© Maria Olazabal, even though Mr. Olazabal still had a putt to tie the match. Mr. Leonard and others apologized, saying they got carried away.
Religion and sports are hardly strangers. Christian devotional gatherings are popular in every professional sports league, including the NFL and Nascar. The PGA Tour version, which has no official connection to the Tour itself, usually meets on Wednesday evenings in a hotel banquet room or private home (sometimes the home of a player) and typically attracts 30 to 50 participants, occasionally up to 100 and occasionally fewer than a dozen, such as at limited-field events. For the past 30 years the sessions have been led by Larry Moody, an Ellicott City, Md.-based minister, or his partner at Search Ministries, Dave Krueger. Rev. Moody, citing a longstanding policy to protect the privacy of those who attend, declined to comment.
“The messages aren’t really Bible study so much as inspirational, on topics like courage and patience,” said Mr. Azinger. “It’s non-denominational, very comfortable, very easy, and anyone is welcomeâwives, caddies, media people, guests, anyone who wants to come. One thing it’s definitely not is an outreach thing.” It’s more like a traveling church for Tour participants who hope to be otherwise occupied on Sunday mornings, the traditional time for church, playing in the final round of that week’s event.
For most secular outsiders, these private Wednesday devotionals aren’t much of an issue. What some find irksome. though, are postvictory comments thanking God or Jesus. After Zach Johnson won the 2007 Masters, he said, “Being Easter, my goal was to glorify God, and hopefully I did that today.”
Some European media outlets made cracks. “Another American winner, another sermon,” said the Times of London. The Daily Telegraph wrote: “…[S]tatements suggesting Jesus was there at his shoulder and therefore not ‘looking after’ the other 60 competitors seem a tad presumptuous.” The complaint is that Christians consider themselves somehow special.
“I know that’s the message that comes across sometimes,” said Mr. Lehman by telephone this week. “To be told you’re somehow missing something, or inferior, or that somebody else is more favored than you, that can be really aggravating and infuriating. It’s perceived as arrogance or pride. But I don’t know anybody who intends to make that impression.”
From my experience as someone who grew up in an evangelical Christian home but has lived most of his adult life in a secular milieu, one of the most unfathomable parts of born-again Christianity for the uninitiated is often the deeply personal nature of believers’ relationship with their God. God is not a vague concept but an everyday, particular presence in their lives. So when a devout Christian athlete thanks God after winning something, it’s not so much of a stretch as it might appear to some.
“Players, no matter what the sport, will thank their coach, their sports psychologist, their wife, their nutritionist, but the minute they get to thanking God, it’s suddenly becomes, ‘Uh-oh, that’s taboo.’ But it shouldn’t be, because God is there for them that way,” said Mr. Lehman. Nevertheless, it weirds a lot of people out.
As Ryder Cup captain in 2006, Mr. Lehman said he organized no formal Christian activities for the team and avoided expressly religious references in his motivational remarks to the team. “To me, the Ryder Cup is not the time or the place for that kind of thing,” he said. Rev. Moody was around and available to individuals, but he did not address the team. Separately, the late golf legend Byron Nelson, an accomplished woodworker, made a small wooden keepsake for each player with a verse from Psalms on one side. And a few players independently had Christian fish symbols on their bags. The U.S. team lost in 2006, 18Â½ to 9Â½.
In 2008, at the Ryder Cup matches at Valhalla in Kentucky, Mr. Azinger similarly did not invoke religion. “There were no prayers or moments of silence. There was no need for that. That’s not the captain’s responsibility. He’s there to organize things and take the pressure off the players and then to get out of the way,” Mr. Azinger said. The pod structure that Mr. Azinger instituted, dividing the team into three four-man groups based on Navy Seal practices, helped produce a 16Â½-to-11Â½ American upset win.
Mr. Pavin’s captain’s picks were logical. Mr. Woods, whose game appears to be coming around despite another over-par round Friday at the BMW Championship, was a no-brainer. Messrs. Cink and Johnson, both experienced Ryder Cup hands, have been playing superb golf recently and will add stability to a U.S. team with five Ryder Cup rookies (Messrs. Watson, Fowler and Kuchar, Dustin Johnson and Jeff Overton).
The 21-year-old Mr. Fowler, despite ranking only 20th on the Ryder Cup points list, brings enthusiasm, personality and five top-10 finishes this year, as well as a 7-1 match play record in amateur Walker Cup competitions. He also marks his golf balls with “4:13,” for a verse in Philippians: “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.”
Corrections & Amplifications
Larry Moody of Search Ministries is a minister based in Ellicott City, Md. An earlier version of this column incorrectly said he was based in Richmond, Va.
—Email John Paul at firstname.lastname@example.org