Six years without a victory did not change Steve Jones. His first public remarks after he won the U.S. Open on Sunday paid homage to a higher power. "First of all," he told a television reporter on the 18th green, "I just thank the Lord Jesus Christ...." And then, "Even with God on my side, I was still pretty nervous."
His words drew cheers from the still-crowded grandstands. But in seminaries, convents and temples across the land, the response was probably more restrained. The Jesus of the Bible, after all, spent most of his time ministering to losers. The Messiah was conspicuously absent from the luxury boxes and winners' circles of imperial Rome.
Not that those golf fans in suburban Detroit who sprinted from their places of worship to reach Oakland Hills Country Club before Jones teed off were making a spiritual statement with their cheers. They were merely honoring Jones, a clean-cut champion with a humble manner, a helpmate wife and two adorable children. We like it when good things happen to good people. Heaven knows, it occurs infrequently enough.
Still, there's no getting rid of this notion that God picks winners. Jones was well-known, before a motorcycle accident interrupted his career in 1991, for making it sound as if Jesus were reading his putts for him. But if God, and not Jones, deserved credit for winning the 1989 Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, whose fault was it when Jones missed the cut the year before? Or blew a lead? And, really, were we supposed to believe that Jones's victory in the 1989 Canadian Open proved that it was God's plan for him to play tournament golf? Instead of, say, filling the rice bowls of starving children in Somalia?
It's not as if one has to labor to find evidence that God plays no favorites. The championship ring goes so often to the wife-beater, the cokehead, the adulterer and the cheat. Consider this: The All-Pro pass receiver of our Super Bowl champion team has been indicted for possessing drugs. The star of our national championship college football team dragged his girlfriend by the hair down a flight of stairs. The newly crowned NBA champs have a captain with a gambling jones, a forward with a thing for cross-dressing and a coach with New Age beliefs that would dismay a Sunday school teacher.
You think golf is different? Not by Christian Coalition standards. The current Masters champion, Nick Faldo, won at Augusta just months after leaving his wife and children to take up with an American coed. The reigning British Open champ, John Daly, is on his third marriage and has struggled with alcohol abuse, compulsive gambling and domestic violence. If moral rectitude is a prerequisite for golfing success, someone hasn't gotten the message.
Clearly, Jones didn't intend for his "God's on my side" remark to be taken for arrogance. Neither did he mean to slight Davis Love III and Tom Lehman, who tied for second. Lehman, in fact, shares Jones's Christian convictions and is a regular at the Bible study meetings held every Wednesday at PGA Tour stops. But Lehman conveys his faith without proselytizing. When asked what he thinks about on the golf course, Lehman may respond, "Joshua 1:9, all day"—as he did on Saturday after shooting a course-record 65. But Lehman is careful not to confuse his spirituality with his golf skills. "By studying the Bible," he says, "I have the faith to be calm. I can allow myself to be still in trying situations."
Put simply, his faith has helped him keep his once volatile temper under control. That self-control, in turn, makes Lehman a better golfer—"a winner"—but not necessarily God's chosen golfer. Other athletes derive similar benefits from meditation, bio-feedback and hobbies like fishing or gardening.
That is the distinction Jones needs to make the next time he wins a tournament. His God may indeed be at his side when he wins. ("Be strong and of good courage; be not afraid. Neither be thou dismayed: for the Lord thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest."—Joshua 1:9)
But the Lord his God careth not whether Steve Jones winneth.