Professional golf circa 2022 is glamorous. Multi-million-dollar paydays, lucrative sponsorship deals, thousands of adoring fans, teams of handlers to facilitate everything from private-jet flights to post-round massages.
But it's also grueling: near-constant travel, countless hours spent honing your craft, sky-high expectations that crash to Earth in the wake of disappointing finishes. Not to mention the knowledge that the only way to rake in the big bucks - and build a reputation as one of the best in the world - is to play better than everyone else, and keep doing it.
At least until a foreign power willing to throw billions of dollars into disrupting the game comes calling.
That is the case Netflix's new docuseries Full Swing attempts to build over eight episodes. And while the show falls a little short of its symphonic goals, there are plenty of engaging individual stories and moments that will educate, satisfy and entertain viewers.
(A quick word of warning to avid golf fans: the series casts a wide net, which means you will sit through some pedantic golf-101 speak, e.g. definitions of "birdie," "par" and what a 36-hole cut is in a tournament.)
Because it comes from the same studio as the smash-hit Drive to Survive, which has turned Formula 1 racing from a niche curiosity into a sporting sensation in the United States, unreasonable expectations have been attached to Full Swing ever since it was first announced. A ball smashed off a tee by Rory McIlroy may (briefly) move at similar speeds to a racecar, but golf will never deliver the visceral thrill - or sense of mortal danger - that captivates Drive to Survive's F1 converts.
While Full Swing occasionally tries to convince us otherwise with quick-cut cinematography and up-tempo music to underscore the tension and energy at certain events, it is at its best in more focused moments, when the audience gets glimpses of how pro golf can be, in its own way, as pressure-packed and frustrating as driving a fighter jet on four tires.
The first real sense of pro golf's valleys doesn't arrive until the second episode, which profiles Brooks Koepka as he seeks to regain the form that won him four major championships from June 2017 to May 2019. Koepka's recent injury woes weigh heavily on him as he muses about how he went from practically unbeatable in majors to an afterthought. He observes that his putting from inside 10 feet has gone from world-class to terrible; anyone who has toiled at golf knows that short putting is as strong a proxy for a golfer's level of self-confidence as anything. Not even bubbly wife Jena Sims or a doting entourage seem to help the brooding Koepka turn the perpetual chip on his shoulder from an albatross back into an asset. He'll have to do it himself, if he can. A mid-episode interlude centered on the gifted, All-American-wholesome Scottie Scheffler and his 2022 ascent to the top of of the golf world provides stark contrast.
As mentioned in a preview piece, Full Swing's producers wanted to begin the series with Koepka. But Netflix executives, thinking it might be too much of a downer, insisted they start instead with wunderkinds Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas. This was a mistake. Although the coverage of Thomas' PGA Championship victory is solid, with impressively intimate access, both JT and best-buddy Spieth are in the prime of their careers, with no real stakes other than their own strong ambition. It gets things off to a flat start. The reality of Koepka's stakes, and his surprising vulnerability, are a much better introduction to pro-golf intrigue.
Koepka only breaks out a big smile once in his episode, at the very end, when the topic of the insurgent LIV Golf Series is broached. He ultimately defected from the PGA Tour to join the Saudi-backed league in mid-2022.
LIV's looming presence could have overwhelmed the season, but Full Swing's producers wisely avoid belaboring it. Ian Poulter (episode 3) and Dustin Johnson (episode 5, briefly) spout familiar pro-LIV talking points, but the real meat of the series comes elsewhere. Episode 4 humanizes Joel Dahmen, whose self-deprecating everyman demeanor contrasts with real personal tragedies he has experienced. Episode 5 embeds viewers with the studious Matthew Fitzpatrick as he transforms from promising prospect to major champion at the U.S. Open, his charming family living and dying with every shot. And Episode 6 makes a superhero out of Tony Finau, whose humble origin story will make you root for him and his family twice as hard as you may have before.
The largely non-linear overall narrative arc of the show can make bingeing it feel like treading water. For example, after the premiere episode details Justin Thomas' 2022 PGA Championship victory, we find ourselves returning twice more to Tulsa and host club Southern Hills. We see Matt Fitzpatrick fall short there in episode 5, then witness Chilean rookie Mito Pereira's final-hole collapse in the penultimate episode. Seeing a single event from the perspectives of several players is interesting in a vacuum, but the show's parallel attempts to profile different players in single episodes, as well as trace the overall season, prove difficult to reconcile.
Refreshingly, the finale switches gears, focusing on the de facto voice of the pro golf establishment, Rory McIlroy (full disclosure: part of episode 8 takes place at a GolfPass/Youth on Course clinic in which McIlroy participated). Over the course of 2022, McIlroy became the avatar of the PGA Tour's sense of history, respectability and attempts to modernize its product in order to prevent more of its talent base from taking up with LIV. With these extracurricular responsibilities as a backdrop, McIlroy's eventual triumph in the 2022 Tour Championship is stunning, bringing Full Swing full circle. The final shot of this initial run of episodes finds the Northern Irishman sitting in the locker room, triumphant, finally able to decompress from a chaotic, fraught season. We feel like we're right there with him.
Produced by: Vox Media Studios, Box to Box Films
8 episodes; all screened for review.
Premiered: February 15, 2023.