Netflix released a captivating and immersive documentary series in 2023 on the lives of some of golf’s alpha players. They include Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas, Collin Morikawa, Brooks Koepka, Scottie Scheffler, Ian Poultner, Rory McIlroy and more. The documentary’s extensive window into the lives of those players – both on and off the course – paints a realistic picture of the pressure that they contend with all year; the all-or-nothing wins and losses, and the journey in a sport that is often fraught with anxiety and complicated choices. Particularly pertinent in Full Swing is the heated debate on LIV Golf – which turned the PGA platform upside down in 2021 – and many view it as an orchestrated disruption of the golf ecosystem.
LIV Golf League is financially backed by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (one of the world’s largest sovereign wealth funds), and Greg Norman is LIV’s CEO. Given Saudi Arabia’s ongoing violation of human rights, the idea that golf professionals would sign up with a controversial country does not sit well with some top golf pros – including Rory Mcllroy. LIV Tour officials have offered massive monetary contracts to established PGA stars. The players who have opted out of the PGA to join LIV include Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson, and the documentary explores the players’ reasons for making the choice.
One of the great attractions to players is that LIV only has 8 events planned for the year – in stark contrast to the PGA’s (over) 50 tournaments a year – which is relentless pressure. LIV are essentially offering and guaranteeing millions of dollars to players for far fewer days at the office. The choice the players are making comes down to quality of life with their families. Rumors state that they have offered over $200 million to Phil Mickelson, $150 million to Dustin Johnson and $700 million to Tiger Woods. It’s astronomical money they are offering people, and everything has a price.
Rory McIlroy believes it’s going to reshape the future of professional golf. LIV wants the top players and those with name recognition – in their league. Ian Poulter is of interest because he has a great social media following; he’s loud, flamboyant, and the crowds love his big personality. Evidently LIV is offering him millions. When Phil Mickelson, Louis Oosthuizen, Dustin Johnson, and others were asked at a press conference why they would support a country that is guilty of massive human rights violations, Phil Mickelson was one of the few who answered the question by saying that he didn’t condone human rights violations, and he spoke for his fellow golfers in saying that nobody supported Saudi Arabia’s atrocities. He emphasized the good that the game of golf has done throughout history, and he believed that LIV Golf would do a lot for the game.
The PGA made it clear that any players who signed up with LIV would not be welcome back into the PGA. They stressed the legacy aspect of the PGA. The players who decided to go the LIV route had their own reasons for walking away from the PGA Tour. They put their families first and spoke of the fact that the demands on them traveling with LIV would be far less, and their families would benefit both from having fathers and husbands home more – and the financial stability that it would offer their families.
The rancor felt amongst many golf professionals is that Saudi Arabia is shaping the future of the game and purposefully creating a new golf league to supersede the PGA Tour. They believe that LIV is threatening the very foundation of the game, and everyone is on pins and needles wondering who is going to take LIV’s money offers and who’s going to resist it. The hope is that many will choose to draw a line in the sand. At the end of the day, the choice boils down to money or legacy.
The documentary covers in substantial depth the proud history of the PGA Tour – which has been the pinnacle of professional golf worldwide. The PGA is less about money and much more about legacy. Its level of competition is in a league of its own, and when all is said and done, there is nothing quite like the life of a pro golfer on the PGA Tour. It’s a wild ride. The pinnacle of the PGA Tour is winning a major championship, and only that will elevate a player to being one of the all-time greats.
There are 4 tournaments in the PGA Tour that stand on their own above everything else:
2) PGA Championship
3) U.S. Open
4) The Open Championship
Winning those 4 – that’s how the greatest players are measured.
Only 5 players in the game’s history have ever been able to accomplish this feat: Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.
The goal of every golf professional on the PGA Tour is to win, and when they accomplish this, they don’t just get the trophy and the first-place check. They get fame, recognition, and huge sponsorship deals. They become celebrities overnight. The reason that companies want to become a part of the golfer’s success story is that they want them to continue succeeding and performing well. The pressure is enormous.
The regular PGA Tour event is four rounds. It starts on Thursday with a full field of about 150 players. They play Thursday and Friday. Unlike other sports, they are trying to record the lowest score possible. From there, if a player is not in that top 65 in ties, he has missed the cut. That means he’s not getting paid and he’s going home. The pressure is intense. Finally, on Sunday afternoon, the champion is crowned.
The physical and psychological strength required for the game is comprehensively analyzed in Full Swing as the spotlight is put on the top players. They must learn to master how they respond to pressure. Controlling their emotional responses to the high stakes moments is key.
Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth
The documentary takes a comprehensive look inside the lives of Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth. Justin Thomas won his first major a few years ago. He explains, “If you’re competitive and a good player – all it takes is one week – and your life could change monumentally.”
Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth have a close friendship, but the reality is that neither of them wants the other to win. If Justin wins, Jordan loses and vice versa. Basically, if you lose a tournament to your buddy, he takes your money. The two men have become practical jokers during tournaments – and no doubt some of that is a stress release.
Jordan Spieth won a bunch of majors right off the bat. Heritage – at the beginning of the year – can end up being a trampoline to the rest of the year, and every player at Heritage plays with a confidence that is vital. It’s a case of playing one’s best and realizing that you are unbeatable when you are in that full swing. In the documentary, Spieth pulls off the Heritage win, and he describes it as a massive relief. It gives him the momentum he needs to take on other tournaments. He is always going to have PGA Championship circled on his calendar because he needs it to complete his career grand slam. That means winning all 4 major championships.
Saturday is a critical day for the players so that they can cement a good place on the leaderboard. It puts them in the best position to get it done with 18 holes to play on Sunday. The pressure ratchets up and it is viscerally evident in the film as we watch Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth respond to each ball that they hit. It also covers their lives before they reach the golf course. One of them suffers an unexpected allergy attack from the different climate and vegetation. Justin Thomas tries to bring his allergic reaction under control while facing the pressure of competition. The stress levels are vividly on display. Despite all the anxiety he experiences, he ends up being victorious. He wins the 2022 PGA Championship and a cool $2,7 million. It is his second major win, and the emotions are overflowing.
An interesting perspective in the documentary is an analysis of the so-called underdog. In this case, it is Brooks Koepka who has had to fight hard to show that he is worthy. This self-deprecating young athlete proved his worth when he won the US Open in 2017 and 2018. He then went on to capture the PGA Championship in 2018 and 2019. Brooks has come to define this generation of golfers that have gained victory through sheer grit and determination. Two majors in two years is an incredible feat. However, Full Swing also tracks Koepka’s years of drought and the injuries he sustained. But when it comes to the biggest events, Brooks has proved that he is uber talented, and he’s demonstrated immense mental grit.
The WM Pheonix Open has taken on the reputation as the best golf party of the PGA Tour, and it is Brooks’ favorite arena. It’s the week that the season ramps up, and the supportive crowd is young, amped, and noisily boisterous. The documentary shows the immense frustration that Brooks experiences at the WM Pheonix Open where nothing is going his way despite the huge crowd support. He ends up tying 3rd place, and says disappointedly, “I didn’t play well enough today. It was a mediocre day”. Scottie Scheffler ends up winning and the film displays the extensive devastation that Brooks endures. He describes the loss as all-consuming, and there’s a sense of urgency about his need to get out of the hole he’s in before it’s too late. He describes golf as crazy because when you have it – you feel like you are never going to lose it. And when you don’t have it, you feel like you are never going to get it back. It’s a profound crisis of confidence. The depths of the mental torment that the game can produce is sensitively covered as Brooks describes how he’s always felt that the best golfers in the world have the capacity to step up their game when it matters – and the fact that he can’t do that right then makes him feel that maybe he just doesn’t have the ability.
Full Swing takes us to Augusta at the Masters. It’s a critical 4 days in which if a player fails to make the cut – he goes home with nothing. The tussle until Friday is between Tiger Woods, Scottie Scheffler and Brooks Koepka. Brooks ends up not making the cut, and his devastation is palpable. Scottie Scheffler ends up playing an incredible tournament and he wins the 2022 Masters – outshining everyone. It’s a revolving door of competition and success.
Full Swing produces an interesting balance by comprehensively covering Tony Finau who is widely regarded as one of the nicest people on the PGA Tour. He is a devoted family man, one of the few people of color in the sport, and he thanks Tiger Woods for being his indisputable role model. Finau appears not to define himself by his golf wins. His priority is his family, and he gains great satisfaction by being altruistic and giving back to society. When his successes occur, it’s as if he is completely disproving the naysayers and doubters. The film covers him winning the 3M Open, and he goes on to win another championship – the 2023 Cadence Bank Houston Open. Finau appears to have mastered the art of picking himself up from losses and celebrating the wins.
There’s great coverage of Joel Dahman who – in his 6th year on tour – earned the respect of the top players and was symbolically awarded a seat at their table. Particularly interesting is the strong relationship between he and his caddie, and its inestimable value is highlighted. He’s the guy who unsells himself, and yet, he goes on to win the U.S. Open.
Since a boy, Scottie Scheffler had always dreamed of playing on the PGA Tour. He began winning in Junior Golf, and later, he had his first 1st win in Phoenix. He went on to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational and became the world’s #5 player. Then, he won the WGC – Dell Match Play in Texas and became the World #1. He has the Midas touch and often seems to be completely unstoppable in his brilliance. Despite all of this, Scheffler describes how much a
British golfer Matt Fitzpatrick won the U.S. Amateur Championship in 2013. He’s small in stature and quiet by nature – but an incredibly accomplished golfer. His quest has always been to win on the PGA Tour. It’s fascinating to watch the studious mathematician of the game – a reputation that Fitzpatrick has earned gallantly. He’s literally a professor in analytics, and his hard work and dedication paid off when he won the 112nd U.S. Open. He was elated.
Dustin Johnson – who’s married to Wayne Gretzky’s daughter, Paulina – is highlighted in episode 5 of Full Swing. He turned pro in 2007 and he went on to great things. He was the 2016 U.S. Open champion. In 2020, he clinched the Masters. Johnson talks positively about the wonderful career he’s enjoyed on the PGA Tour and he is very proud of it. He also unapologetically and rationally defends his decision to move over to LIV: Put simply, he wants to play less golf for more money. Paulina Gretzky fully supports his decision by saying it was the best choice for their children. Johnson also feels that his reputation as a golfer is established, and he doesn’t have to prove anything anymore.
Colin Morikawa gives great insight into how difficult it is for a player to perform at a very high level week in and week out. He’s halfway to achieving his career grand slam, and every facet of his game has to be firing on all cylinders if he wants a shot at achieving his career grand slam goal.
Fittingly, Rory McIIroy concludes the 8-part documentary by emphasizing the impact that Tiger Woods has had on the game. He says, “Tiger took golf to a whole new level.” He refers to him as his absolute hero and the defining representation of golf.
McIlroy was a golf prodigy from a young age, and he proved to be brilliant very young. He won 4 majors out of the gate. But even he became susceptible to the pressure of the game saying, “the 4 majors that I won happened so long ago that I feel as if I’m trying to win my first one again.” Historical film footage shows him battling it out with Scottie Scheffler and in the end, with $18 million at stake, and loads of psychological experience under pressure, Rory McIlroy wins the 3rd Fedex Cup title. McIlroy immediately pointed out how his idol, Tiger Woods, was the first person to text his congratulations to him. It meant the world to him.
McIlroy’s words are passionate. He says, “I care deeply about our sport. I care about the legacy, and lots of players share that same view.” He’s referring to the damage that he believes LIV could cause to a PGA Tour that he deeply values. There’s no question that McIlroy wants to uphold the symbolism and sanctity of the PGA Tour. His stance speaks to a golf legacy and history that is quite unlike any other sport.
Masters is the biggest tournament in all of golf. It’s like the Superbowl of Golf with its iconic green dream jacket at Augusta National course. Tiger Woods’ legacy in the sport puts him in the league of being the greatest golfer in modern time, and Morikawa describes the historic weekend at the 2022 Masters when Tiger Woods arrived after almost dying in a serious car accident earlier that year. His arrival was god-like, and the crowds showed their reverence for Woods by their hushed, awe-inspired silence. The arrival of Woods’ jet will forever be etched in the history books, and August 2022 will always be remembered as one of the most incredible feats in sport. Tiger Woods’ presence elevated the event and proved the power of the icon in the sport.