Lost Dreams and Arguments
How is it possible for a guy to be a committed follower of Jesus like I was for thirty-six years and still miss out on the life offered to him through Christ? For me, the explanation goes back to my childhood. I grew up in Indiana, a Baby Boomer in the heartland. But my boyhood didn’t look much like Leave It to Beaver or anything else on TV in those days.
My dad came back from World War II and, like many of the guys from the Greatest Generation, he had to find a job. He had a background and great interest in music and the arts, but during the postwar boom, sales offered a better way to feed a growing family, so my dad became a road warrior—gone Monday through Friday, calling on customers all over the state, then coming home on the weekends. In later years, I would come to understand a little bit of his resentment at never having a chance to pursue his dreams. As Dad put it, he never got the breaks.
Over the years, to stick a band-aid on his inner hurts, he started drinking. He spent the majority of his time at home in some stage of intoxication. Unfortunately, liquor didn’t mellow Dad out; it just made him meaner.
I was the oldest of three boys, so during the week I was pretty much the man of the house, as far as my mom and brothers were concerned. That also meant that on the weekends, when Dad was home, I became the focal point for his resentment of his lot in life. I grew up feeling that nothing I did suited him. I just couldn’t measure up, somehow. I was lazy, or dumb, or too slow bringing in the newspaper, or whatever. There was never any physical abuse, but his words cut me like a whip. He was verbally abusive of me, my mom, and my brothers.
I remember that our house had these walls made of knotty pine, but at night, my brothers and I could hear Dad arguing with Mom in the kitchen, through the walls. His voice would get angrier and louder as the night wore on into the wee hours, and the hot shame of his accusations came right through the walls and into me.
The one thing we didn’t dare to do was leave our rooms to go in and ask him to ease off. I used to wonder what horrible thing might happen if I actually tried to stand up to him. The prospect was too awful to think about, so I never did it, and my younger brothers certainly didn’t. Dad would tie into Mom about me: Why is Wally so messed up? Why can’t he do anything right? How come nobody around here is on my team? And on and on—it got to seem like a broken record.
My mom would try to defend me, but Dad would just crank up the volume. A few times, it got so loud that my brothers and I would sneak out our bedroom windows to go sleep at the neighbors’. I remember once or twice, Dad stomped out of the house in a rage, and we locked the door behind him. He came back with a sledgehammer and started yelling that he was going to break the door down. Somebody called the police on him and the squad cars arrived, lights flashing, to put an end to the embarrassing and frightening spectacle.
I don’t ever remember my dad apologizing for any of it, either. In fact, nobody ever mentioned the episodes—ever. I guess it was supposed to be like it never happened. But the damage wreaked inside me was real. Why am I so messed up? What’s wrong with me? The questions ground at my insides, day after day, but I couldn’t find any answers. Eventually, just to survive, I learned to shut my emotions down. I tried to make myself not care. The trouble with repressed anger and guilt, though, is that it’s like radioactive waste. It just lies there, sometimes for decades, waiting for a chance to leak out of its container.
In the meantime, what I felt was this burning need inside to prove to him that I was okay—and somehow, redeem myself. I would show him that I could be somebody he was proud of. Most of us will do just about anything to meet those deepest longings for significance and security. Mine was tethered to performance.
Saved by Golf?
My dad had been a pretty good baseball player in his day, and I inherited his athletic ability. In the early years, before the corporate entertainment aspect of his career began (and the heavy drinking and chain-smoking that went with it), Dad got me interested in golf and baseball. We had probably twenty kids in the neighborhood who were close to my age, and there was always some kind of game going on: baseball, football, what have you. In the winter, when it was too cold to play ball, we got together with our baseball cards and had tournaments—I guess it was the low-tech forerunner of fantasy baseball.
I also spent a lot of time wandering in the woods near our house. Looking back, it seems to me that I was out there searching for something—or someone—to believe in. I think that in some way, I was searching for God. I sure know I needed Him.
There was also a little nine-hole Elks Club golf course about a long par five away from our house near Indian Lake Country Club, and as I walked through the cornfields around the course, I would find balls that golfers had sprayed off the fairway and never found. I learned that I could stand at the fences lining the fairways and sell the balls to golfers for a dime or a quarter apiece. I was always looking for a way to make a buck in those days; that included everything from trapping muskrat and minks in the winter to selling fishing worms in the summer. But selling golf balls seemed like a lot more fun, so I started spending more and more time around the golf course. Eventually, I became friends with some of the golfers. I started caddying, and I guess that was when I started getting hooked on the game.
I got to know Duke Dupree, the club champion, and started caddying for him. For some reason—I suppose it was God’s grace—this man saw something worthwhile in me. It was the first time an adult male had ever acted like he believed in me, and it was like somebody had given me an oxygen mask. I started getting serious about golf. Eventually, I became the number-one caddie at the Highland Country Club, an exclusive club on the other side of town. I got the best bags, followed the top players in our area, and really started to get a feel for the game. I played a ton of junior golf tournaments in those days, and I thrived on the competition.
Even then, though, I wasn’t free of the burden my dad had placed on my shoulders. As I committed myself to concentrating on golf in high school—eventually winning an individual state championship and a partial scholarship to the University of Florida—I remember thinking, “If I get good enough and win enough tournaments and maybe get a full ride, Dad has to admit I’m worth something.” I put more pressure on myself to excel, to succeed—to prove to my dad he was wrong about me.
That just never seemed to work.
I remember coming back home one summer from college, driving on Sunnyside Road toward our house. There was a covered bridge near the last turn, and I was telling myself, “This summer, I’m not going to blow it. I’m going to change, get better, and Dad is going to notice.” But in Dad’s mind, the deck was always stacked against me. It might go something like this: “Wally, why aren’t you out there playing in tournaments? You’ve got a big scholarship at Florida; you should be playing, keeping up your game during the summer.” So, I’d enter some tournaments. Then, after awhile, he’d say, “Wally, what are you doing, playing golf all the time, you little prima donna? You think life is some kind of game? You’d better get a job that pays money, get out and do some real work.” So, I got a construction job—at a local golf course, naturally—thinking that would make him happy.
“Wally, what’s wrong with you? You’re on a golf scholarship at Florida! What the ______ are you doing? Get out there and get in some tournaments. Keep up your game.”
There was no way to win.
The cruel irony is, my dad really did take pride in my accomplishments. Years after he died, I ran into some of his old customers—the people he was with during the week, when he wasn’t at home. Nearly every one of them told me essentially the same thing: “Wally, your dad was always talking about you. He was so proud of you.” Even though he could tell them, somehow he could never tell me. An even greater tragedy is that through the years, I have found out that I was not alone in this experience. I can’t tell you how many other men my age confided in me that they went through the same heartbreaking experience as I did. So many of us spend our whole lives working hard to receive the affirmation that never comes, only to find out too late that the person we most wanted to please had already loved us all along. But the damage has already been done: the cycle of performance has begun, and its momentum courses through our lives with greater force than we can see.
Meeting Jesus . . . By Accident
For years, people have told me I have more energy than anybody they’ve ever seen. It’s true: left to my own devices, I can go from one project to another, one tournament to another, one coaching session to another, one event to another—never looking around, never pausing, never stopping to reflect or question or savor the moment. Like a kid on a merry-go-round, stretching and reaching as hard as he can for the brass ring so he can get another free ride, I never enjoyed one moment of the ride itself.
I developed an incredible work ethic over the years because I was so driven to succeed—and so fearful of failing. At some point, I suppose, it was no longer about convincing my dad I was worth something; it became about convincing myself. As a result, I had a relentless need to prove myself, to always get better. My college coach, Buster Bishop, has mentored some of the greatest players in the game and became a coaching legend. But thirty or so years after he’d coached me, at a University of Florida fundraising tournament in Gainesville, Coach Bishop said, “Army”—that was his nickname for me—”I’ve coached a lot of players, but nobody ever worked harder than you.”
He was right.
In college, I would play and practice golf for as many hours in the day as possible and would finish up by playing the first three holes on the back nine. The 12th hole came back to the clubhouse, and after putting out I would lie on my back and watch the sun go down. I guess it was because on the golf course, I could convince myself I was somebody. It was the place I came closest to having self-worth.
But I didn’t spend 100 percent of my time on the course. There was another side that I didn’t let Coach Bishop see: the frat party boy who drank a little too much and made a few other choices that weren’t so healthy. I led a double life. On the one hand, I was the All-American golfer, the leader in student government and the athletic council, the go-to guy in the lettermen’s club. On the other hand, a big chunk of my life was out of control. I didn’t really know what was going on. I was just trying to keep moving ahead until somehow I figured out what life was really about.
I was good at projecting an image, though—a skill I learned as the child of an alcoholic. When you’re an alcoholic’s kid, you become a human doing instead of a human being. You learn how to keep a good face and blend in, because all your significance is wrapped up in performance and the favorable opinions of others.
Then during my senior year, it happened.
I was captain of the team, and all-American honors were within my grasp—only a few tournaments away. But I injured my back and missed a couple of tournaments, which seemed to me like the end of the world. I was asking a lot of questions, like “Why is this happening to me?” I just wanted to get back to the life I knew so I could go after the goals I’d set.
While I was recuperating from the injury, I heard about some religious meetings some athletes were holding in the athletic dorms across the street from the Pike frat house where I lived, so I thought maybe I’d just slip over there and have a look. I guess the questions about my life I’d been asking since the injury made me think it was a good idea to find out about religion. I’d always been kind of curious about religion anyway, after studying religion in some of my humanities classes, and—I hate to admit it—I also had the thought that involvement in a religious organization would look good on my resume.
The first couple meetings went pretty well. I didn’t say much and just played the role. I must have really pulled the wool over their eyes pretty convincingly, though, because after just two meetings they asked me if I wanted to become an officer. I figured this came about because they knew I was involved in leadership with other organizations. And like a good, All-American guy, I said, “Sure, if you think I can help.”
I got the absolute shock of my life: they appointed me chaplain! Of course, I was too proud to say no. I’ve told people before that I think I was probably the first chaplain who literally didn’t have a prayer. My hand was called big time, and I was holding just about nothing. No kidding, the very next week I was supposed to lead a devotion, and I was frantically scouring the campus newspaper and bulletin boards for information on religious meetings, because I had no idea what I was supposed to do or say.
Luckily for me, we had a guest speaker for our next meeting: a law student from Jacksonville named Ander Crenshaw, who went on to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. Ander was a dynamic speaker; he talked as if Jesus Christ was a real, living presence inside him. It was almost like a light was shining out of his face. I was a chaplain wandering in the dark, so he had my full attention. I followed him to his next speaking engagement, which was for Campus Crusade. Before the night was over, I had made a decision, as best as I knew how, to accept Christ and to start a relationship with Him.
I was going to follow Christ.
To Golf or Not to Golf?
After college I decided to get a master’s degree, with the idea that I might become a golf coach. Now that my life belonged to Jesus, continuing as a player and potentially going out on tour never was an option in my mind. It just didn’t seem like a very good thing to do. I’d been a part of the party scene, after all, and the drinking and swearing that went on in the circles I’d been in didn’t seem appropriate for a guy who wanted to live a faithful life. I wanted to have a positive impact on young players.
After the NCAA tournament my senior year, I quit playing. That summer, I went to a Campus Crusade summer program in San Bernardino with three other guys from our Crusade group at Florida. It was an amazing experience to be with 500 other college students from all over the country who had made the same decision to follow Christ that I had. I started to get a picture of what it would be like to dedicate my life to reaching people for Christ.
I remember that at one gathering, a girl stood up and said, “Jesus died for me—the least I can do is live for Him.” That statement really rattled my cage, and my performance instincts kicked into high gear. I was still a human doing, but now I was going to be doing everything for God! I was going to show God how good I could be at winning this faith game! Sadly, I became determined to prove my worth to God and win his approval. It would be decades before I would learn that I already had it.
When I got back to campus that fall, my life was wrapped up in graduate school and sharing Christ on campus every day. This was during the late ‘60s, and it was a wild time on campus, with all the demonstrations and sit-ins and what have you. Our Crusade group quickly grew to over a hundred, and golf was completely out of my life—forever, I thought.
But God had other plans, as I would soon learn.
That next spring, I was invited by Bob Norwood, a Campus Crusade for Christ staff member, to come down to Orlando and share my three-minute testimony with the members of the Rollins College and Stetson University golf teams. They were meeting at the home of fellow Gator and PGA Tour star Dave Regan. Dave had been runner-up to Jack Nicklaus in the 1963 PGA Championship and was a member of the prestigious Ryder Cup team. He had recently made a decision to follow Christ and was now reaching out to younger golfers.
My three minutes ran into forty-five; I started pouring out my heart to those guys and I couldn’t stop. But even more important was what happened after the meeting. Dave pulled me aside and said, “Wally, you don’t have to give up the game. In fact, maybe you can use golf as a way to witness for Christ, like you just did to these players.” I’d never thought about it that way.
A little later, Dave asked me to come out on tour with him and caddie for him, starting with a tournament in North Carolina. When I got there, he said, “You know, Wally, we’ve got a Bible study out here.” On the tour? I couldn’t believe it. But I went with Dave, and Gary Player was there, and a few other guys. I was blown away. I’d never imagined that it was possible to combine an active faith with being on the PGA Tour.
After the meeting, Dave talked to Gary Player and said, “Wally’s a new believer like you, Gary, and he’s out here caddying for me. You think he could ever get a shot at working your bag?”
Gary had a longtime caddie, and he told Dave there just wasn’t an opening right then. I understood. After all, he was one of the top players in the game at the time—in the “Big Three” with Palmer and Nicklaus—and he’d never even seen me work, so he just couldn’t take the risk. However, Gary and Dave just happened to be paired together three times that tournament, so he got to watch me working with Dave.
The next week, the Tour moved to Dallas’s Preston Trail Country Club. I rode my thumb to New Orleans, then jumped on a $35 flight to Love Field in Dallas. At the airport, a rookie pro I knew spotted me at the airport and motioned me into the courtesy car he was getting into. As a caddie, I wasn’t really supposed to ride in the courtesy car, but he said, “You’re carrying a pro bag; nobody knows you’re not a player. Just get in.”
When we got to the club, Dave Regan happened to be coming around the corner of the building as I was getting out of the car. We started talking, and before I knew what happened, somebody had taken my luggage into the players’ locker room. Dave said, “Let’s go in there and get some lunch.”
I protested, “But I’m not supposed to go in there, Dave! I’m a caddie.”
But Dave insisted, so I went in. The next thing I knew, I was eating lunch with Dave, golf great Byron Nelson, and commentator Chris Schenkel. Arnold Palmer was sitting at the next table. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.
Then Gary Player came into the room and motioned at Dave. Dave went and talked to him, then hurried back to the table and said, “Wally, you’ll never believe this. Gary’s caddie was called back to New York, where he lives; his wife is ill. Gary wants to know if you can take his bag. You need to go for it, Wally!”
It was my second week on the PGA Tour, and I was caddying for one of the top three players in the game! I figured I’d probably used up a lifetime of good luck, but things were just going to get better.
During my last week of caddying for Gary, I specifically remember him encouraging me to become a PGA Tour player and use that as a platform for sharing my faith in Christ. It was the same encouragement Dave Regan had made to me two months earlier in Orlando. Gary said, “Wally, you ought to be playing the Tour. If you want to be an influence for Christ, there will be a lot more doors opened to you as a player than as an outsider.”
One of the greatest players on tour had just told me I had what it took to be on the PGA circuit! Try and imagine how that felt to a guy who had lived his entire life as one long attempt to prove to somebody he was worth something. Not only that, but when I got back home to Indiana about three weeks later, waiting for me was a brand-new bag, a set of clubs, balls, and gloves—all sent to me by Gary Player. If the words “PGA Tour” had appeared in the sky, I wouldn’t have been any surer of what I was supposed to do.
On the Performance Treadmill Again . . . for God
So, my problems were solved, right?
Sure, I still had my Army service to get through (I was in ROTC at Florida), but God handled that pretty neatly too. Get this: on my very first day at Fort Bliss in El Paso, I went out to the golf course to play some golf, and a gentleman who just happened to be on the board of governors for the Fort Bliss golf course was on the first tee and asked me to join him. His name was Colonel Floyd.
After a couple holes I mentioned to Colonel Floyd that I had been an assistant pro at the University of Florida golf course during my master’s degree, and he informed me that the Fort Bliss military base was one of just a handful of nonappropriated golf facilities managed by an officer. This course, in other words, was run like a country club. He further informed me that the lieutenant in charge of the golf facility just received orders for Vietnam. Colonel Floyd asked if I would work as that man’s assistant for a few weeks and then take over for him after he was shipped out.
So, for my next eighteen months in the Army, instead of wearing a uniform, I wore slacks and a golf shirt and reported for duty every day at the golf course! On top of that, I met my wife, Debbie, while I was stationed in El Paso. And as if all that weren’t enough, before the end of my stint, I’d met a retired colonel who wanted to sponsor me on the PGA Tour.
I was beginning to see how Dave Regan’s foresight was playing out. I could really see God’s hand orchestrating things that were beyond all odds.
That fall, I went to the PGA Tour regional qualifying school in Quincy, Illinois, and then to the national qualifying tournament in North Palm Beach, but I missed the cut by about seven spots. The next year, in Napa, California, I missed by three.
But I decided to try one more time.
After a year of playing mini-tours in Florida with guys like Mark Hayes, Joe Inman, and Gil Morgan—sometimes three 36-hole tournaments in a week!—I finished fifth at the national qualifying tournament. I was a card-carrying PGA Tour professional!
Debbie and I had, in the meantime, been through staff training with Campus Crusade. I was all set to pursue my destiny: I would be playing the PGA Tour, and I was mentally equipped and eager to be an ambassador for Jesus Christ.
What else could I possibly want?
Well, while God certainly did open up a lot of doors for me on the Tour, looking back, I now realize that I had, in many ways, only exchanged one set of personal strivings for another. Reaching people for Jesus is a wonderful goal, certainly, but inside me, not that much had changed in any fundamental way: I was still grimly determined to try harder, go longer, and overcome all obstacles in my path. In other words, my life was all about what I needed to do, instead of what Christ had already done.
Now, don’t mistake me. God can use even a type-A overachiever like me to accomplish his will. Nor is there any question in my mind that I was saved. If receiving God’s gift of grace is dependent upon our perfectly understanding and living out its implications, none of us has any hope whatsoever. But remember what Jesus said? “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest … My yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30). He also said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10 NIV). I hadn’t found that rest or light burden or full life Jesus talked about yet.
In fact, I was so busy doing things for Jesus that I hardly had any time left over to just be with Him. And for a long time, I didn’t know any better. I thought that was the way it was supposed to be. The truly good news indeed is, “Jesus paid it all,” but the way I was living, my version would have run something like, “and now you get to pay Him back.”
The worst part of all this, as I now realize, is that I had taken the image of my father—impossible to please, always seeing the wrong in me, no way I could measure up—and had somehow hung a “God” sign on him. I was getting my significance from all the things I was doing for Christ—proving my worth—instead of getting my significance from His relationship with me.
In golf, one of the greatest killers I see is when people try to play the golf swing rather than play golf. They’re so wrapped up in doing their golf swing and trying to put all the pieces together that they forget about trusting their swing and enjoying the round. It’s the same basic trap as “doing” religion: people striving so hard to be Christians that they forget that it’s not about what we do for God but about his desire for us to simply walk with him and play the game of life with freedom.
The fact is, placing anything at the center of your life other than your relationship with Christ is the same thing as serving a false god. And that’s exactly what I was doing.
Hitting the Wall
The trouble with a false god—even if your false god is named “working for Jesus”—is that at some crucial point in your life, its powerlessness becomes obvious. For me, the power gap showed up in my marriage.
This was in the late 1970s. I was playing the Tour and doing pretty well. During my time on the PGA Tour, I was a consistent leader, usually in the hunt on Sunday. In my rookie year, I finished fifth in the Masters at eight under par—setting what is still the rookie scoring record at Augusta.
In my career I had three second-place finishes, and in one year alone I finished in the top ten in six tournaments, finishing 42nd on the money list with a walloping total of $62,000. It’s hard to even think about how much that would be in 2009 dollars! On the spiritual side, I was leading Bible studies, doing the publicity for them, and speaking at an average of at least one Bible study or church service every single week.
But my heart was still full of anger, self-resentment, and guilt. The radioactive waste was leaching through the container. I was telling everybody about the richness of life in Jesus, but my heart was rapidly approaching bankruptcy.
Despite all I was doing and how together I looked on the outside, I was still a mess inside—and that’s the sort of thing you can’t hide from a spouse, no matter how good you look to everybody else.
Eventually, though, the fractures in my life did start to show to other people. For one thing, I had a very competitive, complaining attitude on the course, and my expectations ran way ahead of my performance. That, in turn, brought to the surface a lot of self-hatred and condemnation. As a result, I was struggling on the golf course, and my marriage was stressed out. Thank God, some of the faithful players on the tour could see that things weren’t going well in my marriage, and they turned to Jim Hiskey—the unofficial “chaplain” of the Tour and one of my earliest mentors—to speak with me about it.
I’ll never forget it. It was in Palm Springs, just before the first tournament of the year. Jim and I had been busy at our usual tasks: planning the Bible studies for the year, figuring out who should speak, strategizing about players we wanted to reach out to.
We drove back to the condominium we were staying in, and Jim gave me a purposeful look. ”Wally,” he said, “if there was one player on the Tour who, if he were to completely sell out 100 percent to Jesus in all of his life—his commitment to his family, his walk with God, everything—and that one guy enabled us to reach the whole Tour for Christ, who do you think that player would be?”
I remember thinking “Arnold Palmer,” but what I said was, “Jack Nicklaus—or Tom Watson, maybe. Who is it, Jim?”
Jim looked at me and he said, “It’s Wally Armstrong.”
Then tears started rolling down his face. You see, even as he was seeking to confront me about the problems in my life, Jim realized that he, too, was caught in the trap of “doing things for Jesus” instead of “being known by Jesus.” We wept together and made ourselves accountable to each other, promising to get help with our marriages, commit to quiet time with God, and invest ourselves in a closer, more personal study of the Bible.
It was a huge insight for me, and the momentum of the realizations that Jim and I shared that evening carried me through the rest of my years as an active PGA Tour player and even today, thirty years later. That night, Jim and I both realized that you must always reach yourself for Christ first before you go out and try to reach others. You can only bring others to the level you are at yourself.
God Breaks In
Then the day came, as it does eventually for all players, no matter how great, when I just couldn’t keep up the pace required to stay on the Tour. In 1984, I lost my card and was faced with the prospect of figuring out what to do with the rest of my life. I wasn’t in the limelight anymore, which was a tough adjustment, and I still had a family to provide for.
So once again, I threw myself into my old pattern. I charged ahead, developing seminars, producing golf instruction videos and teaching aids, speaking at golf and fundraising events, and getting involved with lots of different ministries. I was still committed to reaching people for Christ through golf, but it wasn’t too many years until I had begun to sink again into the same feelings of fatigue, frustration, and the sense of missing something in my life that was really important. At a very basic level, I was still trying to win God’s approval by “doing everything right.”
Because of my never-ending internal need to succeed, after leaving the Tour I participated in over 500 golf outings, produced over twenty golf instructional videos, wrote six books, participated in numerous television shows, created a line of junior golf clubs for Titleist, and, along with a friend, created the equipment and game for the national school golf programs of the U.S., Japan, and Scotland—and those are just a few of the major activities.
You see, I was totally caught up by the need to maintain a torrid pace of performance and achievement. Through it all, I always felt that these involvements were just platforms to become the best that I could be, and I really wanted to use those platforms to reach people for Christ—that’s always been the main theme of my life.
Yet something was always missing. Within my frantic pace of life and faith-based activities, there was still a restless, unsatisfied quest for the truth.
And then, in the winter of 2004, while I was in the midst of working on a pamphlet designed to help golfers share their faith with others, God gave me one of the greatest gifts of my lifetime. He led me, through the words of a turn-of-the-twentieth-century English Methodist minister, to make the experiment that would completely transform everything about my life.
He led me to begin the chair experiment.
It is a gift I will never fully be able to thank him for. It has brought me into the fullness of life and companionship with Jesus that he had always promised but I’d never before been able to find. Now, once God broke in and led me to try the chair experiment, I finally found it.