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As an assistant professor of psychiatry at the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University, Dr Jared Van Snellenberg is best known to his peers and others in the academic community as one of the leading authorities on schizophrenia and cognitive neuroscience.

To an entire generation of golf fans, however, he’s known as something else. Or rather, someone else.

Remember the movie Happy Gilmore? Remember Happy’s peroxide blond caddie from the Waterbury Open? The “punk” Happy accuses of trying to steal his golf clubs?

Yep. That was Van Snellenburg.

Much has changed for the Vancouver man since Adam Sandler’s classic golf caper hit screens in 1996 but the 43-year-old still reflects fondly on that time in his life.

“I always really enjoyed acting,” he tells “I did theatre all through high school, including a bit of Shakespeare in sixth or seventh grade, and because I had enjoyed it so much, my parents enrolled me in a summer theatre workshop.

“I did that three summers running and, the final summer, the teacher of the class said to me, ‘You know, you’re really good at this. I’d like to put you in touch with my agent.’”

The connection was never made but Van Snellenburg’s interest was piqued.

“I bugged my mum constantly about getting an agent, so she went out and figured out how to get one for me,” he says. “She’d heard really good things about an acting school for kids called Darlington Talent. And so I took an ‘acting for film’ class, because I had no film or television experience at that point.”

Halfway through that class, he successfully auditioned with an agency partnered with the school. Within a year, he landed his role in Happy Gilmore.

“I think I did three or four auditions,” he recalls. “A couple of them were on the same day. I had gone in and they asked me to come back, like, two hours later. When I did, Adam was there, so I auditioned with Adam in the room.

“Shortly after that, my agent got a call, I had got the role, we were shooting in three months, and that I wasn’t to cut my hair.”

Jared Van Snellenburg starring with Adam Sandler in hit golf comedy Happy Gilmore.
Jared Van Snellenburg starring with Adam Sandler in hit golf comedy Happy Gilmore.

Ah yes. The hair. Van Snellenburg’s character is instantly recognisable by his bright blond curls. That, as it turns out, was the actor’s choice.

“Much to my mother’s chagrin, I had bleached my hair as a 14-year-old without anyone’s permission,” he laughs. “She actually told me, ‘You’re never gonna book another role again.’ And then I immediately turned around and booked my first feature film.”

Van Snellenburg ultimately spent four days shooting his scenes in the movie.

“One of those was mainly spent getting my hair right,” he says. “They bleached out my roots, so it was bleached all the way down. And then they did it up how you see it in the film, which was basically a helmet of hairspray for four-inch-thick, rock-hard hair.

“But it was an amazing experience and Adam was a lot of fun to be around. He had obviously had a lot of success with Saturday Night Live and then Billy Madison, so he was pretty well known by that point. I just remember him being a really funny, energetic guy, kind of capricious, telling jokes.

“The whole set was almost like a party vibe. We all had a lot of fun and I think that comes through when you see the film. Everybody was just having a really good time.”

It wasn’t long after the film was released that Van Snellenburg started getting recognised on a regular basis.

Van Snellenburg had a small but iconic role in the 1996 hit movie.

“I kept the bleached hair for a while, so that made me stand out I guess. That probably went on for a decade or so but even when I started to grow facial hair, a surprising number of people still recognised me into the mid and late 2000s. It doesn’t happen so much now but, of course, if anyone Googles me for work purposes, they find out that I had a prior career.”

Which brings us to Van Snellenburg’s current vocation. As 180-degree shifts in direction go, swapping the big screen for MRI screening is about as stark as it gets. In Van Snellenburg’s case, however, it was surprisingly organic.

“When I started university, I found that I really liked psychology and I had a real interest in schizophrenia,” he says. “We had term papers for most of our courses and, no matter what the course was about, I’d figure out a way to make my paper about schizophrenia.

“By my final year at university, I was volunteering in three labs, I was teaching a course, and I also had a full-time course load, honours thesis, things like that. So, I told my agent that I wanted to try and become an academic and that, unfortunately, i wouldn’t have time to act anymore.

“They tried calling me a couple of times to send me to auditions, but both times it was like, no, I have to teach a class. I just couldn’t do it and, eventually, they stopped calling and I haven’t gone back.”

Van Snellenburg’s work is incredibly specialised and focuses, in the main, on cognitive deficit amongst schizophrenics.

“Patients with schizophrenia have memory deficits and, on average, have a lower IQ than a healthy population would,” he explains. “As a group, they have an average IQ of around 85 – but we still don’t really understand why that is.”

That’s where Happy Gilmore’s ex-caddie comes in.

• 20 things you never knew about Happy Gilmore

• The cast of Happy Gilmore: Where are they now?

Using a technology called functional magnetic resonance imaging, Van Snellenburg studies how the brain processes information and deals with problem-solving tasks in both healthy patients and those with schizophrenia in order to better understand the neurological or cognitive differences.

“We make use of the fact that that when brain cells are active, it causes additional blood flow to go to the region that became active,” he says. “So, when you have intense neural processing in some part of the brain, there’s an increase in blood flow to that same part of the brain that can happen a couple of seconds later.

“It’s a little bit delayed because the vascular system is slow, and what that lets us do is use specialised MRI technique that can detect when there’s changes in the amount of oxygen in a certain part of tissue.”

It all adds up to an incredibly diverse CV which makes Van Snellenburg eligible for an incredibly exclusive club.

“So, there’s thing called an Erdos-Bacon number,” he says. “Basically, it’s what you might call a ‘small world phenomenon’ that connects academia and entertainment.”

To have an Erdos-Bacon number, a person must have appeared in a film with a direct trail to Kevin Bacon, and have co-authored an academic paper that leads back to Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdos. The combined number of ‘steps’ it takes to reach both men gives you your number.

For example, Oscar-winning actress Natalie Portman had an Erdos-Bacon number of seven. Academically, she collaborated with Abigail A. Baird, who has a collaboration path leading to Joseph Gillis, who has an Erdős number of 1, giving Portman an Erdős number of five. On screen, she appeared in A Powerful Noise Live with Sarah Michelle Gellar, who appeared in The Air I Breathe with Bacon, giving Portman a Bacon number of two. And five plus two equals seven.

Twilight actress Kristen Stewart also has an Erdos-Bacon number of seven. Colin Firth and Elon Musk both have a number of six. Bill Gates’ number is four.

Van Snellenburg’s number is six. “I published with someone, who published with someone, who published with Paul Erdos, so my Erdos number is four,” he says. “And I was never in a film with Kevin Bacon but I did feature in Agent Cody Banks, with Frankie Muniz, who was in My Dog Skip with him, so my Bacon number is two.”

Of course, he could, theoretically, trim his Bacon number to one if he was ever to appear in a movie with the Footloose star. Without representation, that’s probably a long shot. But with Happy Gilmore 2 in the works, he isn’t ruling it out completely.

“Nobody’s asked me about it yet and it’s not something I’m actively pursuing, but if they wanted to do something funny with me, I’d be all over it,” he says. “I think they should get Will Zalatoris involved as a caddie and I could maybe play his dad.”

Ah, so he’s aware of the comparisons that have been drawn between his character and the rising PGA Tour star?

“Oh yeah,” he laughs. “Friends of mine started messaging me when all that stuff started happening, saying, ‘Have you seen this guy?’ It was all good fun. But yeah, if Adam’s reading this, I’m open to ideas about the sequel. Let’s make it happen.”

author headshot

Michael McEwan is the Deputy Editor of bunkered and has been part of the team since 2004. In that time, he has interviewed almost every major figure within the sport, from Jack Nicklaus, to Rory McIlroy, to Donald Trump. The host of the multi award-winning bunkered Podcast and a member of Balfron Golfing Society, Michael is the author of three books and is the 2023 PPA Scotland 'Writer of the Year' and 'Columnist of the Year'. Dislikes white belts, yellow balls and iron headcovers. Likes being drawn out of the media ballot to play Augusta National.

Deputy Editor

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