In one memorable strip of Chip Sansom's cartoon, "The Born Loser", Brutus Thornapple educates his son about golf:
"When you hit it to the right, it's called a slice. When you hit it to the left, it's called a hook.
"What's it called when you hit it straight?"
Anyone who's ever played a round of golf can relate. In a sport that is so unforgiving, it is easy to understand why Indiana State University golfer McCall Christopher relies on the same source for success on the course as she does in every other aspect of her life: The grace of God.
I've known the amiable, light-hearted Christopher for two years, watching her smile and crack jokes every Wednesday night at ISU's Christian Student Fellowship. Curious to see whether she could maintain her apparently perpetual good mood in the most frustrating recreational space on the planet, otherwise known as the golf course, I asked her if she'd be up for an interview during a round of golf.
It was a beautiful, unseasonably warm March afternoon when we teed off at Terre Haute's municipal course, Rae Park. After we both dropped it in for a par on the fist hole, I began the interrogation. Some golfers try and put on a poker face in an attempt to gain an edge on their opponent, but Christopher's first answer reveals a transparent confidence mixed with her infectious sense of humor: "You bet I pray when I play. How else do you find a parking spot unless you ask God to provide?"
Though she said it with a laugh, it's hard to rule out divine intervention when a slender 5'8" redhead, wearing a matching polo and skirt, rockets the ball farther down the fairway than most muscle-bound men do. Even more impressive is the repetition of these canon shots, which blast off from every par four and par five tee box. Most players would agree that consistency is the key to golf, and Christopher's mechanics rarely misfire.
Unlike a lot of successful golfers, Christopher didn't start carrying around a set of clubs while she was a toddler. She was a gymnast until middle school when an injury forced her to sit out and reconsider the sport she'd grown up with.
Around the same time, her older brother graduated from high school, leaving her dad looking for a new golf buddy.
Once she started playing, Christopher thought to herself, "Ok, I'm not bad at this. Maybe I can play."
Taking a break from telling her story, Christopher floated a shot in from about 100 yards, nestling the ball to within a couple yards of the hole. I could see where her unassuming confidence came from.
Golfers usually only find that confidence after hours of practice, striving for reliable muscle memory. When players find a swing that works, they hold on to it like a tree trunk in a hurricane. That's why it's so remarkable that after securing a scholarship to play at ISU, Christopher agreed to rework her swing entirely. Such a drastic change is risky and telling not only of Christopher's commitment to improve but also of her trust and respect for Greg Towne, head coach of the school's women's golf team.
Christopher believed Towne knew what was best for her swing, because according to her, "He's probably the best coach in the NCAA." Towne went from working with professional golfers to student athletes because he wanted to have an impact on young people's lives. He certainly succeeded with Christopher.
"He's definitely changed my life," she said. More than a golf guru, Towne also is a man of faith. "It's cool for him to know where I'm coming from," Christopher said. Towne started building their relationship on their shared faith and still uses it to help guide Christopher on the course, even when it requires stretching her beyond her comfort zone.
"I like to be in control, especially in golf, of my future," Christopher said. "He likes to keep me on edge in not knowing what's going to happen."
As far as the way she plays golf, Towne remodeled Christopher's golf swing from the ground up, implementing what she believes is a more organic, efficient method. Using the body's natural movements and strengths, Towne uses the human anatomy to maximize speed and power, culminating in muscle memory that leads to a more consistent game.
Christopher's new swing uses a bit more tilt in the body, as she swings her arms around her spine at a 90-degree angle. She then stripes the ball a long way down the fairway, just like every shot before, making me a believer.
"It takes a lot more education than what some coaches teach â€¦ it's like a mixture of physics and anatomy," Christopher said. When asked about famous swing instructors like Hank Haney who have worked with celebrities such as Charles Barkley, she scoffed: "He's insane. They're all insane."
At this point in the round we're still close-two over after four holes. I can begin to see her competitive side starting to slip out when her usually light, airy laugh has a bit of a bite to it. I know I'm playing a little better than I usually do, and she's just getting loose. I toss her another question as a little distraction, hoping I can gain a few strokes on her.
"What's not to love about being outside? It's not exhausting, so you can play for fun or competition, but I definitely love the competition," she says. That's obvious, after she laughs at my missed attempt at a putt to take the lead.
After that, Christopher had a couple questionable shots-not bad for most people's standard, but not her best-which got us talking about former player, now commentator, Johnny Miller, who once said you have to lose all short term memory to play golf, so that bad shots don't ruin your round.
Christopher does that by keeping the game in perspective. "Sometimes I play with girls, and when they make a bad shot, they just freak out," she said. If she weren't a Christian, though, Christopher also would be susceptible to similar reactions, or worse: "It would drive me crazy, or I might not even be playing â€¦ I would be upset a lot and not know why things happen, but since I know Christ has a plan, I can truly understand how much one round really won't make a difference in my life."
I know she's right, but this round feels like it's going to kill me. After giving up a couple strokes, I start to rush myself a little, and before I know it, three holes later, she's beating me by four strokes.
We have to call the round early because she has another round to play, one that's actually important-a qualifier to see which members of the golf team compete in an upcoming invitational.
On the way back up to the clubhouse, I ask the big question: Will you go pro? "I don't know yet," she said. "I've got a lot of college golf left, but going pro is a dream that I feel isn't too far of a stretch."
Towne, who's no stranger to the world of professional golf, agreed, "McCall has a chance to make a run at a pro career. Being a pro takes a whole new commitment level but is something I think she will embrace."
Towne believes her faith undoubtedly will help her: "I know when you have that faith, it helps you as a person to live up to the standards that Jesus wants us to. Those same standards will always benefit you as an athlete and as a golfer."
Time-in this case just a couple of years-will tell whether or not Christopher will be teeing it up on the LPGA with the best of the best. Until then, she'll take it swing by swing and day by day. Last weekend she did well in the Missouri Valley Conference Championship, finishing tied for thirteenth overall and leading the ISU team to a seventh place finish. But at the end of every tournament, Christopher realizes that God has ultimate control of her life: "He has a plan, and I can't really control that. He is all-powerful. But any success I have had is because He has worked in me and gives me the breath I breathe."