Scott Stinson: In Netflix’s new golf doc, PGA Tour defectors admit it’s about the money

Full Swing does something that almost certainly wasn’t part of the plan for the PGA Tour: Demonstrates why some were willing to leave it

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Full Swing, the new Netflix series that is a behind-the-scenes look at life on the PGA Tour, does a lot of the things that the Tour’s leaders were hoping for when they approved the project.

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It humanizes the featured players, gives would-be golf fans people to root for, and gives the fustiest of sports a shot of glamour and fun. There’s Brooks Koepka relaxing at his stunning Florida home. And there’s Joel Dahmen at his less stunning Arizona home, but throwing a backyard party that looks like a typical neighbourhood party, except with considerably more golf hats than is normal.

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But Full Swing also does something else that almost certainly wasn’t part of the plan for the PGA Tour: it demonstrates why some guys might have been willing to leave it.

Brooks Koepka of the United States chips onto the 10th hole during a practice round prior to the PIF Saudi International at Royal Greens Golf & Country Club on January 31, 2023 in Al Murooj, Saudi Arabia.
Brooks Koepka of the United States chips onto the 10th hole during a practice round prior to the PIF Saudi International at Royal Greens Golf & Country Club on January 31, 2023 in Al Murooj, Saudi Arabia. Photo by Tom Dulat/Getty Images

In one of the early episodes of the series, which debuted on the streaming service this week, Koepka is shown going through a rough patch in the 2022 season. A late Sunday bogey costs him a shot at the WM Phoenix Open, and he misses the cut at the Masters. He says he left Augusta National feeling “embarrassed,” which is something he had never experienced at a tournament. Sitting around a table with his wife and friends, he says he doesn’t think he can compete with “these guys” every week.

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At which point, the casual golf viewer could be forgiven for saying: Brooks Koepka? Winner of four major championships? Former world number one? That Brooks Koepka?

It was that Koepka, and fair to say the 32-year-old American was having a crisis of confidence. The same guy who between 2017-2019 would show up at the big tournaments and cruise to the top of the leaderboard, didn’t seem to know if he could get it back. He has a trophy case at his home with plenty of space for major trophies, but those empty shelves suddenly looked daunting.

In the following episode, it is Ian Poulter’s turn at the confessional. He fails to make the Masters field, and then misses the cut by a stroke at the PGA Championship in May. The 46-year-old Englishman tells the cameras that missing cuts is the worst feeling, and that “working for free doesn’t float my boat.”

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He heads with his family to England and is soon playing in the inaugural tournament of LIV Golf, the rival league funded by Saudi Arabia to considerable controversy. That Poulter and fellow Ryder Cup stalwarts like Lee Westwood and Graeme McDowell joined LIV was not all that surprising, morality issues aside. They are on the downside of their competitive careers, and now here came an opportunity to trade in their name recognition for contracts that were reported to be worth tens of millions of dollars, to play in tournaments with massive purses and which have no cut.

It’s a business decision

Ian Poulter

“It’s a business decision,” says Poulter. He’s plenty wealthy already — his closet in his Florida home would rival that of a Saudi royal, provided such a person is really into plaid golf pants — but he is giving up the twilight of his PGA days for a generational payday.

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What’s more surprising is when guys like Koepka do it. Or Dustin Johnson. These are players in their 30s, with presumably many prime earning years still ahead of them. Johnson, at least, doesn’t pretend that the move to LIV was about growing the game or excitement about a team format.

He states the obvious: it’s about the cash. “Playin’ less, making more money,” he says in his South Carolina drawl. “Pretty simple.”

And so there it is, plainly stated.

The ludicrous amounts that LIV pays its recruits to play a soft schedule, with no cuts, was enough to attract some of the world’s best golfers. Especially since playing on the PGA Tour can be a tough business.

These Netflix docuseries, whether about Formula 1, tennis or now golf, spend time demonstrating the difficulty of the sport. The idea is to emphasize how the athletes who succeed as professionals are the absolute elite of the elite. But in so doing they also show the downside, and the thin margins between success and failure for even some of the best in their field. Did Koepka leave the PGA Tour for LIV because he simply didn’t want to be on the wrong side of that divide any longer? He says it was hard to refuse an offer that sets up his family for generations.

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Other than that, the LIV guys don’t say much. They are seen bristling at press conferences when they are asked about Saudi human rights violations, or whether they would play in a Vladimir Putin golf tournament, or if there is anywhere they would draw a moral line even if the money was good. All good questions, these, but the players don’t want to consider them. They had a chance to make a lot more money, for less work, and under much less pressure. Best not to think about the other stuff.

Johnson, who would go on to make US$35-million in LIV’s limited first season, sounds quite at peace with the decision. He says that anyone who is offered the chance to do the same job, for better pay and under better working conditions, would take it. “And if you didn’t,” he says, “there’s something wrong with you.”

Several of golf’s stars agreed with him. Many more didn’t.

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