A Golfer's Day With the Master: Spiritual Wisdom From the Fairway
By Dorothy Ederer
Doubleday, 96 pp.

Master Strokes: Spiritual Growth Through the Game of Golf
By Gary D. York and Ken Osness
Tyndale House Publishers, 144 pp.

Father's Day is the signal American holiday: It was invented for the sole purpose of increasing retail sales. Inspired by the creation of Mother's Day in 1914, Father's Day was one of a slew of potential holidays dreamed up by would-be salespeople and merry-makers (Two that lost out: Friendship Day, and the National Confectioners Association's admirable attempt to cut to the chase, Candy Day.) The most influential group pushing Father's Day was the National Association for the Promotion of Father's Day, organized by the Associated Men's Wear Retailers in New York City in 1938. The official slogan the trade group chose to promote the day for dads was, appropriately, "Give Dad Something to Wear."

Despite the heartfelt backing by business interests, Father's Day did not become a national holiday until Richard Nixon signed it into law in 1972--just as second-wave feminism reached its apogee.

The promoters of Father's Day were, historically, dismissive of faith, mostly because of the longstanding identification of the church with the feminine sphere. Early ads for Father's Day gifts featured a tired man lying in bed, surrounded by his family. "Your slippers, Pop," says the obsequious son. "I'll save you money! I won't take a vacation!" says an older daughter. Finally, the most miraculous words of all, from a matronly wife: "Do you wish to play golf or go to church?"

"A Golfer's Day With the Master: Spiritual Wisdom From the Fairway" and "Master Strokes: Spiritual Growth Through the Game of Golf" make Mother's question obsolete. Both meditate on the spiritual lessons that may be learned by taking a long walk with a white ball. They move as gracefully as possible from an invocation of God in the heat of the game, to explore the larger questions that golf--when honestly considered--raises about the nature of life itself.

"Who knows the course of the ball in flight?" asks Ederer, a Dominican nun and avid golfer. Any weekend golfer can tell you the answer: God only knows. "If it goes into the waters, You are there. If it sinks into the sand trap, You are there. If I wander into barren wasteland, even there Your hand shall guide me, to help me score my best." Ederer offers a set of lyrical prayers to inspire the golfer to the consideration of the divine, even in hot pursuit of the hole: "Because You will not allow the ball to go under strange and desolate places, nor will You allow a brand-new ball to sink into muddy waters."

Still, Ederer hopes her readers will keep their priorities straight: "The Divine Master will always be number one, thy family second, and golf third."

For their part, York and Osness treat the game as a Pilgrim's Progress. Each aspect of golf teaches its own important spiritual lesson. Great symbolism can be found in the mulligan, for example. "When it comes to bad shots in life, are there any second chances?... Is there someone in authority who will say, 'Use your mulligan?' You bet there is!" We must not play alone, but work with others: "How many business deals have been struck between golf shots?" Focus on your strengths, not your weaknesses: "Doing so will enable you to press on, play to your strengths, experience fewer bogies--and see more of the pars and birdies God has planned for you."

The spiritual advice in these books is harmless, if banal. (Though at timesgratingly so: Ederer urges gratitude to God for "offering to be our caddie.") But one wonders, Can any leisure activity metamorphose into spiritual metaphors? What's next--"Bowling for Believers, How to Make the Most of Our Gutterballs"? "Indoor Hockey for the Faithful"?

What are we supposed to learn from these guides that can't be learned from reading the Bible, or by talking to our brothers and sisters in our religious communities? By making it seem like playing golf can be a way of attaining spiritual insight, they give people an easy out from the hard work of living a life shaped by faith, making them feel OK about escaping to the green. But in a way, that makes them ideal Father's Day gifties. That saccharine holiday came into existence for the same reason these books did: higher point-of-purchase profits.

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