Covering the impact of coronavirus on the sports world
When word began making the rounds at the end of last season that golf would be receiving its own version of Netflix’s startlingly-popular series on Formula 1 racing, “Drive to Survive,” it would have been fair to call everyone in the golf world dubious while predicting the outcome. Golf, on the whole, doesn’t exactly have a reputation for being the most forward-thinking industry, and the PGA Tour, as far as behemoth sports leagues go, has always been pretty conservative when it comes to the exploration of its product.
As news broke at the end of last week, however, that not only was the Tour giving up editorial control on the project but also that Augusta National, the R&A, the USGA and the PGA were all on board, in addition to stars like Justin Thomas, Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth and Collin Morikawa, dubiousness turned to a deafening drumbeat of delight over what exactly this could look like over the next several years.
There’s a long way to go. Filming will last through the end of the 2021-22 PGA Tour season and episodes almost certainly won’t be released until some point in 2023. But if the product is even half as good as “Drive to Survive,” then the wait will have been worth it.
Here is a look now at who stands to benefit, as well as who may not, from this upcoming unprecedented look into the world of golf at the highest level.
Golf fans: I’m having trouble finding many who won’t benefit, as you’ll see. As a super-fan of the sport, I’m rubbing my palms together in anticipation with a perpetual look on my face that my wife seems a little concerned about. If you’ve never seen “Drive to Survive,” it’s everything you want out of a show of its ilk. Equal parts instructive, dramatic and astonishing, it feeds our insatiable intrigue of the human story.
This is not surprising. Humans have always been compelled by the arc of their own humanity. Stories have been bequeathed orally for thousands of years. What is surprising is how good Netflix — or more specifically Box to Box Films, which makes the F1 show — will make the golf show as well. It was incredible at unearthing the right story as it relates to F1 racing.
Any time that many humans are clashing for that much money, there’s surely a good story to tell. But 99 times out of 100, it stays behind the veil, undisclosed to the public. The view from the audience at any play or musical is often more polished than the view from behind the stage, but rarely, if ever, is it more interesting.
As golf fans, we catch glimpses of these stories — a Koepka interview here, a McIlroy quote there, Spieth opining about the swing, things like that. This will be a full dive into the deep end, though. The creators of “Drive to Survive” have engendered the trust necessary to tell the F1 story in a way that is tremendously compelling, and because that show went first and so many golfers have watched it, there’s some built-in trust that should benefit them (and us) to get players to speak truth in an interesting way.
If you’ve ever watched the “Chronicles of a Champion Golfer” series produced on Open Championship winners, you’ll know what I’m talking about. The guys interviewed on there have surely seen the ones that have been done before them, and there seems to be an unspoken rule that they can (and should!) be more open and honest in this seat than in any other. Like, this is the place where I can truly speak my mind. It’s not a trick because they’re aware of how many people will see it, but it almost seems like a different form of media than all the others they participate in. That uniqueness lends itself to incredible footage and commentary.
Bryson DeChambeau: I believe DeChambeau will actually benefit from not partaking here. He said last week that he “doesn’t want to take the light away from them for their potential to grow themselves in a manner that’s unique to them, where they’re already pretty far behind. They have the opportunity to grow a lot more than I do in that regard.” I have no idea if that’s true, but I do know that what started to happen in 2021 with players, fans and media turning on him a bit could become a full dog-pile if he participated. It was wise to sit this one out, even if it would have made for better overall content for viewers.
Golf media: Selfishly, this Netflix series is a tremendous thing for anyone who covers golf on a daily basis. Consider these numbers from a recent New York Times article on how “Drive to Survive” has impacted F1 viewership in the United States.
Formula 1’s TV audience in the United States has jumped since “Drive to Survive” was released. ESPN said its average viewers per race had risen to about 928,000 so far in 2021 from about 547,000 in 2018.
“I think it’s got to be the single most important impact for Formula 1 in North America,” said Zak Brown, chief executive of McLaren Racing. “Almost every comment you get from someone out of the U.S., they reference ‘Drive to Survive.’
“People are going from ‘I’ve never watched a Formula 1 race in my life’ to ‘I’ll never miss a Formula 1 race again.'”
Surely not all of that nearly doubling of the audience was due to 300 minutes of documentary footage, but a lot of it certainly was. The ceiling for increased golf viewership in the United States is lower, and that’s not just because Tiger Woods is generally absent. But for all the talk of growing the game over the last few decades, few things are better equipped to actually do it than piping Koepka’s pettiness into over 200 million homes over the next few years.
And if we get more readers, listeners and followers because of a Netflix show that makes folks who never knew they cared about Thursday morning or Augusta or Saturday afternoon at TPC Sawgrass or that final walk up the last at Royal Troon, then they can’t start final production on this thing fast enough.
PGA Tour: Here’s the quote that Dylan Dethier obtained for Golf.com from the PGA Tour on its role in this documentary.
“We do not have editorial control,” a Tour spokesperson told Golf.com. “We will be involved to the extent that Netflix and the producers have the access they need to film at our events. We want them to make a great show, and we all agree the documentary needs to be as authentic as possible.”
This does two things for the Tour. First, it could cement its position as the preeminent golf league in the world (which it is), even with rival leagues trying to ingratiate themselves over the next few years. It also goes a long way to eradicate the notion, fair or not, that they want complete and total control over what their audience sees. What folks actually want is authenticity, and the Tour will glean goodwill as a byproduct of the show simply by taking a step back from the players.
Non-golf fans: Imagine the first time a rules official brings out a piece of string to determine if 1/8 of a golf ball is inbounds, which goes on to determine who wins the 2022 PGA Championship. Imagine not knowing that was a thing and seeing it for the first time. Or the first time Harry Higgs has to roll up his pants and take off his shirt to hit a ball off a hanging lie at Bay Hill from a stance that’s halfway in the water. Imagine folks who have never watched golf being introduced to the Kevin Na-Dustin Johnson controversy at the match play event last year when D.J. scooped early and Na came swooping in to explain to him the rules of match play. I wish I could be reintroduced to all of this all over again!
Viktor Hovland, Max Homa, Harry Higgs, Collin Morikawa: Those are my predictions for who will be the most endearing figures to non-golf fans. Again, it depends on how certain players are portrayed. Perhaps Dustin Johnson turns out to be the most endearing. That has been the case in the past, and could be in the future depending on what quotes are shown and how he’s framed. Maybe it’s Rickie Fowler or Tommy Fleetwood or Jordan Spieth. However, given the involvement of Chad Mumm, who serves as head of entertainment at Vox Media Studios, and how deep he is in the golf Twitter world, I would be surprised if those four — all darlings of golf Twitter — weren’t portrayed in the same light as they’re almost universally viewed on Twitter.
Jon Rahm, Rory McIlroy: They aren’t losing out because they’re choosing not to participate (that’s a personal, and probably wise, choice), rather because both would crush on the show. McIlroy’s appeal is obvious, as he’s often been the wisest voice in golf over the last few years. Rahm’s appeal has been less so, and I suspect he’s missing out the most of anyone not participating in terms of positively improving how fans perceive him. I’m always surprised to hear casual golf fans talk about Rahm negatively or even ambivalently. He’s legitimately one of the most interesting, thoughtful, smart golfers in the world, and he would absolutely destroy in the interview chair.
Players on the cusp but not cast: Andy Johnson pointed this out on Shotgun Start during their excellent interview with the creators of “Drive to Survive,” but this is a show that can elevate your stature in every way. According to one source, 50 million human beings have watched “Drive to Survive.” Fifty million! For Kevin Na, Mito Pereira, Harry Higgs and Joel Dahmen, that’s more than have watched them on TV and in person combined over the course of all of their careers. Depending on how the season goes, they could become more famous than they ever did in grinding it out on the Tour and reap the benefits of this fame off the course even more than on it.
This show is a big deal. Given who’s involved, both internally and externally, it’s not going to be something you walk away from underwhelmed or believe is overrated. It’s going to rock. Of course, some of that is dependent on how the season plays out. If you get Koepka-J.T. in the final pairing on Sunday at Augusta National, that’s going to be a better final product than if you get two guys who are not being filmed.
There’s some magic to the “Drive to Survive” show — an intangible ingredient that just makes it all work. It sounds ridiculous to write that, but if you’ve watched the show, you know it’s true. The interviews are good, but they’re not always off the charts. The action is incredible, but they don’t capture photo finishes every time out. The drama will make you smile, but at times it can be a bit of an eye roll. However, the way all of it was melded together and delivered is truly incredible.
I have no doubt 2022 will bring all the moments necessary for something like this to work in the world of golf, and the players they got won’t be short on sound bites. Even normal years are completely abnormal in the world of golf (as I have often documented). If the creators of one of the most-watched shows of the last 10 years can conjure up that same magic they made with race car drivers in Australia, Monaco and Texas, then this series could absolutely reshape the landscape of professional golf at a level that only Tiger Woods has been capable of doing for the last 25 years.
Brooks Koepka: He’s probably the player whose future perception I’m most fascinated by. Our neighbors, who are not into car racing or deeply into sports in general, are the ones who turned my wife and I on to “Drive to Survive.” If there was a Brooks Koepka-type character in “Drive to Survive” (and I presume there is at some point, as we’re only through the first season), that would not be the type of person or athlete to whom any of us would be drawn. He may present himself more endearingly than he normally does, though. Or maybe folks are desirous of his persona. I don’t know. I have no clue how that’s going to go, but it’s going to be one of the primary storylines regardless, especially after how his first few interviews seemingly went.
© 2004-2022 CBS Interactive. All Rights Reserved.
CBS Sports is a registered trademark of CBS Broadcasting Inc. Commissioner.com is a registered trademark of CBS Interactive Inc.
Images by Getty Images and US Presswire