I don’t know much about golf. Or perhaps I should say I didn’t know much about golf, because after watching Full Swing on Netflix, I now fancy myself a bit of an expert.
I know what a birdie is, I have deluded myself into thinking I could putt, and have been struck by the beauty and complexity of a sport I thought was the reserve of silver-haired old farts and men on the spectrum. I still can’t imagine any of the golfers featured in the show bringing a woman to orgasm, but most of the players, and the sport itself, have won me over.
It turns out golf is a metaphor for a life. You can be cruising at dizzying heights one moment and tumble into a ravine the next - and that’s why it’s so compelling. How the players deal with the journey, and how they navigate those emotional twists and turns, directly affects their game in a reflexive feedback loop.
Can they hold their desire to prevail lightly, like Scottie Scheffler, grumbling amiably about his wife leaving popcorn crumbs in the bed, seconds before stepping up to hit a pivotal shot? Do they channel their angst into statistics, like the Shrimp from Sheffield, Matt Fitzpatrick, meticulously recording the metrics of every shot he takes? Can they stay both humble and completely convinced of their own greatness in the very same moment?
There are many routes to climb the mountain, and Netflix has done a masterful job introducing us to players at different stages on the journey. As viewers, we get a close up of the different personalities and philosophies that are uniquely exposed as they strive to get the job done. Don’t get me wrong, they’re all extremely highly-strung, anxious personalities. It’s just that some of them are better at wrestling with that monkey than others.
Episode one starts with Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth, long-time friends and remarkably round-headed competitors, competing for glory on the course and the upper hand in underwhelming practical jokes. To me, Spieth comes across as somewhat over-confident and charmless, but that could be my bias towards a good underdog redemption story – I found myself rooting for the earnest Thomas at Spieth’s expense.
We then go onto ‘late bloomer’ Brooks Koepka, in the midst of an existential crisis, whose mental state and harrowed eyes are mirrored by a dehydrated bleached blond thatch of hair atop with a florid face. The overall effect reminded me of a disgruntled Battenburg. The self-styled ‘bad boy alpha’ of golf noted that “people think golf is a gentleman’s sport, but winning is addictive.” Poor old Koepka can’t get his fix of success, while his fiancé Jena, a C-grade actress who ‘starred’ in the mind-bogglingly awful Sharknado 5, grins inanely by the pool in their palatial Florida home.
Jena happily admits that she ‘slid into his DM’s’, and in her quest to capture a man of both means and social cache, she has all the quintessential marks of a good time gal. In one memorable scene, Jena parades a selection of bikini cover ups in front of a clearly shellshocked and disinterested Brooks – ironically, the cover-up being one item of clothing she saw no reason to utilise when the cameras were rolling. I say this not to shame her, but to draw a contrast with some of the other golf wags, who were demonstrably more concerned with supporting their men than cultivating a social media profile. She wins my vote as the least supportive to her man’s plight, coming across as a spoiled spoil of earlier won battles for Koepka. Can Brooks, who frankly and admirably admitted he’s jealous when one of his fellow players gets the win that he craves so badly, overcome his injuries and return to top of the pile?
It was pretty savvy of the producers to pair his story with Scottie Scheffler, who in stark contrast to Brooks, comes across as affable, well-adjusted and likeable. We see Scottie and his wholesome wife Meredith going out for ice cream (vanilla, appropriately). While Koepka wrestles with himself, Scheffler, as a committed Christian, is happy to put his fate in the hands of a higher force. “I’m working as hard as I can and everything after that isn’t up to me,” he says, and it’s impossible not to believe him. He’s a man who wants to win, but he’s not desperate for it – and it’s exactly that desperation that is eating up Brooks while Jena parades around in a swimsuit.
Episode three – Money or Legacy – focuses on one of the major narratives in the series: the emergence of the Saudi-backed LIV Tour. The upstart league, we learn, is poaching high-profile players with obscenely-large cheques, hoping to sportswash the Saudi regime’s unsavoury human rights record. And this is where pantsman – Englishman Ian Poulter comes in. ‘Poults’ seems to be comfortable with his assigned role of ‘personality’ in the series - perhaps it was his commitment to this role that made the scene where he threw his clubs so cringingly inauthentic.
It was clear from the outset that Poulter was going to accept the Saudi money, citing his children’s future as the main reason. Which is very noble, until you see the whole family flying on a private jet from their Orlando mansion to another palatial home just outside Milton Keynes.
There was a particularly funny scene from a press conference at the first breakaway event, when a journalist asked: “how is joining LIV helping women, migrants, LGBTQ etc?”. The three players on the podium – Louis Oosthuizen, Dustin Johnson and Graeme McDowell – are left looking like trio of dwarves: Hapless, Woeful and Clueless.
Not one of them had the wherewithal to state the obvious – that it makes no difference to the experience of those groups and their plight at all. Nor were they able to articulate a perfectly-fair counter-point – that it’s the West who buy the oil that is funding the Tour, and that Western governments are happy to sell weapons to the Saudis. At least pantsman Poulter redeemed himself by flatly refused to answer a similar question.
The viewer is certainly left in no doubt about who are the goodies in the battle for the soul of golf. Whether the producers deliberately set up the LIV players to look bad, or if they genuinely are the least likeable of the bunch, I will leave up to you.
The series then takes a welcome wholesome turn, as we meet two of golf’s good guys: Tony Finau and Joel Dahmen.
Finau’s story of bringing his family on tour with him following the death of his father-in-law puts the pursuit of money in the name of ‘family’ firmly into perspective. The idea that Finau is more committed to his family than to golf seems pretty offensive, and his back-to-back triumphs are a heart-warming rebuttal of the idea that golfers need to be obsessively focused on golf to the detriment of being a good father or husband.
But even the Finau family end up playing second fiddle to the great love story of the series – the relationship between Joel Dahmer and his caddy Gino.
Dahmer is still visibly emotional as he recalls the loss of his mother to cancer when he was just 17, and then his own experience of testicular cancer as a young man. He has the air of a man to which the worst has already happened, and as a result, he seems unable to fully invest in his own dreams and potential, lest the rug be pulled out from under him.
Without the support of his wife, and his childhood friend and caddie Gino sensitively wrangling with him, I very much doubt he’d be as accomplished as he is. Golfers ultimately golf alone, and while for some the off course support network seems to be incredibly important, for others, maybe it’s not entirely necessary. After all, are you a person who ultimately relies on himself and only himself against all odds? Does lonely ‘me against the world’ represent the pinnacle of achievement, or do you value the support of the village, propelling you forward? Ultimately, in golf, as in life, it’s whatever narrative you decide to run with. Ultimately, you can win tournaments with either, but what will that winning mean?
The last episode features Rory McIlroy, who as well as being a fixture of the series, comes across as an elder-statesman of the game, despite his relative youth. His name is the only one besides Tiger Woods’ than had penetrated my previously golf-free consciousness, and he comes across as a steward and protector of the legacy and tradition that inspired him as a young golfer. Unsurprisingly, this role is presented in stark contrast to the more selfish motivations of his peers who take the Saudi money.
The arrival of LIV forces everyone in the game to wrestle with an existential question – what does golf mean to me? And since apportioning meaning is the central question of life, this really is a philosophical question, a weighty question.
The players have to decide exactly how much they value the experience of golf as it currently is, while being seduced with staggering sums of monetary. Do they go with experiential value or economic value? Ultimately, both choices are as ephemeral as each other - one bad day on the greens versus one more financial crash.
Do they value innovation and progression? History and legacy? Status and legacy? How comfortable are they with the chaos of change versus the comforting order of tradition?
This Netflix documentary and golf itself had far more depth and energy than I expected. There’s even a chance that I may not immediately turn over when next confronted with it on the TV. After all, who doesn’t want to watch a man fighting with himself?