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WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for season one of Netflix series Full Swing.
Forget White Lotus, Happy Valley or Bridgerton. As far as the majority of golf fans are concerned, the most anticipated television event of 2023 is Full Swing.
The much-hyped, fly-on-the-wall documentary exploring life on the PGA Tour debuts on Netflix on February 15, promising viewers a warts-and-all look at the game’s biggest players and its most prestigious tournaments.
The hope is that Full Swing will do for golf what Drive To Survive – made by the same production team – did for Formula One.
Throughout 2022, Netflix joined the PGA Tour’s travelling circus, documenting all the highs, lows, wins, losses and, yes, controversy that unfolded.
They’ve distilled the key moments into eight episodes, each one roughly 45 minutes long.
Ahead of the show’s official release, bunkered was allowed to view the entire season, so if you don’t want to read any spoilers, we recommend you stop reading now.
Otherwise, keep on scrolling…
Ep by Ep
The series opens with an episode called ‘Frenemies’, which focuses heavily on the friendship between Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas.
For the most part, it examines their relationship in the context of the US PGA Championship at Southern Hills, where Spieth was bidding to become just the fifth player in history to complete the career grand slam and Thomas was looking to secure his second major and move to within one of Spieth’s current haul.
Footage from the tournament is skilfully interwoven with candid off-course content. You’ll see the pair playing a high stakes card game on a private jet, gambling on a pre-championship visit to Southern Hills and discussing Spieth’s best man speech for Thomas’ upcoming wedding.
The episode also gives a revealing insight into Thomas’ relationship with his dad and coach, Mike. As Thomas makes a final day charge for the Wanamaker Trophy, Mike’s reactions are documented beautifully, and a wonderful, poignant moment is captured at the end of the championship when, having finally seen off Will Zalatoris in a playoff, an emotional Thomas – crouching, with his hat covering his face – is embraced by his dad. It’s these little details that elevate the show and set the tone perfectly for upcoming episodes.
One of the most interesting aspects of the show was always going to be how – if at all – the producers accommodated the emergence of LIV Golf.
We got our first hint that Full Swing was not going to be a watered-down PGA Tour puff piece with the release of the first trailer on January 11. Multiple LIV players – Ian Poulter, Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson, Joaquin Niemann and (according to reports) Mito Pereira – all appeared in that teaser, with Poulter telling the camera: “You picked a helluva year to start following the PGA Tour.”
Episodes 2 and 3 focus on Koepka and Poulter respectively. Koepka is seen wrestling with his demons following an agonising near-miss at last year’s WM Phoenix Open, and cuts a tortured soul throughout much of his episode. His admissions of self-doubt and insecurity are 180 degrees from the confident, borderline-arrogant figure he projected on the PGA Tour. It’s a fascinating insight into the private battles these players fight away from the tournament spotlight, particularly juxtaposed, as it is, by the apparent ease of Scottie Scheffler’s rise to world No.1.
By the end of the episode, it’s almost impossible not to root for Koepka… at which point the question of his interest in LIV is first raised.
Likewise, much of Poulter’s episode is devoted to the ‘will he, won’t he’ narrative created by his links to LIV early last season. Maybe it’s just me but the Ryder Cup star seemed much more aware of the cameras than Spieth, Thomas and Koepka, and at times it felt like he was performing for them.
From his angry outburst in the locker room after exiting the WGC-Matchplay Championship at the group stages, to his disingenuous description of himself as a “wannabe golfer”, to his apparent determination to cry during an ‘in car’ discussion about what it’s like to miss a cut, his behaviour felt forced.
Even a family putting competition on-board his private jet felt like it was for the cameras. Perhaps it wasn’t. Perhaps he was being completely authentic. It just didn’t come across that way. It was only at the end of the episode, where he outlines why he has decided to join LIV, that he appeared to drop the act. And that part is truly compelling.
Episode 4 shifts gear by centring on Joel Dahmen. In stark contrast to Poulter, Dahmen is as bona fide as they come, a player not so much riddled with self-doubt as beholden to it. In a sport stuffed with big personalities and regularly haughty aspiration, Dahmen is the anti-pro, a guy who genuinely appears to believe he is out of his depth in the company of players like Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm and Dustin Johnson and who seems to think he is bluffing a living.
“Somebody’s got to be the 70th best golfer in the world,” he says. “It might as well be me.” Contributions from his caddie / best friend Geno Bonallie and wife Lona leave you in no doubt that this is truly how Dahmen views himself. There is no false modesty. His humility is refreshing.
He is also willing to demonstrate vulnerability when he discusses losing his mother to cancer in 2005 and his own, more recent battle with the disease. It’s a raw and unflinchingly honest episode that is legitimately moving.
Matt Fitzpatrick is the subject of Episode 5, which takes you inside the mind and inner circle of the US Open champion. It’s at its best when it shows him interacting with his family and in the moments following his victory at Brookline last year when he almost knocks the lid off the trophy in the locker room. Dustin Johnson also features prominently, as does his wife Paulina as they discuss the reasons for his decision to join LIV.
Tony Finau moves into the limelight in Episode 6 and, like Dahmen, comes across as unfeigned and true. This instalment takes a look at what it is like to travel on tour with a young family and whether or not it is possible to do so and be competitive.
Finau had a reputation for being one of the nicest and most popular guys on tour long before cameras started rolling on the series and this episode is only likely to enhance it. Like Dahmen, the emotion he displays when he talks about his mother’s death brings you closer to him, whilst his frustration at missing out on his son Jraice’s own golf tournament because it clashed with The 150th Open will strike a chord with any parent who has missed a school play, music recital, sports day, etc. He is indisputably one of the good guys.
Collin Morikawa also appears in this episode but his “built to be like Tiger”, driven personality is almost completely overshadowed by Finau’s more relatable warmth.
What it’s like to be a rookie on tour goes under the microscope in Episode 7, with the emphasis particularly on Mito Pereira and Sahith Theegala. For me, this was the only time that the series lost a little momentum. Both seem like great guys – particularly Theegala – but each had already retained their playing privileges long before the season concluded. There was no real sense of jeopardy or panic approaching the year’s final events and so the episode was forced to focus more on the ‘knowns’ of being in your first year on tour.
Yes, it’s an adjustment. Yes, you form friendships. Yes, you have to plan better and do you own laundry. Instead of concentrating on digging an inch wide and a mile deep, the episode instead felt like it was a mile-wide and an inch deep. Much like Pereira’s only final hole collapse at the US PGA, it was hard to shift the feeling that this was an opportunity missed. A good episode that could have been great.
The season finale, however, is a triumph and, for that, you can thank a certain R. McIlroy.
Having initially turned down the opportunity to participate in the show, Rory was gently, gradually and ultimately persuaded by exec producer Chad Mumm to take part.
Episode 8 concentrates on the Irishman’s spectacular 2022 in which he combined a stunning return to form on the course with taking a central role off it in the PGA Tour’s fight against LIV Golf.
Articulate and charismatic, McIlroy’s status as one of the game’s great interviewees is already well established so it’s no surprise to see him on rare form in front of the cameras. The only surprising thing, indeed, is just how loose he is.
From openly revelling in Patrick Reed’s world rankings struggles, to letting the cameras film him representing his fellow players’ reservations about the new PGA Tour schedule in a lunch with tournaments officer Andy Pazder, to shouting “Fuck you, Phil” during a massage in an overt and unapologetic dig at Phil Mickelson, McIlroy’s candour is jarring in a good way.
The Holywood man’s victory in the FedEx Cup was as close to a Hollywood ending as the producers could have dreamt of.
The objective of any behind-the-scenes documentary is to add humanity to headline-makers. Full Swing achieves that and more.
Stylishly shot, exquisitely edited and deftly structured, it provides a fantastic and much-needed gateway into one of the most individualistic and misunderstood of all sports.
The use of golf journalists, broadcasters and coaches to narrate and contextualise the drama speaks to a confident and informed editorial policy. Too often, golf relies on former players to add colour to the spectacle, and not always for the better. The neutrality and detachment of expert voices that follow the tour is either untrusted or deliberately overlooked. It’s to Full Swing’s credit that it resists that narrow mindset, with Dan Rapaport and Sean Foley making particularly superb contributions.
Some of the drone footage is utterly jaw-dropping (watch out for the water tower at Augusta National) whilst the balance of tournament play and normal life is judged to perfection.
Choosing to cover rather than ignore LIV is also 100% the right decision. The show would have lost all credibility by overlooking it and it’s to Mumm and Co’s credit that they didn’t.
Criticisms? I don’t have many but they merit discussion.
There’s a little too much by way of “I hope this makes it in” and “Did the cameras get that?” It’s perhaps too much to ask for a ‘fourth wall’ in documentary filmmaking but, from what I gather, the producers banked somewhere in the region of 700 hours’ worth of content. One nod to Netflix would have sufficed. After that, it starts to feel a little self-indulgent.
The closed-caption explainers of golf terms such as birdie, par, bogey in episode one were also a bit of a surprise. Clearly, this was done for the benefit of what producers no doubt hope will be a large non-golf audience but, for those who do follow the game or even have the most basic understanding of how it works, this felt like an over-simplification.
Also, there’s no Tiger Woods. Not in a direct sense, at least. He appears in cutaway footage and as a reference point in other conversations but that’s it. Look, convincing the world’s most reticent sportsman to open up to a group of strangers representing one of the biggest streaming services on the planet can’t be easy. But it’s precisely because Tiger is so influential and transcendent that any golf series in which he doesn’t star feels incomplete. Of course, perhaps now that he’s seen the product, he’ll show up in season two.
It certainly looks like a second season is on the cards, too. Whilst nobody will officially say so, this feels like a long-term commitment, much like Drive To Survive which is now into its fifth season. There is so much that Full Swing hasn’t yet been able to explore, not least the Ryder Cup. It has got off to a spectacularly good start. Now, it needs to be trusted to continue.
Quite simply, this is the production and the platform that golf has been crying out for. To give up now would be an almighty shank.
• Full Swing is available to watch on Netflix from February 15.
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