If you’re a golfer, you may recognize Wally Armstrong as one of the most innovative leaders in golf instruction. Through his long history in golf, Wally has been a caddie, a player, a student of the game, a coach, an author, a speaker, and even an inventor. But so much more than all of that, Wally is a disciple of Jesus Christ who uses golf as his platform to share the Gospel. His life is in the grip of God’s hands, and Wally has purposed to spend his days building friendships through his favorite pastime. Wally explained, “Jesus was our greatest example, our model for the way that we should live and react to life. Jesus shows that friendship is the tool for His life.” To Wally, the golf course is more than a beautiful place to play, but a mission field to bring Christ to the world in his sphere of influence.
LEARNING THE COURSE
Wally grew up in the cornfields of Indiana, just down the road from a nine-hole golf course. As a child, he excelled in sports, including baseball, wrestling, and golf. In his freshman year of high school, Wally joined the varsity golf team. His summers consisted of junior tournaments and caddying. Then in 1963, after winning the high school state championship, Wally moved to Gainesville to attend the University of Florida (UF) on a golf scholarship.
He planned to go on to get his master’s degree and become a college golf coach, as he had no aspirations to play professionally. However, the Lord had plans of His own for Wally. It was during his senior year at UF that something important happened. “I met Christ through the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and also Campus Crusade,” Wally recounted. As Wally entered the graduate program at UF, he focused more on his studies and on sharing Christ with other students through Campus Crusade.
Wally’s graduate fellowship was under Conrad Rehling, who emphasized the use of drills, or golfing exercises, and analogies in his teaching. “I was very inquisitive about how people learn [to play] golf and what was the most effective way to teach golf. I thought it was through mental imagery and associations with other sports,” Wally said. He researched and experimented with various other tools to teach golf. The skills Wally acquired during this season of his life would prove to be invaluable to his later career.
A BOGEY TURNS INTO A BIRDIE
He was then introduced to PGA Tour player Dave Regan who asked Wally to share his testimony with some collegiate golfers. After the meeting, Dave suggested that Wally use the game for Christ. The notion of tying God and golf together had never occurred to him. “Dave said [to me], ‘You should come out on the PGA Tour and caddy for me and you can meet some of the other pros that know Christ,’” Wally recalled. He was blown away that there were actually pro golfers who shared his faith in Jesus, so he agreed and met Dave at a tournament in North Carolina. “I went to a Bible study with Dave and one of the greatest players of all time was there – Gary Player,” Wally explained.
Dave asked Gary if Wally could caddy for him. Gary politely declined because he had a faithful caddie and had never seen Wally caddy before. God did not disappoint though. Wally and Dave were paired with Gary three times during that tournament out of a blind draw, and Gary was able to see Wally caddy. The next tournament was in Dallas. It turned out that Gary’s caddie couldn’t attend, and he asked Dave if Wally could caddy for him. Wally couldn’t believe it. He had the opportunity to not only carry the bag for Gary, a golf legend, but also receive encouragement from him to play on the PGA Tour. Gary advised Wally that he would have a greater impact on golfers for Christ if he was competing at the peak of the golf world.
He caddied for Gary for three tournaments before he got fired. Wally had accidently left bananas in Gary’s bag that ended up spoiling and ruining his rain gear and gloves when he needed them most! Although his caddie career ended, it was just the beginning of his professional career. When Wally returned home there was a big pro bag with clubs, balls, and gloves from Gary. “I thought it was a pretty good sign. He gave me a mulligan – a second chance,” Wally said. It was a sign from God that Wally would play golf professionally.
SERVING GOD ON THE GREEN
Wally realized he wanted to serve the Lord through golf, but first he had another obligation to fulfill. He graduated with his master’s degree in 1968 and had a ROTC commission. He joined the army and was stationed in El Paso, Texas. He met his wife Debbie while visiting the Campus Crusade at the University of Texas, El Paso. They got married in 1970, and for two years, he ran the Army golf course. Wally continued to hone his golf game over the next few years, and it wasn’t until 1973 that he qualified to play on the PGA Tour. One of Wally’s most notable finishes in his career was at the Masters Golf Tournament in Augusta, Georgia when he finished fifth just three strokes behind Gary Player, who won the tournament. Wally set a rookie record of eight under par for the event. “God really did give me a game just to keep me out there for over 300 tournaments with numerous top ten finishes,” Wally said. During his time on the PGA Tour, Wally became one of the leaders in the Bible study that he was introduced to years prior. He had been building relationships with a number of the younger golfers when he played on the minor tours. Over time, the Bible study’s attendees grew to almost 30 golfers and Wally saw some major professional players come to Christ. “That was really my greatest thrill – being able to give more than myself to golf, but to really see that as a mission field. The Lord calls us to use our platform wherever we are,” Wally said. He stayed on the tour until 1985, when it became too hard to play and raise a young family. Before he retired from the Tour, Wally and his wife settled in Maitland, Florida. They have a daughter, Dana, and two sons, Scott and Blake. Today, they have seven grandchildren.
LESSONS FOR THE FAIRWAY
Wanting to spend more time with his children, Wally led a “Dads and Lads” golf day at his church. “My son, Scott, and I put on a demo for everybody, and I pulled out a lot of my crazy props I had from my college days,” Wally explained. They set up a baseball tee and put a golf ball on it instead. Then, Wally had the children hit the golf balls with bats. Next, he placed the golf balls on the ground and told the young partakers to “swing up high like in baseball with the club; then put it behind the ball and make a baseball swing through the golf ball.” Wally said, “Right away, I found an incredible way to teach kids golf.”What was so unique about Wally’s style of teaching was the use of other sporting equipment and household objects to help the kids learn the proper mechanics for golfing. Wally and Scott started doing clinics and soon made one of the first golf instructional videos for children called “Golf for Kids of All Ages.” Wally shared that he went on to make a total of 22 instructional videos that focused on different areas, including videos for beginners, women, men, children, coaches, and others.
Some of his crazy props include coat hangers, footballs, sponges, balloons, and brooms, among others. What Wally learned back at UF and while on the Tour was that people could learn to play or improve their game by using mental imagery to help them associate something they were familiar with to the golf exercise. It literally allows the golfer to feel their way to proper mechanics or as Wally puts it, “Feel your way to better golf.” The drills, in conjunction with the unlikely tools, help the golfer practice the right movements. For example, Wally uses a mop for one drill. He explained, “The secret to a smooth takeaway is swinging the hands, arms, and club back together in one piece. This keeps the club head low to the target line for the first foot or so of the swing. Mopping the floor exaggerates the low takeaway action, allowing you to get accustomed to the correct feeling” (Golf Magazine, May 1993).
RENOWNED GOLF INSTRUCTOR
In 1992, Wally was approached by a large infomercial company to film “Maximizing Your Game” with Kenny Rogers and Pat Summerall, an infomercial that aired for more than two years. The company “manufactured training aids and made them out of some of the everyday props that I was using. One of the props that I use is a plastic hanger, so they created [one] for me that would actually fit on the top of a golf grip.” Wally explained, “I can teach chipping, putting, pitching, and full swing with that one tool. We ended up with five different training aids that they put in a kit with seven hours of instruction.”
After being on TV nonstop, Wally found himself in the limelight as a teacher. He received invitations across the country to perform clinics with his fun props. Wally got involved with several nonprofits, appearing at charity golf tournaments all over the world. He puts on his clinic before the tournament, plays a par three challenge shot and then speaks. “That’s when I get to share my faith. I am able to use that platform now as more of a teacher,” Wally shared.
Over the years, Wally has instructed all age groups, but he enjoys teaching kids the most. When his second son, Blake, was 10 years old, they did an instructional video called “Power Drives for Kids.” The video was included with Titleist’s T-Rex golf clubs for kids. “That was another one of these things that went viral all over the country. God always seems to open the door to things to do,” Wally said.
In 1999, Terry Anton and Wally developed a mobile golf game for kids called SNAG®. It stands for “Starting New At Golf” and uses tennis balls and plastic clubs. Wally explained that it’s used internationally as a school golf program. “The game has its own simplified rules and terminology that adds fun to the learning and playing experience” (www.snaggolf.com). Wally said that the idea was to create a game that can be taken to kids everywhere, as “evangelism is not bringing people to Christ, its bringing Christ to people. We wanted to evangelize through golf.”
Throughout Wally’s career, God has given him many opportunities to share the Gospel, and he often does by using parallels between golf and the Lord. As he has built relationships with people all over the world through the game, Wally explained that people are more receptive to your message after a friendship develops. When the door is open to share Jesus, he enjoys relating the Gospel to things they know, like golf. It’s easier for most people to understand an analogy more than a scripture that is being spouted to them. “The greatest analogy is the mulligan. A mulligan in golf is a second chance – it’s the grace of golf,” Wally said. Another player has to offer you a mulligan, a chance to start over on that hole. God offered mankind a mulligan through His Son, Jesus Christ – a second chance to all people, which is the grace of God.
“He sent His Son, Jesus, to play the perfect round for us – to live a life that we couldn’t live in order to be accepted by a perfect God,” Wally explained. He went on to say that no one has ever played a perfect game and birdied every hole, just like no one, besides Jesus, has ever lived a perfect life without sin. “He offers us His scorecard in place of our imperfect one,” Wally said. Jesus took all the sins or scorecards of the world and nailed them to the Cross, so that we could be free. Wally added, “We get to play under new rules. We’re not keeping score anymore; we’re forgiven.”
Wally, in conjunction with some other authors, used these analogies in several books and devotionals. He wrote his latest book with Ken Blanchard, which was published in 2010. It’s called “The Mulligan,” and it follows the life of a corporate man, Paul, who is in desperate need of a mulligan. Paul thinks he knows everything about success because he founded a multimillion dollar company, but he needs help with his golf game. He starts getting lessons from an “old pro” and they develop a relationship. The old pro teaches Paul more than just a better golf swing. He talks with Paul about a relationship with Jesus. “The book is really a parable of how to connect with Christ,” Wally said. (Find this book at themulligan.org.)
THE ULTIMATE TAKEAWAY
Wally’s lifelong dream has been to connect golfers to Christ around the globe. For the last 30 years, he has traveled with other golf professionals and businessmen worldwide supporting people in their use of golf to bring Christ to others. Wally has been to Japan, Korea, China, Australia, South America, Europe, Russia, and most recently, Africa, where he spent three weeks. He conducted clinics at a number of country clubs in Nairobi, supporting Athletes in Action and the vision of Campus Crusade for Christ.
Wally estimates that there are 75 million golfers in the world that can be inspired to find Jesus through the game. In June, he will be launching a website (www.mulligangolfclub.com) to highlight how God is working through golf around the world. He hopes golfers all over will become a member of the club and share their personal stories of finding the Lord to encourage others seeking Jesus. The website will include video testimonials as well as resources to help golfers grow in their faith. The vision of the Mulligan Golf Club is that every golfer, everywhere, follows Jesus.
Additionally, the Mulligan Golf Club will hold its first annual Mulligan Open at the Innisbrook Golf Resort at the famous Copperhead course on May 14th. The tournament will kick off with a Wally Armstrong Golf Clinic. To register or get more information, go to www.mulliganopen.com. The following day, Wally is scheduled to be the keynote speaker at the Tampa Bay Leadership Prayer Breakfast at the Tampa Convention Center (see ad on page 3 for more details). The ultimate takeaway from Wally’s life and career is to allow God to order your steps. When you seek Jesus first in all you do, whether you’re a golfer or not, God will keep you in His grip. Glory! ■
To learn more about Wally, to book him for a clinic or speaking engagement, or to purchase training materials, visit www.wallyarmstronggolf.com.