ORLANDO, Fla. (BP)–There was a time when “golf was my god,” Bill Mitchell admits.
“From the time I was 5 or 6 years old, I wanted to be a pro golfer,” the native Kentuckian recalled. “My dad was a golf course superintendent, so I grew up on the course.”
By the time Mitchell graduated from his Princeton, Ky., high school, he had won more than 60 tournaments.
Offers of full golf scholarships to Polk Community College, Winter Haven, Fla., and Georgia Southern, Statesboro, Ga., brought him to the Southeast, offering him an education and a shot at world travel, wealth and fame.
“Out of college, I turned pro,” Mitchell said. “I chased the dream that so many want to chase. I played in 10 countries in Europe and on the Australian tour.”
For a while, Mitchell thought he had it all. But that began to change when he experienced a series of bad breaks in his career. In 1975, he was a quarterfinalist in the U.S. Amateur. He ended up only one match away from being able to play in the Masters.
“In 1976, I was in the top 30 on order of merit in Australia,” he said. “I knew I was going to get out on the tour and I didn’t. I missed it by a few shots.”
A near miss for the PGA tour in 1977 stopped him in his tracks. “I began to question, ‘What am I really here for?’ I let myself slide downhill.”
Though Mitchell had roots in the church, he explained, when he got away from his home he had decided to go his own way.
Then in 1978, while coaching young boys at the Arnold Palmer Golf Academy at Bay Hill in Orlando, Mitchell met a man who owned a dice pit in a casino in Las Vegas. The man offered Mitchell an opportunity to move to Las Vegas with the prospect of becoming wealthy. The lure brought Mitchell to a crossroads.
“It broke my grandmother’s heart,” Mitchell said. “She’d always been there for me. It was the first time in my life I sensed she was disappointed.”
Partly because of his grandmother’s concern, he turned down the Las Vegas offer. Not long after that, he discovered that God had something else, something wonderful, in store for him.
“I had a strange channel on my C.B. radio and somebody on it was giving directions to the First Baptist Church of Orlando,” Mitchell said. “I went.”
The first words of pastor Jim Henry’s sermon were all Mitchell heard that morning.
“He said, ‘I don’t care who you are, what you’ve done; unless Jesus Christ is in your life, you’ll always be searching,'” Mitchell said. The preacher’s words echoed in his thoughts as he played golf that afternoon, and he pondered his hoped-for celebrity lifestyle.
“Boys where I grew up would never dream of living the life I’m living,” he told himself, “but I’m miserable.”
The optimism and zest for life that Mitchell saw in Henry offered a different lure.
“I quit in the middle of a round to come back to church that night,” Mitchell said. “In the quietness of my apartment, later, I said, ‘God, if you’re real, I want you to come in and change my life. If there’s a life out there that can be so exciting, I want it.'”
Stepping off the professional golfing course he’d charted for himself and onto God’s fairway brought about a complete change in Mitchell’s life. He couldn’t get enough of God’s Word. He became involved in homeless ministry and jail ministry, and he didn’t miss a church service. He moved into the home of a friend who diligently discipled him. And he got another job.
“I moved from having a large expense account to hauling concrete blocks and digging footers for McCulley Construction,” Mitchell said. “Here’s something I’d struggled for all those years, and now I’m going a whole different direction.”
Later, Mitchell took time from work to go on a three-day prayer and fasting retreat. During that time, he gained a new understanding of God’s plan for his life.
“I came back knowing I was to go into full-time Christian work,” Mitchell said. He just didn’t quite know how to tell his boss.
“I’ll never forget walking into Mr. McCulley’s office that morning,” Mitchell continued. “He shouted, gave me a great big bear hug, reached in his pocket and handed me five $100 bills and said, ‘Bill, go find yourself a good seminary.'”
God continued to call Mitchell’s shots and plan his course as he completed studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Texas, got married in 198
2, pastored Belmont Baptist Church in Tampa, Fla., and in 1993 ended up where his Christian course began, at First Baptist Church in Orlando.
Mitchell now serves the church as prayer/missions and evangelism pastor and supports ministry with education and worship teams. His responsibilities involve organizing outreach events, working with Evangelism Explosion, working in pastoral care ministries and assisting many who call in for prayer. He also helps local churches develop golf outreach ministries.
Mitchell’s break with the golf circuit severed the life “on adrenalin” he’d led. He still shoots about par, but his greatest rush now takes place when he meets with several men in a Wednesday morning Bible study at the Bay Hill course. Some have become Christians.
Mitchell said his dream now is to help Christian golfers realize the ministry potential they have on the golf course each week.
“It’s the only thing that I know of where you have five hours when you can talk with someone about where they are in life,” Mitchell said. “It’s the greatest relationship-building thing that I know of. As you play golf on Saturday, why not make that a mission? It’s an opportunity to make a difference in someone else’s life.”
There was a time when Mitchell’s self-worth hinged on how well he did on his last golf round. And even after his choice to follow God’s course for his life, he often wondered what he would tell his son about his decision to slice his professional golf career.
“I had a fear that my son might one day say, ‘My dad almost made it to the big time,'” Mitchell said.
“Regardless,” he added, “I made the right decision, because I was in the center of God’s will. I know what it’s like to play golf lost, and I know what it’s like to play golf as a Christian. Now, win or lose, God is there.”
Haines is a correspondent for the Florida Baptist Witness.