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.