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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Cathie Lawson: I like how the Tour calculates Fed Ex winner; hubby, not so much. What top three reasons are each of us right?
Before it started this week, I was on the verge of coming around on the Tour Championship format. I’m not sure I can come up with three reasons to defend it, but I do think it’s easy to understand, particularly if you’re the kind of golf fan that doesn’t tune in until Saturday or Sunday (which is most golf fans, if we’re being honest.) At least there are no complicated math equations unfolding on the back nine on Sunday, helping determine a winner. But once it started, I was reminded of how lifeless it is. I know the Tour feels historically bound to Atlanta, but everything about it could improve if it were held elsewhere. Oppressive heat plus a bland course in a town with indifferent sports fans is such a recipe for boredom.
The FedExCup playoffs remain a little stuck between two worlds, in that the Tour can’t decide if it wants to model its season-long race after the English Premier League, or the NFL Playoffs. It wants the regular season to matter, and it also wants the playoffs to be something akin to a reset where everyone has a chance to win. In the NFL, you scrape and claw your way through the regular season because you want home-field advantage, which gives you — statistically and emotionally — a better chance to win the title. But there is no home-field advantage in golf. It feels like the only way to solve this is to give the regular season points leader (in this case Scottie Scheffler) an advantage going into the championship. He’s earned it, but he can’t just cruise to victory, he still has to shoot a good score.
I don’t know what a better format would be, other than perhaps a blend of stroke play and match play. I do think you could start the Tour Championship with a staggered start, then take the Top 8 players after two days and shift to match play from there. But no one seems to share the appetite for match play that true golf sickos have.
I do like my colleague Tron’s idea that instead of 10-under, the leader should start at Even Par, and those trailing him should be +2 and +4, etc. That would make for a fun psychological experiment and would make certain players so angry.
David Aneser: If Jay, or whoever is the commissioner, doesn't want the optics of immediately ending LIV, are there ways he could almost get his revenge on those players leaving? From initial reporting it sounded like those guys have to play in every event and it's really hard to get out of the contract. What if he just made the schedule really tough like an event in Malaysia followed by one in Argentina, then one in Poland and then South Africa all in a row. He would be following their ethos of taking golf around the world to places that don't typically get to see the top stars. Do you have any other ideas as a way they might be able to get revenge without killing it off?
Some of this is admittedly conjecture, but I am of the belief that Jay’s position has been considerably weakened by his recent absence from work for health reasons, and by the internal HR mess that’s unfolded within the PGA Tour. In theory, Monahan is supposed to oversee the future of LIV as part of the framework agreement. In reality? I’m not sure that’s a muscle worth flexing at this point, especially if he’s fighting to keep his job. If he really wants LIV to go away, he can simply insist that the board of directors evaluate its profitability and viability after it completes its 2024 season. Outside a group of people who seem driven by grievances, grifting or politics, it’s clear very few people are watching. As much as LIV fans (and players) want to blame the media, it’s hard to escape the truth: People have voted with their remotes. They don’t care about the product.
If you think that’s my fault, or Soly’s fault, or No Laying Up’s fault, you have become totally divorced from reality, and need to log off and touch grass.
LIV has shown that certain markets have been starved for golf, and been screwed over by the PGA Tour’s aggressive over-scheduling. I do think for the good of golf, there needs to be a couple of events per year in Australia.
The scenario you describe, I’m not sure it’s actually all that different from the schedule LIV has currently. Brooks Koepka either chose to play in — or felt he had to play in — two LIV events while his newborn son was in the NICU for three weeks. The players seem to understand what they signed up for.
Jon Fife: I'm sure this could be a somewhat controversial discussion, but I've been wanting to ask the NLU team this… Could Bones be an issue with JT this year? We expected it to be this great partnership, but he has performed worse since they started working together other than the PGA in 2022. Should JT go back to his old caddy?
I think whenever a top player struggles, people tend to look for something to pin the blame on other than the player, whether it’s equipment, coaching, caddying, or even a new marriage (or in some cases, a divorce). What’s harder to accept is that golf is really hard and even the best players struggle to perform consistently, particularly as their body changes and they enter their 30s. We always think of golf as a life sport, and that you don’t reach your prime until you’re 30, but I’m not sure we’ve come to grips with a new reality yet: everyone now is swinging out of their shoes from a very early age, trying to hit it as far as possible. That takes a toll on the body. What if golfers start to age like running backs?
Even if that’s not the case with Thomas, let’s examine the premise of your question. Would Jimmy Johnson even want to caddie again if Thomas asked him to come back? Although there was never an official announcement, he seems to be essentially retired. He’s 66 years old. Thomas was adamant he didn’t fire Johnson when they split, that Johnson wanted to “pursue other opportunities.” It’s possible Johnson simply didn’t want to grind anymore. He has a lot of miles in his legs.
I think if you’re looking for an explanation for his two-year malaise, Thomas’ Data Golf page is far more insightful. For most of his 20s, he was one of the best iron players in the world. Although he has regressed in other areas of his game, the biggest difference between Thomas now and the player he used to be is his approach game. In 2020, he was gaining +1.17 shots per round on approach. In 2023, it’s just +0.36 per round. His putting in 2023 was poor (-0.22 strokes gained, the worst season of his career) but the drop off in his approach game has been even more significant.
If the argument is that Bones has made him a worse iron player and putter, I’m not sure there are facts to support it. Bones has been on the bag for more tournament wins over the last 20 years than any caddie other than Steve Williams. I don’t think he suddenly forgot how to read putts or get yardages.
Clint Novak: Hi Kevin, Do you think some people let Rory off the hook for his Phil gambling comments for the Ryder Cup? Phil is an easy target through many self-inflicted actions, but he is on record as saying he was addicted to gambling, and it is clear from multiple accounts that addiction was totally out of control. If Phil's addiction was substances, it does not appear to me Rory would take the shot, but with gambling, he did. What are your thoughts?
People who are heavily invested in defending Phil Mickelson’s reputation seem fixated on this point, and it’s a little strange to me considering no one has talked more shit in his career than Phil. To think he is a delicate flower who suddenly needs defending feels rather silly. It was Phil, after all, who first took a Ryder Cup-related dig at Rory many years ago saying the United States had an advantage because, unlike Europe, they weren’t litigating against each other, an obvious dig at Rory’s lawsuit against Horizon Sports Management when Graeme McDowell was still heavily-involved with that firm.
In a literal sense, Rory isn’t even making fun of Mickelson’s gambling addiction. He is taking a dig at the fact that Phil is not involved with the Ryder Cup team for the first time in 25 years.
Now, you can read that multiple ways. I’m sure Rory knows that it will bug Phil to not be involved in Rome. He always loved team events. But the fact that Phil played in 12 consecutive Ryder Cups and was an assistant captain in 2021 is a truly remarkable run, and Rory will be fortunate if he comes close to matching it. I’ve said this before, but it bums me out a great deal that Phil may never get a turn as a Ryder Cup captain. Even though his record as a player has been mixed, I do think he’d be a great captain. And even if he’s a disastrous captain, that would be great theater.
I think it’s a fair assessment that no one in the history of golf has said, or done, more things they’d like to take back than Phil. Just a few weeks ago, he was gleefully agreeing with LIV trolls on Twitter that Rory was a “little bitch” whom no LIV team would want. Phil even took a little dig at Rory for skipping the Heritage after the Masters. Did anyone chastise Phil for mocking Rory’s desire to address his mental health? Or did we just agree that all seems to be fair in LIV and war?
The suggestion that people are suddenly being mean to Phil feels a little ridiculous. He’s a big boy, and he and Rory don’t have to like one another. Golf’s desire to pretend that everyone is a gentleman and everyone gets along isn’t reflective of the culture in other sports, nor is it reality.
Cole Leninger: I would love to hear your personal thoughts on what makes a truly “great” golf course to you. Is it playability? Architectural prowess? The scenery? Vibes? The people there? I’m interested to hear your perspective on what you love in a golf course and what separates a fun place to play from a course you find to be truly spectacular and more meaningful than others.
An interesting, if complicated question. Each person’s answer says something about what they value, right? I feel like it’s not all that different than music or literature or cinema. There aren’t wrong answers, there are only unique answers.
If I had to pick the course I’ve played that I think about the most, it’s Bandon Trails. I like the stillness of it, the way each hole feels like its own universe. But I also recently got the chance to play Sleepy Hollow in a Golfer’s Journal event, and there is something mesmerizing about the middle of the course, where you can see something like six other holes.
But those two courses are among the best courses in the United States, public or private, and the rating of a course is less important than how it makes you feel. Dan Jenkins wrote a legendary Sports Illustrated piece almost 60 years ago about Goat Hills, a dog track muni he grew up playing with his friends in Texas, and it's my favorite piece he ever penned because it speaks to why I love golf. It’s less about the venue than it is about the people you share it with. My favorite golf course on earth is probably Waterton Lakes Golf Course in Alberta, because every year, my family would spend a week in Canada, and it’s the first place that golf ever made me feel something I couldn’t get anywhere else. It didn’t matter that tree roots occasionally grew through the greens or that you had to be wary of bears on the back nine. It had gorgeous scenery and it was where my uncles and my parents and my cousins spent countless hours trying to beat the sunset, just to get in three more holes.
There are three dozen courses I hope I get to play someday (The Old Course, Cypress Point, Fisher’s Island, Sand Hills, Pine Valley, Royal County Down, Tara Iti, etc.) but I think for a course to truly elevate itself, the company needs to be exceptional, the laughs need to be plentiful, and drinks cold afterward. That can happen anywhere. Some of my all-time favorite rounds happened on mediocre public courses in Maryland during the pandemic, when some friends and I got to gather and compete and, as Billy Joel said, forget about life for a while.
That said, forced carries, excessive water hazards and target golf is generally stupid.
Wesley Whamond: Why is Justin Leonard nowhere around when it comes to the Ryder Cup? Did he piss someone off. He won a major and is a RC legend with the putt in 99. I would think he’d be in the fold for vice captain/captain and such? Seems odd.
It does seem odd. And I’ll be honest and say I’ve never given that slight much thought until your question, I guess because Leonard has never made a fuss of things. As far as I can tell, he’s never campaigned for the position or expressed frustration that he has never been considered. It seems there are a handful of players in every generation who never get a serious look despite having the credentials: Hale Irwin, Larry Nelson, Mark O’Meara, Fred Couples, David Duval. Leonard seems destined to share their fate. I’m of the belief that you should get one shot and that’s it, which is why it would be frustrating to see David Love III and Tom Watson each get two turns if you were any of the guys on that list.
Hi KVV, loved your Dan Jenkinsesque summary of your match with DJP. I’ve had this idea for some time: on the Monday or the Wednesday of the Ryder Cup, the captains play an 18 hole match as a curtain raiser for the event. The players could be following along and giving advice etc. Taken to the extreme it could even be worth 1/2 a point - as in the tiebreaker in a halved match which would obviously have implications for Captain selections. It would be content for viewers and spectators in what can be a slow week of build up. Love to hear your thoughts.
I find this idea to be insane but also oddly compelling. Again, all the more reason why it’s sad Mickelson is unlikely to ever be a captain, because imagine how compelling he’d be in this scenario. One potential drawback though: What if Tiger can’t play competitively again? You don’t want this fantasy scenario to prevent him from serving as a captain.
One aspect not working in your favor: The Ryder Cup isn’t really lacking for drama. A match between a 50-year-old Rory with gray hair and a 46-year-old Jordan Spieth with no hair does feel compelling, but I’m not sure the Ryder Cup needs the extra juice.
Jay Rose: Hey KVV, Do you consider soup a meal? (I can argue either side, lol)
I do not consider soup a meal. My wife and I have frequent disagreements on this matter, but I remain firm in my belief that soup is an appetizer or an accompaniment, not the main event of a meal. Especially gazpacho. People who serve gazpacho at dinner parties and act like it’s a meal probably ought to go to jail.
Chili can be a meal, but I don’t think it’s a soup. I’m torn on pozole. It’s definitely a soup, but it feels very much like a meal. Clam chowder is a soup, and it can pretty clearly be a meal, but I enjoy it more when it’s the preview, not the whole show.
Hi KVV. Would be keen to hear from you, or other NLU parents, how you got your kids introduced into golf. The last thing I want to do is push golf too hard onto my son, and then have him resist.
I get this question a lot, probably because I over-share when it comes to my daughter’s love of golf, but I understand why I get it. People who love golf want to share it with their kids, particularly dads with daughters, and it’s not always an easy sell.
My typical advice goes like this: Pushing them rarely works, you almost need to bait the hook and reel them in. When my girls were little, I remember being frustrated that the LPGA didn’t have a coloring book I could buy, so I printed out pictures of Michelle Wie they could color. Another entry point that didn’t exist for me but does now? Shane Bacon’s book “The Golfer’s Zoo.”
Watching “The Short Game” on Netflix was also huge. My kids have watched it a half-dozen times, at least. I think it helps when kids can see themselves represented in the media. When my daughter Keegan and I went to the Women’s U.S. Open this summer, she wanted to see Rose Zhang because of the “Week In The Life” documentary we did, but she also wanted to walk a few holes with Amari Avery, who at age 8 was prominently featured in The Short Game. Alexa Pano, who just won on the LPGA for the first time, told Sports Illustrated’s Gabby Herzig this week that a day rarely goes by without someone coming up to her and saying her appearance in The Short Game is a big reason why they got into golf.
You know what else my daughter loves watching? Highlights of Charlie Woods and Will McGee at the PNC Challenge. In her eyes, they are major celebrities because of that event.
As far as playing, just start by taking your kid to the putting green or the range. I have videos of my daughter smacking range balls with plastic clubs that go about two feet in front of the hitting bay. She’s giddy. These days she’s pissed if her drives don’t go 150 yards.
The PGA Junior League is a great entry point into the game too. I think I can make a good case that all golf between the ages of 7 and 10 ought to be played as a scramble with teammates. But the best advice I can offer is just watch golf with them as much as possible and take them with you when you play golf, particularly if that’s a twilight nine and there is no one else on the course.
My kids knew who Brandt Snedeker was before they knew LeBron James, just because golf was always on in the house. One of my girls decided, eventually, that it wasn’t for her (she still watches but rarely plays), but the other treats it like a religion. So in reality, I have only a 50 percent success rate. It’s pretty damn rewarding though.
Ian MacFarland: With the USWNT faltering in the World Cup, is Michael Block now a shoe-in for SI Sportsman of the Year?
This question made me laugh out loud (I know it’s submitted in jest) because Blockie being named Sportsman of the Year is not out of the realm of possibility, and it would set off such a delightful uproar among golf sickos, I think we might need to put Randy and Tron in restraints.
The Blockie stuff — hyperbole, the backlash, plus the backlash to the backlash — delights me to no end. You have to be truly deep in our weird golf media world to understand why his 15 minutes of fame has been so polarizing, but now I’m ALL IN on the idea of him being SI’s Sportsman of the Year just for the takes.
BTonk3: My company just had a large re-org and significant layoffs this week. I was lucky to survive the layoffs, but my new role is a pretty big step backwards for me in my desired career progression which has finally provided the kick in the tail to move on that I have been considering for some time. As someone who recently changed employers, and granted probably not for the same reasons as stated above, what were the main factors that led to your decision, and what should I consider when exploring options?
You know that saying “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life?”
I love my job at NLU, but it’s definitely work. It’s a lot more work, in fact, than I was doing at ESPN. There were times at ESPN when I’d go six months without publishing a story. That was very difficult for me, and at times my mental health wasn’t great as a result. I admit, I lived a very spoiled existence in the world of journalism, writing only a handful of stories a year. But that can also leave you feeling pretty empty between at-bats.
I loved the people I worked with, there just wasn’t a role for me in this era of ESPN that maximized what I’m probably best at, which is a mixture of commentary and scene-driven storytelling. The majority of ESPN’s commentary occurs on television these days. That’s a smart choice by the company, because the people who do it (like Stephen A. Smith) are good at it, and ESPN is a television network first and foremost. That’s where it makes its money.
There isn’t a lot of commentary anymore in print. There is a ton of great reporting and great writing. I’d argue ESPN still has the best collection of talent in all of journalism. But ESPN has mostly phased out columnists.
If I have any piece of advice for someone mulling a major career change, it’s that you need to ask yourself whether or not you’re going to regret the chance passing you by if you don’t take it. When I was 22, all I wanted in the world was to write narrative features for a magazine. At 44, I realized it was okay to want something different, and I was going to spend the next five years filled with regret that I didn’t join NLU if I stayed at ESPN.
ESPN is doing just fine without me. I’m sure there are people there who miss me, but the company certainly doesn’t. I’m proud of the work I did there, particularly my final piece on the therapeutic potential of psychedelic mushrooms, but nothing I wrote was going to make a difference in the company’s long-term prospects.
Unlike certain golfers, I have no interest in trashing the place I left, even if it frustrated me at times because that place — and the opportunities it gave me — made my current life possible.
At NLU, I feel like my work can have a very real impact on the future of the company, which is scary. But it’s also invigorating, and an incentive to work that much harder.
Kevin Van Valkenburg is the Editorial Director of No Laying Up.
Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.