Part Four: 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.

 

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