Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.
On June 17, Webb Simpson won the U.S. Open golf championship. Webb said: "I prayed more the last three holes than I've ever done in my life." Webb was 26 and had never played in a major tournament before and had never finished higher than fourth place in a significant tournament. He said, "Praying really helped me stay calm." My question is, did Webb cheat?
-- R., via email
I love golf and I love God (of course, not in that order), so I couldn't pass up what I hope is your tongue-in-cheek question. In general, I believe that in a world where there's so much we need to do to help people in real need, it's spiritually infantile to even consider asking God to help us win games. Religious life is about trying, not winning; it's about never giving up on the worthy tasks God has set before us in our lives.
Another problem with praying for victory in a game is that by praying to win, you're also praying for someone else to lose. If, like professional golfers, playing games is what you do for a living, I'm still not on board with praying for divine intervention to help you sink a putt, but I do understand and sympathize with all of us who pray to God for solace, calmness and fortitude when the heat is turned up in our lives. I encourage kids who are active in athletics or involved in academic competitions to pray not for success, but rather for the courage and perseverance to do their best.
Now, let me take a stab at your specific question about whether Webb Simpson cheated by praying during the U.S. Open.
According to The Rules of Golf written and maintained by the USGA and the R&A in St. Andrews, Scotland, we read this under Rule No. 8: 8-1. Advice During a Stipulated Round, a player must not: a) give advice to anyone in the competition playing on the course other than his partner, or b) ask for advice from anyone other than his partner or either of their caddies.
What are we to make of this? Well, if God was understood by Simpson to be his partner (not only in golf, but also during life's journey and beyond the grave), praying to God during the round would seem to be permitted by Rule 8-1b as an act of asking advice from a partner.
The problem here is that partners are not allowed during U.S. Open play! So although asking advice of a partner is not cheating, it is cheating to have a partner in the U.S. Open (particularly a partner who created the universe). Even if a partner were allowed during play, as it is during certain Ryder and Walker and President's Cup matches, it would still violate the Rules of Golf to ask God for advice because it would be asking the advice of a second partner, which is not permitted! The same problem occurs if God is believed to be more like our caddie than our partner. If we believe that God, like a caddie, helps us bear our burdens much as a caddie helps a golfer lift his or her bag and carry it through the course of the round, then asking advice from God could be seen as permitted under rule 8-1b as equivalent to asking advice from a caddie. The problem is that Simpson already had a caddie, and one is not entitled to have two caddies (one to part the Red Sea and one to provide yardages and candy bars).
So it looks like Webb was indeed cheating by praying to God, but not so fast! Who says Simpson was asking God for advice? Perhaps his prayers contained no pleas for advice, help, or victory, but simply offered up to God his heartfelt thankfulness for the blessings of being able to do what he loved; for the blessings of a wife, children and friends who loved him no matter what happened during the competition; and for his health, strength and balance. If those were his prayers, then Simpson was not cheating. His prayers didn't violate the Rules of Golf (which are strangely silent on the permissibility of praising the Lord of the Universe), but rather were an affirmation of the rules of life by which we eventually come to realize that everything is a gift from God.