It was, as they say, the call of a lifetime.
Just a few days ago, on Tuesday, July 25, around 1:00 p.m., Stephen Bunn had just returned to his Vestavia Hills home from a trip when his phone buzzed.
Calling was his friend Zach Johnson, 12-time PGA tour winner (including the 2007 Masters and the 2015 Open) and the U.S. captain for the upcoming 2023 Ryder Cup to be held Sept. 29 – Oct. 1 near Rome, Italy.
“Hey,” Johnson asked Stephen, “you want to go to the Ryder Cup?”
Chills shot down Stephen’s spine.
“Well, yeah, of course I do,” he exclaimed.
“OK, great,” Johnson said. “I’m putting you to work. You’re going over on the team charter and staying at the team hotel. We’ll get you outfitted with all the gear soon.”
For the 54-year-old Stephen, who for 12 years has served as a PGA Tour chaplain and for 25 years has been the national vice president for the College Golf Fellowship ministry, a trip to Italy with the U.S. team may just be his crowning honor.
“I’ll probably be one of the cart drivers for the captains, taking them from hole to hole to watch the guys,” he said. “Really, I’ll do anything they ask.”
Although not specified (yet, at least) in his job description, don’t be surprised if Stephen’s not asked to lead a Bible study or prayer time for any players or captains who want to attend. After all, that’s what he does best.
During most PGA tournament weeks, Stephen leads the weekly Bible study referred to as the Tour Fellowship, but also throughout the week has individual meetings with players, caddies, and others associated with the Tour. Some may be one-on-one discipleship and counseling, while others may be in a small group setting. “I may attend three breakfasts in one day,” he said, “but I don’t eat at all of them.”
The Tuesday evening Tour Fellowship serves anywhere from 25-50 people who gather in a corporate setting for some good, old-fashioned expository teaching. Currently, Stephen is leading a study through Hebrews.
As important and fulfilling as his role is as one of the PGA chaplains, Stephen will be the first to tell you that College Golf Fellowship is his bread-and-butter. It may not be where he found his faith, but it is where his faith has grown exponentially.
According to the ministry’s website, College Golf Fellowship, founded in 1980, is “the only Christian ministry with the specific purpose of building into the lives of college golfers, sharing the hope of Christ with them, and discipling those who have placed their trust in Him. We come alongside teams by attending practices, tournaments and by hosting retreats throughout the year.”
“College Golf Fellowship was actually birthed out of the PGA Tour Fellowship,” Stephen said. “They were looking at creative ways they could grow their fellowship within the PGA Tour. So, they said, ‘let’s take a step back and do some things to reach out to the college golfers.’ After all, just about all the PGA Tour players had played college golf.
“It was a great way to not only provide a ministry for the college golfers, but to increase participation in PGA Tour Fellowship once many of them started playing on the Tour.”
A bumpy faith journey
Stephen’s trek from adolescence to his current role was certainly not without its ups and downs. The son of Methodist minister Lewis Bunn, Stephen doesn’t recall a time growing up when he wasn’t in church. But that sure didn’t mean his faith was real.
“I believed in Jesus Christ about like I did Santa Claus,” Stephen said. “Every night in my bedtime prayers I prayed to receive Christ. I didn’t understand anything about the Gospel although it was being taught to me every day of my life. I just didn’t have the eye for it. At some point I just stopped thinking about God altogether.”
In what Stephen calls a “milestone” of his faith journey, in the fall of his senior year at Alliance Christian School in Vestavia Hills, from a deep sleep he awoke one night obsessed with eternity. For several days, he carried this heavy burden until finally he’d had enough. Stirring his father out of bed one night, Stephen bore his soul.
“When I woke my dad up, the most remarkable thing came out of my mouth,” Stephen recalled. “I looked at him and said, ‘You have no idea who I am.’ I told him I felt like I was living in a jail cell of performance, trying to please people all the time – coaches, teachers, friends. I told him that nobody knew the real me and that I was miserable living this way.
“I wasn’t rebelling against my parents; I was just living for me and my own desires. That’s just who I was.”
One would expect his dad’s response to include a walk through the Romans Road (a path to salvation using Romans 3:23, 5:8, 6:23, 8:1, and 10:9), or a presentation of the Four Spiritual Laws, or flipping through the pages of an Eternal Life tract. Instead, he delivered a simple, yet profound, story from Matthew, chapter 11.
The message changed Stephen’s life.
“My dad went to this story in Matthew,” Stephen said. “Jesus was talking to a religiously oppressed group of Jews, and He said if you’re tired of trying so hard, and you’re weary and burdened, then come hitch yourself to Me and I’ll give you rest for your soul. That was me. I was trying too hard. I was weary. I was burdened.
“After hearing this, for the first time in my life I was narrowed in. My dad led me to put my faith and hope in Jesus. And from that point, I gave Him everything I had.”
Off to Bama, Campus Crusade for Christ, and … Auburn.
With new vigor and a passion to live for the Lord, Stephen – an Alabama fan “since birth” – headed to the University of Alabama. Through his older brother Andy, he became involved in Campus Crusade for Christ, so much so that upon his graduation from Alabama in 1993, he joined Campus Crusade’s full-time staff.
His first assignment? Auburn University.
“When they told me that Auburn was my assignment, I thought they were joking,” Stephen laughed. “I’d grown up in the most rabid Alabama household. I could count on one hand how many Alabama home games I’d missed in my lifetime. Then I realized they were serious.”
Along with new wife Lisa, whom he married in May of 1994, the couple served three years in Auburn, then one year on the mission field in, as he says, “a large, eastern Communist country.”
Upon his return to Auburn from the mission field, reality hit Stephen like a Justin Thomas driver to the forehead. During his year away, much of his domestic financial support had dried up, and his next Campus Crusade check was for – and I’m not kidding – $0.00. Zero dollars and zero cents.
“I was devastated,” Stephen said. “Our first child was only a week old and was facing some very serious and expensive medical issues, and I really didn’t know how we were going to make it. I got in my car and started driving, all the while wondering if God had abandoned me. All that doubt I’d had my senior year in high school began creeping back into my head.
“I screamed, ‘God, here I am doing everything you want me to do,’ as if that were true. ‘How can I keep doing Your will with no resources? There’s no way you’re real.’ I was being as honest as I could.”
Stephen’s thinking, doubting, and praying car ride led him through the east Alabama country roads all the way to, he thinks, Eufaula. On his drive back to Auburn, he experienced another one of those epiphanies, similar to his Matthew chapter 11 revelation his senior year of high school.
“As I was driving back, I’m looking at the trees and the clouds and I started thinking, ‘God, you must be real. There’s just too much order out there for You not to be real.’
“I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had developed an erroneous view of the Gospel. I knew all the spot verses that came with the Campus Crusade materials. I had poured myself into those verses for four years, but I really had not gotten to know the God of the Bible as He revealed Himself in the Old and New Testaments.
“Right then, I prayed for God to give me belief, because at that moment I had none. And from that point, I poured myself into God’s Word like never before. I read the Bible cover to cover three times over the next nine months. It was through this reading that I began to see a different view of the Gospel.”
No more $0.00 checks; College Golf Fellowship comes a-callin’
Despite his revitalized faith, Stephen still felt that Campus Crusade – with its strict business model of raising one’s own support – would be best seen in his rear-view mirror.
“I was determined never to get another $0.00 check,” Stephen said, “even though as it turns out it was the greatest blessing of my life. That was not for me. I thought, if I’m not good at raising support, then so be it. I’m going to find something else to do.”
While contemplating his next move, on April 1, 1998, Stephen received a call from former PGA player Rik Massengale, national director of College Golf Fellowship. Massengale had learned of Stephen from a mutual friend at Athletes in Action, the sports ministry division of Campus Crusade. His goal was to find someone who was trained in ministry and loved to play golf. Without question, Stephen fit the bill.
Stephen’s “interview” week with Massengale was during a trip to the 1998 Masters in Augusta, Ga.
“I remember telling Rik and (College Golf Fellowship president) Brad Payne that ‘broad seed’ ministry, which is a shotgun approach to ministry, wasn’t necessarily my cup of tea,” Stephen said. “I told them that my heart beat for relational ministry, such as one-on-one discipleship and Bible study. Rik said, ‘Stephen, that’s our vision; that’s what we want to do.’”
And so began Stephen’s long career with College Golf Fellowship.
His first stint was in Greensboro, N.C., where he traveled all over the Carolinas attending college golf tournaments, putting on banquets, and organizing summer golf retreats. And, fulfilling his first love – relational ministry.
“Golf is so relational,” said Stephen, who along with wife Lisa and sons Davis and Walker, moved back to Vestavia Hills in 2003. “You can talk to the players and coaches and parents and hear their life stories, even during a round. It offers a constant opportunity for relationships. College Golf Fellowship is very strategic in finding a way to reach what I call an unreached people group.
“Because of a college golfer’s schedule, including practicing every day until dark, their facilities being away from campus, and with them being on the road quite a bit, they don’t have as much access to the other campus ministries as other students may have. That presents a great opportunity for College Golf Fellowship to fill that need.”
A new gig: PGA Tour chaplain
Some 12 years ago, Stephen and colleague Brad Payne were invited by several PGA Tour players to become the Tour chaplains.
“It’s a natural progression,” Stephen said. “Our DNA is all over college golf. So naturally when those golfers progress to the next level, we’re there. Not only do we have staff members handling the PGA Tour, but we also have guys ministering to guys on the Canadian and Korn Ferry tours.”
Besides Zach Johnson, those on the Tour (past and present) with whom Stephen has formed close friendships include Scottie Scheffler, Cameron Tringale, Sam Burns, Andrew Putnam, Davis Love III, Jonathan Byrd, Kevin Streelman, Wesley Bryan, Ben Martin, Austin Cook, Chesson Hadley, Russell Henley, Stewart Cink, Webb Simpson, Lee Janzen, Ben Crane, Paul Stankowski, Kramer Hickok, J.T. Poston, and many others.
The Bama Boys
And then there’s who I call the “Bama Boys,” the ones who over the past several years learned under the tutelage of Alabama head golf coach Jay Seawell, one of Stephen’s closest friends.
The fruits of Stephen’s labor with the Crimson Tide golf program are immeasurable, as evidenced by his having conducted pre-marital counseling and marriage ceremonies of more than 20 former Alabama players and assistant coaches, including Bobby Wyatt, Mark Harrell, Matt Hughes, Cory Whitsett, Lee Hodges, Davis Riley, Robby Shelton, Michael Thompson, Ben Moody, and Phillip Weaver. Trey Mullinax and his fiancé went through pre-marital counseling with Stephen but were married by Trey’s grandfather. (“I’ve given him grief over that,” Stephen said.) And, in a twist, Stephen was a groomsman in former Tide golfer Scott Strohmeyer’s wedding.
How’s that for relationships? Jay Seawell can tell you.
“The impact that Stephen has had starts with the relationships he’s built, just from coming alongside college kids in the game of golf for 25 years,” Seawell said. “The fact that he’s done so many of our guys’ weddings is a testimony to how much they think about him.
“From a Kingdom point of view, that’s why he now has a job on the PGA Tour. Through so many of his relationships forged in college golf, they wanted him to keep coming. Again, this is a result of how much impact he’s had to golfers and coaches over the past 25 years.”
At any typical PGA event, it’s not unusual to see Stephen working the players like a swing coach or an agent would. His bubbling personality, boundless energy, and love for the Lord has made him a shining star in the golf world.
“College Golf Fellowship’s mission,” Stephen concludes, “is to see lost players and coaches to be exposed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to see them become fully devoted followers of Christ within the world of college golf.”
Well done Stephen, a good and faithful servant.
(For more information on supporting Stephen and College Golf Fellowship, email him at [email protected].)
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