NOT JUST A FIGUREHEAD
By Stan Utley
I love golf. I want to always play it. Probably, you know just how I feel.
When I left college to head for the Tour, people asked me, "How long are you going to play this golfing deal?" I thought, Well, how long can you play the
Senior Tour? I mean, when is it supposed to end? 65?
All that said, somewhere along the line, life got in the way. And honestly, I'm glad it did.
When I was going to college at the University of Missouri, I met my wife, Elayna, at a birthday party. We dated for a four or five years, and I knew quite well what I
had on my hands. Elayna had a good understanding of business and a lot of ambition.
But when we got married, Elayna took a leave of absence to see if she liked the traveling lifestyle. She never went back. When I lost my PGA Tour card in 1992 and
decided to play the Nike Tour (now the Buy.com Tour), she got her real estate license and sold houses for awhile, but once our first child came along, Elayna stopped working again.
All this should have been a big hint for me. At 40 years old, with my wife's full approval, I've sold my house, packed our belongings into a storage unit, and we've
hit the road. Four of us, bopping along in a Suburban filled to the top of the cartop carrier. I'm experiencing my mid-life adventure, you might say, and my family's along for the ride.
In a way it's strange that this is the year we have chosen to do all this, because this has been my most incredible year in golf. And the key to it all has been
putting golf lower and lower on my priority list.
You may have heard something of my story before. My good friend, Dr. David Cook, tells it an awful lot. In 1989, I arrived at the Chattanooga Classic as an unknown. I
had not even qualified to play the PGA Tour regularly. Yet there I was on Sunday afternoon with a chance to win and just two holes to play. Still, I was going to need two birdies.
I made birdie at 17 and hit it close on the last hole. I needed a 12-foot putt to win. I stood over that putt and thought about the best things in my life. Before I
took the putter back, I said in my mind, "God loves me, my wife loves me, and my family loves me. How hard can a 12-foot putt be?"
Then I made the putt.
So for a long time, I have known that golf was not meant to be the most important thing in my life. But this year I had taken a serious look at the part golf played in
In the past, I would travel for three weeks, playing competitively. When I came home, it would take three days to let go, to get the golf off of me, you might say.
With my kids growing to where they could really understand me, I didn't want it to be that way.
I was also growing more and more aware that tournament golf is a pretty unreliable way to make a living. It's nice that we get the opportunity to travel and stay in
some nice places, but while the outflow of money is guaranteed, the inflow is not. For my family's sake, I knew that I needed to do something that would assure us a more regular income.
When I looked at what I had to offer that could create a steady cashflow, I kept coming back to golf. After all, isn't this what God had best equipped me to do? More
specifically, hadn't He given me an excellent short game?
For years in fact, I had shared some of my knowledge about chipping and putting with my friends and people I played with, even others on tour. They were always
appreciative, maybe because they knew my reputation as a good short game player, or because it really brought improvement to their own games. Either way, I figured that if club professionals could make a
steady income by teaching, certainly a Tour professional like me could offer a unique and valuable perspective.
Besides, I love to teach. I keep it simple. I mean, how sophisticated can a guy from Southern Missouri really be?
And I have found that people are responding. I have several fathers who have called to tell me that I am literally changing their sons' lives. I'll admit that I
sometimes go beyond the boundaries of chipping and putting to give these young players some instruction in how to treat others and become better people as well as better golfers. When they respond
favorably, I am humbled. But I also get immense enjoyment out of giving away what God has given to me.
So the irony is that my tournament golf has been pretty good this season. I've put it behind my faith and how my wife feels about each decision I make and the needs of
my kids and now even behind this teaching I am doing.
Yet I've come close to winning three times on the Buy.com Tour this season. At the Charity Pro-Am at The Cliffs in April, I needed to close with three pars to win, but
I finished with a nine on the last hole. I'm still not sure of God's plan in that, but it gave me an early dose of confidence that I could still compete with the younger players who are forging their way
onto the scene.
I have enough experience that there's always game in me somewhere, and putting less importance on how I play competitively has actually allowed me to play better this
year. That comes from having the peace to go out there and just whack it and be far less results oriented.
A professional Tour player's life is a scramble as it is. Most people who watch golf on TV get a glimpse of the glamorous side of it. But they are usually watching the
best three or four players in the world each week.
I won't say the rest of us are impoverished. The way we move around the country is nice. But if you drive like us, you'll put a whole lot of miles on your car--we've
totaled nearly 45,000 miles in the Suburban in 18 months--and you'll eat a lot of meals in hole-in-the-wall places.
But the great thing about the Tour, if you take the time to step back and look at it this way, is that even though we go city to city to city, we take our own
community with us each week. In the summer, there may be as many as 20 families traveling, aside from the players, the caddies, and the PGA Tour staff. It's very common for us to be in a strange town way
off somewhere, but you have three people you know in the restaurant just like you'd have back home.
Now, I'll be honest. My daughter, Tatum, is old enough to know that she's missing birthday parties or other events at home in Missouri. But I don't think she is aware
that her friends there are missing many of the experiences she gets by traveling. And with Elayna homeschooling Tatum now, there is so much to see and do that really counts for something.
My whole family receives the support of this traveling community. Last year, some of the wives put together a vacation Bible school for the kids, which they taught one
day a week for the last five or six weeks of the season. And Ralph Howe, who is the chaplain on the Buy.com Tour, does a great job of providing us with spiritual leadership.
The people we meet stand by us, too. It is amazing how many people say, "Hey, I was praying for you." People knew my tee time in Vancouver at the end of
August before I even knew I was in the tournament. They were watching on the computer.
Perhaps this isn't so much of an adventure, then. Not when there is so much support out here. Not when God knows exactly what's next.
We lay out our plans, of course. I had planned all along to play a fairly heavy fall schedule. And by living on the road with no house to return to, we can winter
where we choose, in places where it will be easier for me to teach and work on my game, like San Antonio and Phoenix.
But God may change all that. One win--and I honestly wouldn't be surprised if I did suddenly win--or a top 15 finish at the end of the season on the Buy.com Tour, and
I could find myself back on the big Tour again. I hope I'm prepared if that happens, but I just wouldn't be all that surprised.
He has changed my life before, even all the way back to when I was a kid. Growing up in church, I knew early on what was right and what was wrong. I had been told what
Scripture said about how we were all sinners and needed Christ to gain eternal life. I knew all that, but until I was 15, I white-knuckled the pew, pretty certain that if a car wreck did me in, I
wouldn't be going to heaven. At 15, I acknowledged Jesus as my Savior, and I was baptized. The fear of death was gone.
And He has changed my life more recently. Despite my willingness to tell people that God was first in my life after I won at Chattanooga all those years ago, I really
have been pretty quiet about my faith in Christ. I have always thought, Golf is my platform. But I would say that the only thing I did with that platform was try to walk around and be a good guy. That
didn't always scream, "Jesus!" I'm not sure I really want to scream Him, but I do know that in the last few years I have become more vocal in telling people about Him. I want to walk my faith
and live it. I want people to notice without me having to say a whole lot. I want them to say, "Wow, he's different, and I wonder why."
And then I want to tell them.
This article originally appeared in the Links Letter, October 2002.