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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Aspoiledwalk: Assuming this “merger” happens, does Saudi involvement move the needle for sponsor’s eagerness? Basically, are some sponsors going to pull out so that they are not associated with the PIF? Seems like a potential issue.
Ever since the two sides agreed to cease suing each other and see if they can make money together, there has been a lot of talk about how this would legitimize the Saudis in the eyes of American businesses and potentially open up a windfall for investment. I think that’s probably an accurate read. While I think the nuances are important, and that there are differences between doing direct PR for the Saudi regime (“You wouldn’t believe how many women there are in restaurants in Riyadh these days!”) and publicly-traded companies like Uber and FedEx allowing outside investors to buy shares, but a lot of people really don’t care. That is certainly their right. I think the majority of the public will mostly see it that way too. To hear Phil Mickelson tell it, big things are on the horizon.
One thing that makes it hard to gauge, however, is how blatantly LIV executives are willing to distort the facts about potential interest in the product. When the framework agreement was announced, Monica Fee, LIV Golf’s Global Head of Partnerships, told The Fire Pit Collective that her phone had been “ringing off the hook” with interest, and cited ESPN as one of the companies that inquired about a potential partnership. I know that’s inaccurate, based on a conversation I had with a source I trust implicitly. LIV Golf approached ESPN, not the other way around, and it went nowhere. But a little razzle dazzle is how these things often get spun.
You alluded to the flip side – sponsors who are already working with the Tour feeling uncomfortable – and I agree that hasn’t been discussed much. I do know, for a fact, there are at least two sponsors that are uncomfortable with the Saudis and their boards may be faced with some difficult decisions going forward.
But remember, money tends to paper over a bevy of reservations. As the court documents that Twitter user desertdufferLLG revealed this week show, the DP World Tour is not in great financial shape, and I’m fairly sure they would love an influx of cash.
Chief: On a scale of 1 to 100, how effective has LIV been as a sports washing venture? I feel like the efforts to stand up LIV have put MORE spotlight on and had more people talking about the Saudis’ repugnant human rights record, rather than done anything to sweep it under the rug. It seems to be that the Saudis have fallen into the trap of forgetting that bad press is worse than no press.
If we’re talking about the general public, I agree it’s only made the spotlight brighter. You would be amazed at how many people who don’t follow golf or world affairs suddenly have strong opinions about both when they run into me at barbecues. It’s the kind of issue that has a reach beyond sports, so it’s fair to say there has been some backlash that’s been a net negative for the Kingdom. But the point that I often try to make with regard to this issue is, for the most part, the public isn’t the intended audience for sports washing. It’s corporate power. People assume the Saudis have a bottomless pit of money to throw around, and in the short term, that is true. But the plan to penetrate the world of sports has always been part of a long-term play aimed at moving away from a dependency on oil, and there has been a lot of speculation (from pretty smart people) that the Saudis have realized they are spending money at a rate that’s not sustainable. When you want to spend $1 trillion dollars to build a city in the middle of the desert, you need other countries (or more accurately put, foreign companies) to show some interest in helping you achieve that goal. People sometimes think when you bring this up, you’re suggesting there is a nefarious plot unfolding, but none of it is being done in secret. It’s right out in the open. They even spell it out – in English no less – on their website. If you can use golf (or soccer, or Formula 1, or WWE) to convince a hedge fund manager or CEO to finance a project in Neom, who cares what a journalist or human rights activist thinks? That’s where sportswashing truly works, with the levers of power.
There are also some nuances to this issue that are impossible to parse on Twitter. If the Kingdom is really interested in becoming more progressive as a country, and moving away from subjugating women, there is no doubt the West should be supportive of that. That’s why the United States embraced MBS when he came to power. His critics believe much of what he’s doing is geared toward appearances, that behind the scenes Saudi Arabia remains an authoritarian nightmare where dissidents are routinely kidnapped and tortured. It’s also true that MBS is far better than the religious leaders who wielded power and influence before him.
The answers aren’t easy, but the debate is important, so we ought to keep having the debate.
Taylorf: Each of your fingers on one hand is a drink dispenser, which five beverages/drinks are you choosing?
One of the reasons I love this mailbag is we can quickly pivot from global politics to a truly stupid discussion like this, a game I will now refer to as Drink Fingers. This may be the most important question I’ve ever answered, in fact. I’m already nervous about the potential backlash. (I ran it past my wife and one of my daughters and they both agreed, in this hypothetical scenario, you still have access to water and other beverages. You’re simply choosing what beverages you’d like to have access to at all times.) With those stipulations, here we go:
- Lemonade. I think there is nothing better than natural lemonade over ice, the kind you buy at a state fair where they squeeze the lemons in front of you and add what I assume is way too much sugar. One of my favorite BBQ joints in Baltimore, Andy Nelson’s (which is featured in the Baltimore episode of Strapped) makes a ridiculously good lemonade that I might be kind of addicted to. It might not get as much use in the winter, but during the summer I’d have to guard against going into a sugar coma.
- Iced Coffee: I am one of those weirdos who drinks iced coffee all year round, even on the coldest days of Montana winter. Every time I visit my parents at Christmas, I have to sheepishly explain to the coffee proprietor near their house that, yes, I really do want iced coffee even if it is hovering around zero degrees. I am not a coffee snob on par with some — please check out this month’s Trap Draw on coffee if you take coffee as seriously as I take sportwashing — but there is an art to making a good iced coffee, and it doesn’t involve just dumping hot coffee over ice. That is criminal, and whatever kind of cold coffee came out of my fingers, I would need it to be made properly. A lot of cold brews are really bitter, and I have no interest in the nitro versions that people expect you to drink without ice. (They don’t stay cold long enough unless you chug them! It’s an outrage!)
- Spindrift: I’m going to be very honest about something for a second. I used to absolutely hate carbonated water. I thought Lacroix tasted like napkins. But then my friend Mina Kimes talked about Spindrift so much, Spindrift asked her (and Lenny) to be an influencer, I figured what the hell. I’ll try it. There are worse people you can be influenced by than Mina. I have been hooked on the lime flavor ever since. I know we have a No Free Ads policy here at NLU, but I am currently on a self-imposed break from alcohol and Spindrift has been a wonderful replacement.
- Bourbon: It would be a super cliche to say I wanted Pappy Van Winkle to pour out of my fingers. Pappy is great! And you should definitely read the paperback version of Pappyland that just came out, by my friend Wright Thompson, because it’s also great, and it’s about families and tradition and what we pass on as much as it is about liquor. But I feel like the scarcity of Pappy makes a lot of people act like assholes. Bourbon shouldn’t be a collector’s item, something people are hoarding so that rich people can pay thousands of dollars for it, only to stare at the bottle sitting in their liquor cabinet like a status symbol. Five years ago, you could find Blanton’s just about everywhere (a great bourbon!) and it was around $55. Now it’s $175 if you’re lucky to find it, and the single barrel goes for around $400. Nothing has changed except the status. That’s obnoxious. Bourbon should be something you drink with friends, whether it’s in a bar, at your house, at a wedding or around a fire. If I actually had a magic Pappy finger, there is a good chance someone would learn about it and try to cut it off to keep it for themselves. No, thank you. I will take a nameless bourbon that’s enjoyable but doesn’t say anything about me other than: Would you like to share one with me?
- Green Smoothie: I labored over this final choice for a while, but I feel comfortable with where I landed, assuming a smoothie can be classified as a beverage and not a meal. Would it be weird if my pinky finger was like a cow’s udder that you could squeeze and green smoothie would come out? Absolutely. But I’m not sure it would be any weirder than the other options. I know some people think a green smoothie is only done for health reasons, but I love a good green smoothie that’s blended well. A little mango, pineapple, almond milk, maybe some avocado, spinach and kale? That sounds delightful. And if I need to take the edge off after a long day of fighting with people on Twitter, just drip a couple of shots of bourbon in there from my ring finger.
Iacas: KVV, what do you think makes for a good caddie or a bad caddie for a PGA Tour player, and to what extent can a caddie who is at least competent at the basic caddie tasks enough that their golfer never worries about them positively or negatively affect a golfer’s performance once they’re past the “getting to know each other” phase?
One of the first majors I covered for ESPN was the Open Championship at St. Andrews in 2015, and after the second round, I wrote a story about Adam Scott and Steve Williams, and touched a bit on the nature of their relationship. One anecdote I remember most from that piece was that Williams was up at 5:30 a.m. prior to Scott’s second round, walking The Old Course to chart pin positions, despite the fact that it was raining buckets. He and Jim “Bones” McKay were the only two caddies out there. I thought about that this year at the U.S. Open when, on Wednesday afternoon, I bumped into Michael Greller walking Los Angeles Country Club with his yardage book in hand. Jordan Spieth was resting somewhere, but Greller was eager to put in extra work. I don’t think it's a coincidence that those three men have been on the bag for 23 majors. (Williams 14, Bones 6, Greller 3).
The first requirement of a good caddie is you have to put in the work, and sometimes — most of the time — the hours suck. If you put in the work, it gives you the credibility you need when it’s time to speak up. Bad caddies cut corners, and eventually it bleeds into their player’s game.
I would say temperament is a big part of it outside of the work you put in. One of the reasons Brooks Koepka and Ricky Elliott have been so successful together is they each have a calm about them, even under pressure, that allows them to communicate without overcomplicating things. I’ve been nearby for a lot of their conversations (Koepka is the only golfer whom I can say I’ve been present for every one of his major wins) and I’m always impressed with how serene they are. Elliott makes suggestions, Koepka makes decisions. They don’t really debate much. Other players need a different energy, but Elliott understands Koepka’s personality.
Another example: I was walking right next to Matt Kuchar and John Wood at the Open Championship in 2017, when Spieth was in the midst of both a meltdown and a comeback, and I remember Wood doing a brilliant job of asking Kuchar questions about anything other than the tournament between shots: Vacations, music, his kids. The fact that Kuchar took the lead on the 13th hole, played the next four holes in 2-under, and still lost by three is among the craziest things that’s happened in this era.
The correct answer is probably: Every caddie and player relationship is different. I once asked Lydia Ko why she went through eight caddies her rookie year. Her answer was pretty simple: She was trying to figure out what kind of relationship worked best for her, and she could only do it through trial and error.
GottliebK12: In honor of American Independence Day, how about some civics? If you were to recast Hamilton with professional golfers, who would play which roles?
As someone with three daughters who all went through a big Hamilton phase, I have heard the soundtrack roughly 10 million times, so I think I am a good person to answer this question.
Alexander Hamilton = Rory McIlroy. This is the hardest role to cast, but I think this is our best bet. Not afraid to share his opinions and emotions, sometimes impulsive, born on an island nation and came from humble beginnings. Married an American but still seen as an outsider to some blue bloods. Not afraid to stand for something, even if you hate him for it.
Aaron Burr = Patrick Cantlay. Not really sure which side he wants to be on, is very calculating in assessing all the information, trying to determine which way the wind is blowing. Slow and deliberate. Believes he should be in the room where it happens.
Hercules Mulligan = Brooks Koepka. Both camps believe he’s on their side. Not interested in wearing a uniform. Friendly with Hamilton.
Thomas Jefferson = Phil Mickelson. Confident (some might say too confident) in his intellectual faculties. Not a big fan of federalism or taxes. A pretty sharp dancer who feuded frequently with Hamilton. Regardless of how you feel about him, tell me you wouldn’t absolutely delight in him strutting around to “What did I miss?” after he emerged from a self-imposed absence.
James Madison = Jon Rahm. Extremely smart pragmatist who can be credited with holding things together while everyone else was screaming and backstabbing each other. Friends with Jefferson, but sees Hamilton’s points too.
George Washington = Tiger Woods. The Father of it all. A mythic figure that no one will cross, not even Jefferson. The 2019 Masters is probably his version of “One Last Time.”
John Laurens = Max Homa. One of the funnier characters who stands up for what he believes in, but history may not remember him the way it does some of his peers.
King George = Jay Monahan. Threatened people who were thinking about leaving, then declared they’d be back eventually. Understood the dispute was ultimately about money, even though he framed it as loyalty. Probably could have won the war if he had more resources, but ultimately decided a truce and alliance was in everyone’s best interests.
Elizabeth Schyler = Scottie Scheffler. At first, seems kind of plain and inoffensive but as time goes on, turns out to be maybe the most talented member of the ensemble.
Angelica Schuyler = Jordan Spieth. Has a dizzying intellect that leads to him talking. A lot.
Peggy Schuyler = Justin Thomas. Passionate, doesn’t like being overlooked, feisty and willing to chirp if the situation calls for it.
Marquis de Lafayette = Rickie Fowler. A friend to anyone who needs him.
Philip Hamilton = Tom Kim. A young man full of promise, you just pray nothing bad happens to him in a duel.
Charles Lee = Patrick Reed. Used to be friendly with Washington before he started talking shit. Not particularly well-liked by his peers as his career unfolds.
Samuel Seabury = Billy Horschel. Really good at making speeches.
Sarah: What could you see as the possible culmination for the LACC backlash? It strikes me that a massively exclusive golf course, situated on extraordinary expensive land, in an area dealing with widespread housing crisis, experiencing public critique of the steps it took to prevent the normals from the rare chance of stepping foot on the property, could be a powder keg of sorts in the golf course/land use discussion.
I think all the issues you point out were coming to a boil by the end of the U.S. Open, but they already feel like they’re simmering down in the public consciousness. I think LACC was a great course and helped determine a worthy champion, but the corporate feel of the crowd was a real bummer. Sunday was the only day it even had the energy of a major championship. I don’t think every U.S. Open needs to be held at a public course, but I don’t think our national championship should have the feel of a corporate member guest. I think the USGA should have pushed harder in its negotiations with LACC to let more fans on site, and not fans sitting in corporate suites. As for the housing crisis stuff, I am going to be realistic here: There is no chance LACC is ever going to turn into affordable housing or become a jogging park the way Malcolm Gladwell wants. That land, even if it wasn’t a golf course, would be worth billions and billions. I think California will have private golf courses as long as they have water (no sure thing), but it is possible we’ll see a backlash somewhere in the future if major championships (particularly the U.S. Open) start to feel like a cocktail party for the elite.
BDeck25: Ideal Fourth of July foursome, but for a backyard BBQ. Who’s got the fireworks, who’s on the grill, who’s making the entire family uncomfortable after too many High Noons?
I’m going to tweak this question a bit and construct an ideal backyard BBQ using the NLU staff. For starters, I am going to have Cody manning the grill. I feel like that’s one of the most important jobs and there is no one I trust more to handle a combination of meat and fire. Casey and D.J. are going to handle the music, which is going to be an eclectic mix of bangers but also mood as the evening unfolds. I’ve got Soly handling fireworks because he has the right balance of glee and gravitas for the job. He’s going to make sure everyone has fun, but also doesn’t blow a hand off. He’s not going to be an idiot who lets kids run around shooting roman candles at each other, but he’s going to coordinate a showstopper of a finale. Neil is going to be manning the bar because he has the perfect bartender’s temperament. Admit it, you can just picture him right now with a towel over his shoulder, making small talk with the weird neighbors who wandered into the yard, then pivoting quickly to making five margaritas and an Old Fashioned. Ben is going to be in charge of yard games, meaning he’s coordinating a cornhole bracket and badminton bracket at the same time. (He and Soly are also undefeated in bocce; seriously just try and take their belt.) Randy and Tron are the Social Chairs, wandering the party making sure everyone feels welcome, and letting them know where to get a drink, what’s being offered on the menu (which, by the way, Tron spent weeks curating) and how to sign up for the cornhole tournament. They’ll give a toast and thank everyone for coming later in the evening. I would probably roam the party and try to spell everyone in their job, making sure Cody gets a break from grilling steaks or that Neil doesn’t starve behind the bar. If necessary, I could do dumb impressions to entertain everyone’s kids.
Tuck_mulligan: You touched on some of the reasoning behind going from a respected contributor at an enormous institution to an editorial leader at a relative upstart when you officially joined NLU. Now that you have a few months of writing published for the latter, what has surprised, delighted, or inhibited you in the writing/editing or creative process?
Is there newfound clarity in editorial control or do you feel like confidence to guide the NLU “voice” is still a muscle that you just have to exercise before you’re ready to fully trust it?
One of the things I like best about writing for NLU is what a collaborative space we have. Ideas can come from anyone, and we’re all invested in each other’s success.
At the U.S. Open a few weeks ago, Soly, Tron and I were watching Rickie Fowler and Jordan Spieth goof around with their kids on the 9th green during a Tuesday practice round when Soly said to me: “It would be really cool if you wrote a scene-driven piece like you did at Riviera, and you included this scene in it.” It wasn’t an assignment, it was a suggestion, and it was a great one. It helped me begin to think about what our Sunday wrap-up piece might look like, and I think it resonated with a lot of people.
There are advantages to working for a major institution like ESPN; more people are going to read your work. But I also don’t have to try and appeal to a broad audience of readers. I’m writing for people who like golf, who feel emotionally invested in the characters, and who want something beyond what they saw on television. That’s a fun place to start when you sit down in front of a laptop. At the PGA, Tron said to me “I would love to read a piece about what it’s like to play golf in miserable weather like this.” I quickly got to work on it, and it turned into something fun and different. Those kind of ideas interest me way more than writing about the first-round leader.
I don’t feel inhibited by anything other than time. I’d love to work on a big narrative feature, the kind I used to write for ESPN about players or executives in the NFL. We just haven’t found the right subject and the time to do it yet, but we’ll get there.
Is there an NLU Voice? That’s an interesting and smart question. Because the written word carries a lot of weight, I do feel a certain responsibility when I pen a column. I’m trying to convey my own opinion, but also represent our company and its ethos. One thing I love is that D.J. has an incredible ability to help me flush out how I’m feeling about a topic, and he doesn’t care if I need some time to work through it. The “Disease of More” piece I wrote after the framework agreement was announced is a good example. I needed 36 hours to piece together what I wanted to say. I talked to him multiple times during the writing process. When I finished, I felt really good about where I’d landed and so did he. It got more positive reactions than just about anything I’ve written in my career. I don’t know if I would have been afforded that patience at another place. One of the reasons ESPN took me off golf coverage is, they wanted someone who could turn columns around quickly, to maximize the window of reader interest. Speed is not my strength as a writer.
There are people in the golf media space who have to live and die by the clicks game and I can’t tell you how grateful I am that I’m not one of them. We don’t even have any digital advertising on my stories, so whether my pieces get 100,000 clicks or 1,000 clicks makes zero difference to us. That’s why I occasionally wrote columns as Twitter threads earlier this year before that site became a wheezing dumpster fire. Hopefully, if you like my writing, you’ll want to listen to our podcast or watch our videos. Not every element of a business needs to be driven by trying to monetize the consumer. If there is one part of our creative process I’m most proud of, it’s that.
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