Welcome back to the No Laying Up bi-weekly mailbag! In this space, we’ll address topics big and small, smart and dumb, irreverent and serious. You need to be a member of The Nest to submit a question to the mailbag, but the mailbag itself will be free to read (as long as you behave yourselves). Most of our questions are submitted via our message board, The Refuge, but if you’re not a message board person, please send me an email at kvv@nolayingup.com with your Nest handle and your question. As a bonus, if your question gets picked, we’ll send you a free NLU towel.

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ChasingScratch: Why all of a sudden are we hearing endless conversations about who is the #1 player in the game? From my perspective this is a pretty unimportant conversation on a week-to-week or month to month basis. Golf careers are measured in years/decades, not weeks/months. Why does anyone care who is #1 in the OWGR? Is this based on our society’s need to rank everything? It’s pretty clear to me that Rahm, Rory, and Scheffler are the consistently best players in the world over the last year. Ranking one over the other is pretty pointless. Anyone can see that Rahm is the hottest golfer on the planet right now. In two months it could look different.

This is something that’s been bugging me recently as well, Mr. Scratch. I understand why it appeals to people drawn to the idea that everything should be quantifiable, but few subjects interest me less than arguing over the fairness of a math equation in the context of sports. Andy Johnson of The Fried Egg and I have a long-running bit about the careers of Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson, with Andy contending that Phil’s inability to ever reach No. 1 in the world is the ace up his sleeve in the argument that Els had the better career. (I recently had to concede that if morality is our tiebreaker, the Big Easy gets the nod, but I’m not quite ready to give up on the statistical discussion.) Is consistency what you crave? Or an athlete’s peak?

I have always been drawn more to the romantic element of sports, not the analytics, although I’ve learned to see the value in Strokes Gained when assessing whether golfers are playing well. But in my mind, it’s always important to remember rankings are just a snapshot, or a moment in time. It's insane to me to think that when Mickelson was standing on the 18th tee at Winged Foot, two good swings away from winning his third straight major, that he wasn’t the best player in the world. It also doesn’t matter to me if he was or wasn’t. If the best players don’t make you feel something, who cares what the numbers say?

One of the smartest things I ever heard came from Mathew Slater, the Patriots special teams legend. I was interviewing him for a feature in ESPN, and asking who he thought were the best special teams players of all time. He said he didn’t want to categorize or compare them. “Comparison is the thief of joy,” he told me.

Maybe that’s a phrase that’s been monetized by Etsy embroidery entrepreneurs for a decade, but it resonates with me. I try to think about it in terms of movies, books and music. Why not golfers?

If Jon Rahm is the best player in the world — and I think recent results clearly back that up — does that diminish my enjoyment of watching Scottie or Rory? It shouldn’t. I guarantee the people at Riviera this week did not care that Tiger Woods is currently 985th in the world. I used to rank a lot of things in my life. I think I blame the book High Fidelity. Now I just try to enjoy all of it. Comparison is the thief of joy.

An aerial view of the lengthened 13th hole at Augusta National.

The new 13th

An aerial view of the lengthened 13th hole at Augusta National.

Eureka Earth
An aerial view of the lengthened 13th hole at Augusta National.

Mshriver3: Augusta National recently announced the long foreseen lengthening of the 13th hole from 510 to 545 yards. This comes after the recent lengthenings of the 5th, 11th, and 15th holes. Is Augusta National done lengthening the course?

I’ve been saying for a few years that I think if the USGA doesn’t do something to curtail distance, Augusta National will be tempted to come out with their own ball. They could hand two sleeves to every player on the first tee. One version that spins a lot and one that spins less. You can pick which you’d prefer to play, but neither ball will go 350 yards. If you don’t like it? You are welcome to skip the tournament. Augusta National is the only power broker in golf that could put its foot down and say “enough” without a lawsuit. It’s an invitational. What choice would players have?

There would be plenty of Twitter eggs eager to tell you the Masters had lost all credibility because it didn’t have the top players in the world, but I don’t know that the Masters would care. According to the Wall Street Journal, the club has spent around $200 million buying up houses and land around its property. Could they, in theory, buy even more land and keep pushing tees back? I suppose, but where would it ever end?

Texasgolfer: Less than two years ago, Phil Mickelson won his sixth major and was by most accounts pretty beloved by golf fans and golf twitter. Fast forward to 2023 and present day Phil has lost a lot of the goodwill he built up for about 30 years. Can you think of a bigger heel turn in professional sports history?

Lance Armstrong is the only athlete who I think comes close.

Do you remember that brief moment in our culture when millions of people were wearing yellow LiveStrong bands? The megalomania required by Amstrong to spread his story and turn himself into a messianic figure — knowing it was mostly a lie — is still unfathomable. I think people wanted to believe it because the lie was too big. Few thought Armstrong could be so brazen, although plenty of European journalists were thankfully skeptical.

Mickelson’s metamorphosis from hero to pariah is more complicated. He didn’t cheat or break laws the way Armstrong did. He didn’t try to destroy the careers of his critics, although I think he has purposefully tried to mislead people about his interview with Alan Shipnuck. But the one thing Mickelson and Armstrong do have in common is they got the public to fall in love with a version of themselves that now seems disingenuous. I defended Mickelson in my friend group for years. The 2004 Masters is one of my favorite sports memories. He was probably my favorite athlete. He came to Arnold Palmer’s memorial service when so many of his peers couldn’t be bothered. I looked forward to having him around in golf for decades to come. It would have been so fun to have him in the booth for the next 20 years, serving as our generation’s Johnny Miller. He would have been brilliant.

Instead he’s going to spend his final years as a competitive golfer flying around the world playing junk courses, sucking up to monsters for one last payday, getting high off the adulation of the worst kind of sycophants. He may never get to be a Ryder Cup captain. Once a delightful smart aleck, both on and off Twitter, he is now mostly an internet troll. His press conferences, once an artful dance between athlete and reporter, now feel like depositions. The whole thing makes me sad.

I feel like he deserves better than the zombie existence he’s living through at major championships, documented here by Brendan Porath, but that might be the last bit of Mickelson naivety left in me. Perhaps he’s getting exactly the ending he deserves. After all, he insists he’s never been happier.

Mr.Alleged: Can you rank your top 20 Jason Isbell recordings?

For a second, I thought it would be funny to follow up my first mailbag answer about comparison being the thief of joy by totally ignoring everything I said above, but I worried the joke would be lost on many. (“A southern man tells better jokes,” as my guy Isbell would say.)

I think the best approach, when it comes to your favorite artist, is to understand that different songs can hit you in different ways depending on the day, the month, the year, even the current status of your relationship, etc. Even the artist learns different ways to sign them as they age and change. Take this version of The Pretender by Jackson Browne. The original didn’t do much for me when I was a kid. But when I heard this version as a 45-year-old man, it got me good in a totally unexpected way.

My favorite Isbell songs are the ones where he’s telling stories, almost like he’s George Saunders or Elizabeth Strout or Raymond Carver.

In that category, I’d ride or die for: Decoration Day, The Life You Chose, Something More Than Free, Streetlights, Elephant, Never Gonna Change, Speed Trap Town, Outfit, Traveling Alone, Stockholm, If We Were Vampires, The Last of My Kind, Something To Love, The Magician, The Songs She Sang in The Shower, Palmetto Rose, Children For Children, Tupelo, River, Danko/Manuel.

I could probably write 1000 words on each of those songs, but I’m not sure we’re ready to launch the Jason Isbell-specific portion of The Nest just yet.

I also have a lyric from Cover Me Up tattooed on my left forearm, so you can put that one above them all for what it means to me personally. (Just do not mention the Morgan Wallen cover, thanks.) Excited for the upcoming album release and Tour, which take place this summer.

ChiFFI: With his drive, focus in the moment to make the proper play, and history with the game, could we see Tom Brady make a run at the Champions Tour? He seems like he will need an outlet for competition.

This question reminded me of a conversation I had with my dad when I was a teenager. My dad would have been, back then, about the age I am now. He said he thought if he could just dedicate 5 years to it, he could make the Senior Tour. He was dead serious. All he lacked was the time to practice.

I didn’t know a lot about golf, but from my perspective, he hit the ball a long way. Maybe he wasn’t crazy? I remember wishing we could win the lottery so he could take a crack at that dream.

It wasn’t until I got older that I realized my father has never been lower than 18-handicap and has never broken 80 in his life. At his athletic peak, he probably hit it 240. He would have had a better chance of becoming an astronaut.

I’m not sure most people grasp how good you have to be to play on the Champions Tour. I looked up Brady’s GHIN recently, just for fun. He doesn’t enter scores very often, but as far as the USGA is concerned, he is an 8.1 handicap. He regularly shoots scores in the 90s.

Brady has made it part of his brand that he loves it when people doubt him, but I think I can safely say that no amount of practice or lessons at this point in his life is going to allow Brady to play on the Champion’s Tour on merit. (A sponsor’s exemption is another deal entirely.) Even if he dedicated his life to golf and crept closer to scratch, no amount of practice would give him the reps under pressure he needed to beat people who have been competing obsessively on the course since they were kids. The best 50-year-old golfers in the world used to be the best 30-year-old golfers in the world. Before that, they were typically the best 15-year-old golfers in the world. It’s pretty rare that someone just reinvents themselves and skips the line when their hair goes gray. Professional golfers at every level are really good at golf because they didn’t choose other paths. Can it happen? In theory, sure. Will it happen? No chance.

It’s a bit like the famous Margaret Atwood anecdote. Supposedly, she was at a party once and a doctor – unfamiliar with her work – asked what she did for a living. Atwood, the author of The Handmaid’s Tale and more than a dozen other novels, stated that she was a writer.

“You know, after I retire, I’ve always thought I might write a book,” the doctor allegedly said.

“What a coincidence,” Atwood supposedly quipped. “When I retire, I thought I might want to go into brain surgery.”

FrostyWalrus: Where do you land on the Chasing Scratch animal debate?

(For those unfamiliar: You have an olympic sized pool, 6-foot deep water. On one side is a 12-foot long great white shark, on the other is a 9-foot tall polar bear. Who wins in a fight to the death and why?)

My first instinct was to pick the shark. But having thought about this more, I think I’m Team Polar Bear.

All the polar bear needs to do is avoid the initial charge. If he can use his claws to deflect the shark and not let him get a clean bite, he’s suddenly got the upper hand. He’s going to be ripping the shark apart from above. Sharks typically attack their prey from underneath. That doesn’t seem possible in a 6-foot pool. I think the bear is a clear underdog, but he also might be able to rip the shark’s dorsal fin right off.

Either way, I can’t help but feel sympathy for the person who has to clean up this pool.

TheEyeTest: As the world’s foremost expert on Gary Player impressions, wanted your opinion. Who do you think are the top five MOST impersonated celebs? I feel like No. 1 has to be Walken. Everyone does a Walken. I feel like Trump has probably shot up the ranks since 2016, but has he unseated Walken?

For starters, let me say that impersonations are a tricky bit of comedy to engage in. I never really imagined it would become part of my gimmick in life. But I naturally do voices when I tell stories. The Gary Player thing started as a one off joke about Chambers Bay, which he truly did call a “tragedy,” something that will never stop being funny to me.

It made people laugh, and suddenly I was being asked to do it every time I came on a podcast. I’m well aware that some people think it’s extremely cringe, and my recent Jon Rahm impression is no different. To each their own. It just sort of comes out of my mouth. The one thing I’ll add is, doing an impression and doing mimicry are two different things in my opinion. Impressions are attempts at a heightened reality, typically in the name of comedy. Mimicry is what you do if you’re trying to win an Oscar in a biopic.

Walken is a good pick, but I think I would probably go with Mathew McConaughey as our most widely-impersonated celeb. Obviously it begins with Dazed and Confused, but his cameo in Wolf of Wall Street spawned another round of it. It doesn’t matter what movie he’s in, it’s basically still McConaughey. Even McConaughey is doing an impression of McConaughey at this point. As for the rest of the top five, Walken for sure. I think former President Trump clearly makes the list. Arnold Schwartzenegger and Jack Nicholson would also be in the running. I feel like Al Pacino should be in there too. I suspect people who are on TikTok (which I am not) would have a much different list, perhaps more proof that I am old.

Scottyrp4: Is there any particular piece of advice or tip you received at the start of your career that’s shaped (or continues to shape) who you are as a person and as a writer?

Don’t talk shit as you’re trying to climb the ladder. But also, don’t be a jerk to young people trying to break into the business once you’ve made it. You’ll never know who is going to end up as a mentor, or a friend, or a boss.

Imagine if, when No Laying Up debuted in 2013, I put on my condescending veteran journalist hat and complained about how immature they were or how bad they were for golf media. Not everyone has to take the same path you do, and not everyone coming up behind you needs to be seen as a threat. If you are curious and kind, it will frequently come back to you.

Bird: Where he’s at now, if he’s being honest, do you think Bryson would rather win another major or have 1 million YouTube subscribers?

I had to think about this one for a bit. I wanted to take it seriously.

I think my answer, genuinely, is YouTube subscribers. I think Bryson, above everything, wants to be loved. He was never meant to play the villain. Going to LIV was actually a chance to feel loved and wanted for a spell. I think he would geek out if a million people on the internet were telling him each day how funny and cool he is. And while I do believe he’d like to win more majors, I think he would like to be the next Dude Perfect even more.

That sounds like I’m shitting on him, but I’m actually trying to view it in a sympathetic way. There is a lot about Bryson that feels like he’s a kid trapped in a man’s body. Like he’s Tom Hanks in Big, or Jennifer Garner in 13 Going On 30. The second film actually fits better because Garner’s character can’t understand why no one seems to like the adult version of her, and it also turns out she’s been scheming for like a year to take a new job with a rival company.

Also, Bryson turns 30 later this year. I promise if he recreates the Thriller dance with some of the LIV boys, I’ll subscribe to his YouTube channel.

Kevin Van Valkenburg is the Editorial Director at No Laying Up. He can be reached at kvv@nolayingup.com.

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