Welcome back to the NLU Mailbag. In this space, we’ll address topics big and small, smart and dumb, irreverent and serious.
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Dgolfman62281: Is Oak Hill CC the Torrey Pines of New York? I can’t even get one elevated pulse point for this course. I still have negative memories of the 95 Ryder Cup and I can’t remember a single thing about Jason Dufner’s win here. It’s a stinky bland generic east coast track and I might check in on the final 2 holes Sunday but that’s it.
Always love to begin a mailbag with a salty golf course review! I was probably in this camp before I did any research about Oak Hill, and then I watched this excellent video our friends at The Fried Egg produced about the Andrew Green redesign, and I totally flipped. I love interesting green complexes, and this course has them again. It’s almost unrecognizable from what it was before. When you see what Donald Ross greens used to look like, and what they became, it feels almost criminal they were allowed to become so bland and lacking in character. I think we’re in for a cool championship.
As for memories of Oak Hill, I have two from Dufner’s win. The first is, I’m not sure anyone has ever hit their irons better while putting worse than Dufner did that week. It was surreal. He was hitting shots to kick-in distance, but even those putts didn’t feel like a sure thing. It was transcendent ball-striking and close-your-eyes-and-say-a-prayer putting. It was a tribute to Ben Hogan — whom Dufner modeled his swing after — in more ways than I think most people realized.
Hogan is widely regarded as the greatest iron player to ever live. His swing has been copied by generations of players. But Hogan grew to loathe putting so much late in his career, he actually suggested (perhaps in jest, perhaps not) it be eliminated from the sport. He grew anxious over the ball and was embarrassed to play in front of crowds.
"If I had my way, every golf green would be made into a huge funnel,” Hogan told a journalist at the 1957 Masters. “So that when you hit the funnel the ball would roll down a pipe into the hole. That way there would be no expensive upkeep of grass on the greens. And there would be much less misery among the golfers."
The second memory has to do with trees. Oak Hill was, at the time, nearly overwhelmed with trees. And from these trees, acorns were falling. Dufner’s wife, Amanda, one of the first social media stars connected to golf, picked up several of those acorns and declared she was going to plant them on the Dufners’ land in Alabama. One day, from those Oak Hill acorns, majestic trees would grow. They would be strong and always serve as a reminder of that major championship. At the time, I thought: “That would make a beautiful lead to a story. I wish I was there to write it.”
That anecdote is an interesting window into how fragile some things can be, and how rare permanence is in golf and life. The Dufners are no longer married. Jason has gone from being the 6th-ranked player in the world to the 692nd-ranked player. Oak Hill has undergone a complete restoration. Many of those trees are gone.
It’s a sad story. But there is something moving about it too. You want to hold onto things but the world changes in ways you never expect. Someone could win the PGA Championship next week, and a decade later, they might feel lost with a putter in their hands. Sometimes heartbreak can lead to a better future. That’s one of the reasons why it’s a compelling sport to watch. You might be watching something beautiful unfold, but also quite fragile.
Wiganerlyon: Why does the run-up to the PGA feel less juicy from a grand slam perspective for Jordan Spieth than pre-Masters feels for Rory McIlroy? Both are very popular players in the game. Is it just the narrative with Rory and the amount of scar tissue now accrued at a single course?
I think needing just the Masters to complete the career Grand Slam is the biggest blessing/curse in professional golf. Jon Rahm will never have to answer questions for an entire offseason the way Rory has for 12 years about whether this might be his year. It’s always the first major, so the build-up feels enormous. It also feels like the more you want it, the more you hope it will fulfill something in you, and the more the tournament seems to delight in rejecting you. The fact that Rory came so close at such a young age, only to fail in such a spectacular and memorable way, plays into that narrative. Everyone has been saying for years that the Masters sets up so well for Rory, that he could win three or four of them, but that’s not how sports work. It’s possible his best chance was when he was 21.
The narrative for Spieth is different. For starters, the PGA doesn’t return to the same place every year so there isn’t the same psychological baggage surrounding the event. Will the baggage grow if he never wins a PGA? If he has a heartbreaking near-miss the way Tom Watson did in 1978, it’s possible. But at this point, it feels like a Spieth victory that completed the Grand Slam would almost come as a surprise. No one knows, at this point, if he can hold a Sunday lead in a major. His own scars are thick in that department, so I think he’d have to come from well off the lead (the way he’s almost done a couple times at the Masters) to make it a reality. He wouldn’t have to mull the gravity when his head hit the pillow or even talk about it. He’d just have to play a great round at the right time when no one expected it. With his recent wrist injury, I’d say the expectations for him will be fairly low, assuming he plays at all.
Even if Rory entered the final round of the Masters in 8th place, all eyes would be on him. For whatever reason, the way we view them is just going to be different. In 2015, it looked like they were poised to be rivals for a decade, the best players of the post-Tiger generation. Now it’s fair to wonder if either of them will end up completing the Grand Slam. As absurd as it sounds, Phil Mickelson winning the U.S. Open at LACC or Jon Rahm winning the PGA and the Open Championship might be our best chance at a Grand Slam.
Wnf08a: Who has a better week at the PGA — Rickie Fowler or Jason Day?
Regular listeners to the pod know that I’ve been predicting Jason Day will win this year (something he hasn’t done since 2018), all season. But his recent allergy issues — which seem to be contributing to the return of his vertigo — are a genuine cause for concern. As my colleague Chris Solomon recently pointed out to the world, Rickie Fowler has been so solid in 2023 (Data Golf has him as the 18th-ranked player in the world), he is a genuine candidate for one of the last two spots on the U.S. Ryder Cup team, something I definitely didn’t see coming a year ago. Oak Hill is definitely a course where I could see Fowler sneaking into contention.
Even if you agree with my colleague Big Randy and feel like Fowler's fame within the sport represents late-stage capitalism, you have to admire how he’s rebuilt his swing and salvaged his career. I’m sure it must have been tempting to join LIV when he was deep in the wilderness, but without a path into major championships, Fowler would have been trapped in a lucrative but substance-free existence, the exact space his critics accused him of occupying for years. It would be pretty rewarding if a major were the payoff for all that work.
Gottliebk12: What is your ideal food and drink option at the turn?
I think this depends on the season. In the summer, nothing beats a bratwurst with mustard and a cold beer, particularly a gose or a sour. That might seem blasphemous to those who feel passionate about the simplicity of Miller Lite, Coors, or Bud, but when you play most of your golf in the sweltering humidity of Maryland, it’s basically like living in the Devil’s armpit. There is something delightful about a crisp sour or gose with a hint of salt that makes the perfect golf course beer. I think a Transfusion runs a close second, but it needs to be a good one. If the grape juice is too strong, I’m dumping it out after a few zips. (They make an incredible Transfusion at the course I just joined.)
In the fall, I mostly just opt for beef jerky. It’s simple, it’s not messy, you don’t have to think too much about it. But a good Bloody Mary is undefeated on the golf course.
ThatDuffGuyPat: What’s something, other than golf, that you have struggled with to get to the point you’re at but still enjoy through the frustrations or difficulties?
My genuine answer would be writing. It’s such a subjective thing to believe you are good at writing. The standard you’re trying to reach exists mostly in your own head. It requires both hubris and vulnerability. One smart person can look at the words on the page and see brilliance and another smart person can look at the same words and dismiss them as pedestrian. There are days when many writers (myself occasionally among them) stare at the screen and feel miserable, like we’re trapped in a decades-long fraud of pretending we’re good at this stuff. Any day now, we fear, someone is going to tap us on the shoulder and say “You realize you’re no good at this, right?” And at the same time, we can look at writers who are commercially or critically successful and think “How can anyone think that person is good at this?”
In golf, there is a score. We can measure each other and compete against each other and reach a conclusion about ability based on facts. We often joke about the Eye Test at NLU, but for the most part, we know the difference between someone who is great and someone who is fine. Every result is compounding evidence.
Writing — beyond objective standards for punctuation and grammar — has more to do with whether or not it speaks to the reader’s soul.
Few things in life are more satisfying to me than writing paragraphs that make a reader feel something, whether that is humor or anger or joy. And yet, sometimes the road to those sentences can be torture. Most writers, even the great ones, are chasing a standard they’ll probably never reach. But the striving becomes addictive. When you write a good sentence or a great scene in a story, it’s like a perfectly-struck long iron. All you want to do is chase that feeling, even if you know, deep down, how difficult it will be to repeat.
To borrow a lyric from the subject of our next question: It gets easier but it never gets easy.
Mathew823: Do you have any thoughts on the Jason Isbell “Running With Our Eyes Closed” documentary? I was, as ever, struck by his directness. There are plenty of musicians who can open a vein in their music but won’t talk much about it outside of that. Isbell has no pretense about that at all.
Regular readers of this mailbag know that I am something of an Isbell devotee — so much so that I was interviewed by The Ringer, which produced the documentary, about the curious connection between Isbell and sportswriters — so it pains me to admit that I wanted to love the doc more than I actually did. I thought the film had so many themes it was trying to juggle, it lacked a cohesive narrative.
Was it about the anxiety of making an album where an artist feels like his reputation is at stake? Was it about Jason and Amanda’s marriage? Was it about Isbell’s sobriety? His childhood? Was it about the isolation of COVID? Is it about trying to outrun the ghosts of your past while still, somehow, honoring pieces of them?
In trying to touch on all these themes, I think it struggles to answer two fundamental questions: What is this documentary about and why are we telling this story?
I am certainly grateful the documentary exists. There are elements of it that moved me deeply. I understand Jason and Amanda better and appreciate their willingness to lay themselves bare for all the world to see in the name of art. That is the deal they’ve made with the audience throughout their careers, and it’s the reason they feel almost like family to me, even though I am just a faceless fan to them — one of millions. The hardest thing about being vulnerable is you hand someone the weapon they can use to destroy you. But writers and storytellers also owe each other the truth, and if I pretended I loved the documentary just because I love and admire the people involved, I’d be dishonoring that agreement.
But again, we return to the subjective evaluation of art. It’s possible the documentary is great, and I’m too close to its subject matter. Either way, I’m excited for Weathervanes, particularly after listening to Cast Iron Skillet, which already feels up there with some of his best work.
TTrentC: As a Girl-Dad-to-be this fall, what would you include in your “starter kit” mentioned on the pod for new dads?
If you missed our April Nest Pod with Soly, it contains a thoughtful discussion about what the anticipation is like when you’re about to become a father for the first time. I joked on another pod that there should be a starter kit for New Dads, but I didn’t get specific about what it would contain.
I’ve thought about it a bunch and I don’t think it would contain many physical items — although a good stroller and a good swaddle blanket are magic — as much as advice, so here goes, from the father of three:
- There is no RIGHT way. You're gonna get a lot of advice, and you're going to get people who cannot resist giving it as you try to figure out what you're doing. This is especially tough when it's your parents. New babies can be tough on any relationship. It's important to trust your own judgment (yours and your partner’s) and be united on that front. There might be times when you have to referee a bit between all the people in your life. Always let your partner know you've got her back.
- Give each other grace, particularly after 8 pm. One of my friends told me he and and his wife had a pact to forgive anything said after 8 pm, because you're so tired after the adrenaline runs out, you can't help snapping at each other. Forgive quickly, just like golf.
- Don't be afraid to take the kid places. In a car seat or stroller, they're actually super easy to cart around when they're little and just sleep all the time and it will make you feel a little slice of normal if you take the kid to a casual restaurant for a brunch or a lunch. The people who hide inside for months and then venture into the world end up feeling overwhelmed and scared when it's time to live a more normal life. Yes, you have to make your own calculation about COVID and such but get outside. Kids are super adaptable! When my daughter was a baby, I used to take her to the driving range and hit a bucket while she watched me from the stroller. Now she’s a genuine golf obsessive with a swing infinitely more graceful than mine. Who cares if you get funny looks from golf hardos. You’ll be grateful for the normalcy.
- There will be a moment when everything hits you, that you love this kid more than you've ever loved anything. It's powerful and surreal. Take a few moments and bask in that feeling, because you'll want to revisit it from time to time. Parenting can be hard, and your life is going to change a lot, but nothing is as fulfilling.
- You'll be great. Everyone doubts themselves. Everyone gets a little scared with the first one. You will too. But one day you'll tell yourself "Shit, I'm good at this." And it will be true.
Bonus: I get a lot of messages from NLU dads who want to know how I got my daughter interested in golf. They mention they would love something similar with their daughters, which I think is a great sign. The more welcoming we are to girls at a young age, the more interested they’ll be in making golf a lifelong sport. My friend Hally Leadbetter released a very entertaining skit this week imagining what it would be like if men were treated the way women often are in golf. As funny as that skit is, there is an underlying message. It’s clear we have some work to do.
I decided to ask my 11-year-old how I should answer this question. Her answer was short but pretty poignant, I think.
“You’ve got to make it just you and your daughter,” she said. “Don’t invite other people. That’s important. Make it like a club. Also, watch women’s golf on TV with them. Not just the men."