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Golf as a religion, spiritual discipline

BY TERRY MATTINGLY Published: October 4, 2011
If golf is a religion, then the smell of freshly mown Bermuda grass is the incense that drifts through its rituals.

For golfers this is the smell of "eternal hope" that they can start over, according to the stressed-out young pro whose story drives the novel "Golf's Sacred Journey: Seven Days in Utopia," by sports psychologist David Cook.

"Each time a golfer steps to the first tee surrounded by this tantalizing fragrance he stands at even par," muses Luke Chisholm. "We all own par on the first tee. Hope is eternal. It's on the 18th green that one has to face the music."

Death, of course, is the ultimate 18th green.

Which is why Chisholm ends up -- now in a mainstream movie -- kneeling at an empty grave in Utopia, Texas, trying to decide what epitaph he wants on his blank tombstone. Viewers who know anything about cinematic tales of redemption will not be surprised to learn that Robert Duvall plays the wise Southern sage who, with seven days of wisdom, helps save this young man's soul and his golf game.

It's the kind of scene that would have occurred in "The Legend of Bagger Vance" -- if the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association had made that golfing parable.

The bottom line is that the independently produced "Seven Days in Utopia" represents another stage in the development of a faith-friendly branch of the movie industry. The film even features the talents of two Academy Award winners: Duvall and Melissa Leo.

In the pivotal graveside scene, Chisholm tries to thank the elderly Johnny Crawford, a golf pro who escaped into ranching. Duvall's character simply points skyward.

"Don't thank me," he says, on a Sunday morning that just happens to be Easter. "Thank him, because God is in all of us. Inside each of us, if you listen, there's a still, small voice of truth leading us, talking to us, and telling you that you can see God's face, feel his presence, trust his love."

The novel's version of this scene is even more blunt, complete with a multi-page sermon on the fateful biblical encounter between Jesus, a proud fisherman named Peter and a large school of fish that had evaded the future apostle's nets all day. Chisholm ends up confessing his sins, including that golf had been his god, and being born again.

It's hard to be that blunt in mainstream theaters. The movie also added some new action scenes, a father-son feud and a hint of a love interest for Chisholm -- a lovely horse whisperer whose story may drive the sequel.

"We wanted a big net in the movie," said Cook.

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