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Opinion & Analysis

Erik Anders Lang: The Filmmaker Tackling Golf’s Most Interesting Questions

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If you follow the PGA Tour on Facebook or Twitter, chances are you’ve seen the work of Erik Anders Lang. Among other things, he’s the host of Skratch TV’s online series “Adventures in Golf,” which explores the most unique and unorthodox ways golf is played around the world, from the slums of Mumbai to the prisons of Louisiana.

Over the past few years, Lang has been working on a documentary called Be the Ball, which features a star-studded cast of interviews, from Rory McIlroy to Samuel L. Jackson. With the film almost completed, Erik and I chatted about his career and golf.

Q: For our readers who aren’t familiar with your work, give us some background into who you are and how you got into golf media?

Erik Anders Lang: When I was growing up, I hated golf. It was the opposite of everything I stood for. I didn’t like the old-money/country club stereotype, you know? I obviously didn’t understand golf, because if I did I probably would have liked it. Around the age of 30, I tried it at the urging of my brother, who was constantly asking me to play. Finally one day he asked me, and for whatever reason I said, “Fine, but only because I want to prove you wrong.” Something caught my attention, and I just loved it; the flight of the ball, the feeling of hitting the sweet spot, the realization that it’s not a private sport… I started seeing, very strangely, these connections between golf and spirituality, and found it to be a quite meditative game.

I set out on a journey to make a film about that side of golf, and that took me into meeting all of these interesting people. I had a realization that even the best players in the world use “spiritual techniques” to gain an edge, i.e. meditation. So that took me to one of the cool pieces of the film, Be the Ball, which is an experiment where we had 50 golfers and measured the effect that meditating before a round had on their golf games. In the process of making that film, the PGA Tour reached out to me and said they’d like me to host a golf show (with Skratch TV). I said “I’m not really a host, but sure, I’ll try anything!”

Lang speaking with Pat Perez at the Waste Management Phoenix Open.

I was in their office a couple months later and they asked me if I had any ideas of what I’d like to do for the show. I told them I’d like to go around the world and golf with strange people in strange places and call it “Adventures in Golf.” They liked the idea and said, “Great, we’ll start shooting in a few months,” and that was it.

Q: How did Be the Ball start, and how has it evolved throughout the filming process?

EAL: I think that a documentary, by definition, is something where you start out with a specific question and end up answering something different, something often more complex or significant. I started out wanting to uncover golf’s more mystical, spiritual aspects, and so that was centered around things like Golf in the Kingdom, Bill Murray’s improvised line in Caddyshack about the Dalai Lama, and the connections between The Legend of Bagger Vance and the ancient Indian text, the Bhagavad Gita. And then, last but not least, Zen Golf, which is a golf performance book written by a devoted Buddhist meditator, Dr. Joseph Parent.

Very shortly after I started playing golf, I called Dr. Parent and ended up meeting him at his home in Ojai, California. We became friends, and then the documentary began to be about him and the connections between golf and meditation. That might have been fine, but it didn’t seem as interesting as an idea I came up with after filming for two years, which was: Can we actually prove that golf is a spiritual/mental game? Somehow, I convinced a leading doctor to help me make this experiment a reality and make it real, credible science. So we began to do the experiment under the lens of the documentary itself, and it was a really wild journey that was so wonderful to be a part of.

Q: What is the status of the project. Is it near completion or still a work in progress?

EAL: We’re very close to completing it. The film should be out by late 2017/early 2018. As of right now, we’re pretty happy with the product we have. Hopefully, it will be a big game changer in golf. I think there is a way for people to watch this and not only be entertained, but when the film’s over, they’ll have the realization that, “Oh, I can play this game however I want. What am I going to do to make the most of what I have left of this game — or life?” It’s a film about golf, but it’s really about life. And anyone who’s ever played golf for more than a couple rounds knows that golf is a lot like life, only golf is a lot more complicated (laughs). It’s for golfers, but also for non-golfers, to show that it’s really not how they think it is.

Q: One of the cool things about the “Adventures in Golf” series is that it is very much about breaking those preconceptions of what golf is/isn’t supposed to be. What would you say you’ve learned from the series?

EAL: I’ve learned so many things, but not necessarily all of them have to do with golf. I’d say that one of the biggest is that just because you don’t know how to do something doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. When the PGA Tour offered me this job, I told them I don’t know what I’m doing, and they said to just go for it. In that sense, the earlier episodes were the most fun in that there was a sense of discovery associated with them. And sometimes golf is a lot like that; the more you play golf, the more you tend to waltz up to the tee and say, “I know what’s going to happen,” even though you know there’s no such thing as two identical golf shots. Learning that was great.

Lang playing a modified variant of golf in the slums of Mumbai.

I had never played golf outside of America. I had only played golf for two or three years and then our first episode was in Scotland. What a deep pleasure… I can’t express how grateful I am for that opportunity. I know a lot of golfers who have played their whole lives and never been. In some sense, it’s like having food without dessert or steak without potatoes; it’s really hard to have perspective on golf without playing it where it began. It’s not like the ground or air is different; yeah it’s windy and wet, but I’m talking more about the people and the general sort of mental experience of golf there. The people that play in Scotland are just… I don’t know, they’re happier than they are in America; they’ve got something figured out there that we need to work on. You know, they play matches. You don’t hear people in the clubhouse talking about shooting a 78, you hear things like one up, two up, 3 and 2, whatever. They just have a different part of the golf game there, and that was really interesting to learn.

Then as we went further into the rabbit hole and went to all of these different places, I found that golf doesn’t even need to be played on grass! I’ve played it on dirt, I’ve played it on brick, you know? Whatever we think golf is… is ultimately exactly what it’s not. You go around the world and find that some people view golf as very different. And so, if you try to put a name on golf, it is very futile, because you would need as many definitions of golf as there are golfers themselves. It was really great to spend time with different groups of people who all basically said, “We agree that golf should be played like this,” from playing in the nude to playing in the slum alleyways to playing at night in the middle of Dubai. It was interesting to just spend time with people in their homes and have dinner with them, so to speak. Then the greatest part of it is that you come back home and see all of these new things about your own golf game and your own world that make you say, “Oh, I didn’t see it that way before.”

Q: What was your favorite episode of Adventures in Golf to shoot?

EAL: I’m a pretty deep guy; I know that I seem like a funny guy who just wants to have a laugh, and that’s totally true 100 percent of the time. But at the same exact time, I’m really interested in subjects that are not always funny or comedic. So for me, the episode that sticks out is the episode we did in the Louisiana prison. Usually, if someone hasn’t seen the show, I like to start there because it has a sense about it of truly uncovering something important and deeper than golf.

I’ve actually been in touch with the warden trying to figure out a way to let the inmates play golf. I think that just because golf is considered to be a country club sport doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be able to enjoy it. Just because someone’s a murderer doesn’t mean that they can’t be a great golfer (laughs). But actually, why can’t they play golf just because they’ve committed murder? They can play basketball; they can play tennis; they can lift weights; they can read in the library. The punishment is that they’ll never be able to see the free world. Why is there a punishment that includes no golf? It doesn’t make any sense to me. They should be able to do labor and buy themselves a tee time just like they can do labor and buy themselves a cheeseburger. One of the other great things about that episode was that Warden Cain himself is a deeply spiritual dude who really believes in reformation and forgiveness. So that episode really checks all the boxes for me. We have some new episodes coming out in Season 2 that are going to be drop dead gorgeous. We went to some places that most people in the golf world do not know even exist, yet they are huge, amazing stories.

Q: With Skratch Golf you’ve also traveled to a variety of Tour stops and gotten the chance to work with tons of pros. Who’s been your favorite interview so far?

EAL: That’s a tough one. Well, I interviewed Charley Hoffman in a port-a-potty and that went really well. He definitely one of my favorite guys on Tour; he is just such a nice guy. You know, when you see Charley he will smile at you and that is just a really sweet thing. So that was a great interview.

I also interviewed Jesper Parnevik for a series we’re doing called “Champions Dinner.” The idea was based on the Champions Dinners held at the Masters and other events. I thought we should do the same thing, but instead of winning a certain tournament, you’re just on the Champions Tour. Basically, we structured it so that we could talk about whatever we wanted, we could curse; let’s spend an hour with these guys who can tell stories for days! It worked out pretty well, and Jesper was totally game for the process.

Q: Last question, what’s next for you professionally and within golf?

EAL: There’s a TV project that’s in the works, a travel show. There’s a screenplay that I wrote, a romantic comedy based in Los Angeles. I was a filmmaker long before I got into golf, so it’s been really funny to watch my career get caught up in this tidal wave of golf, kind of at exactly the right time. It seems that right as I got into golf, golf kind of embedded itself into me — not to make myself seem more important than I am. Because I didn’t really ask for any of this; it just started with me saying yes to my brother trying to get me to play golf for the 100th time. The next thing I know, I was at the PGA Show and people were coming up to me thanking me for “Adventures in Golf,” and I was just like, “People have actually seen that?”

So it’s been really exciting. On some level, I want to keep doing as much stuff as I can within golf and I think that will happen naturally. I also want to do something about meditation in a nuts-and-bolts, simple-to-follow way since the experience I had with meditation in Be the Ball was so gratifying. I found that not only did I like it, but a lot of those who did the experiment in the film also enjoyed my meditations. Other than that, I have a new dog named Snowball. He and I will probably grow old together (laughs).

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Brody has proudly been with GolfWRX since July 2012. He is a full time student, but enjoys getting around to writing whenever he has the chance. His interests include Tour coverage, equipment reviews, as well as interviewing figures from within the golf world. Most recently, he spoke with the founder of AimPoint Technologies and coach of Adam Scott and Stacy Lewis, Mark Sweeney.

5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. Brian

    Apr 20, 2017 at 7:48 pm

    Great article. Even as a video/film guy, I somehow missed Erik’s work. The Louisiana prison piece was excellent. Glad to see Erik doing something that combines his passions.

  2. Double Mocha Man

    Apr 20, 2017 at 2:57 pm

    I absolutely love this line: “The people that play in Scotland are just… I don’t know, they’re happier than they are in America; they’ve got something figured out there that we need to work on. ” It is so true. I play with my regular foursome but I also play with a lot of strangers. Every now and then I meet a guy (or gal) who gets it, can laugh at themselves and enjoy the game of golf in its purity. They are happy. It’s great to experience. Disclaimer: I have to admit I am usually happy playing golf, thanks in part to the Italian Sports Drink I carry with me.

    • Brody

      Apr 20, 2017 at 3:02 pm

      Definitely true! Thanks for reading.

    • Jack

      Apr 20, 2017 at 11:30 pm

      LOL Italian Sports Drink. We need more of those.

      • Double Mocha Man

        Apr 21, 2017 at 10:50 am

        Pinot Grigio from the Tuscany region… swing lubricator, mood enhancer.

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TG2: What’s it like to caddie for Rory? GolfWRX Forum Member shares his experience

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Marine and GolfWRX forum member “djfalcone” explains the story of how he got to caddie for Rory McIlroy and Johnny Vegas through the Birdies for the Brave program, and how knowledgable Rory is about his equipment. Make sure to check out his full forum thread here.

Listen to our full podcast below, or click here to listen on iTunes!

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Opinion & Analysis

An early look at the potential U.S. Ryder Cup Team

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With the Masters and the Players Championship complete, I wanted to examine the statistics of the current leaders in Ryder Cup Points for the U.S. Team. Over the history of the Ryder Cup, the U.S. Team has relied on pairings that were friends and practice-round companions instead of pairing players that were more compatible from a statistical standpoint. This has led to disappointing performances from the U.S. Team and top players such as Jim Furyk performing poorly at the Ryder Cup, as he is ill-suited for the Fourball format.

After a disastrous 2014 Ryder Cup where the U.S. Team lost by a score of 16.5-11.5, the U.S. decided to use a more statistical approach to Ryder Cup play. According to my calculations, the 2016 U.S. Team’s pairings were the closest to optimal that the U.S. Team has compiled in the last seven Ryder Cups. And not surprisingly, the U.S. Team won 17-11 over the Europeans.

Since there are several months to go before the Ryder Cup, I won’t get too much into potential pairings in this article. Instead, I will focus more on the current games of top-12 players in U.S. Ryder Cup Points Standings and how that translates to Ryder Cup performance.

About the Ryder Cup Format

In the Ryder Cup, there is the Foursome format (alternate shot) and the Fourball format (best score). There are distinctly different metrics in the game that correlate to quality performers in each format.

In the Foursome format, short game around the green performance is usually critical. In a typical stroke play event such as The Players Championship, short game around the green performance usually has a much smaller impact on player’s performance. But in a match play, alternate-shot format the opposite has been true. My conclusion is that with the alternate-shot format, more greens in regulation are likely to be missed. The team that can save par and extend holes is usually likely to come out on top. The European team has mostly dominated the U.S. team over the past 20 years in the Foursome format, and the European teams typically are stronger with their short game around the green.

Other factors involved with Foursome play are Red Zone Performance (shots from 175-225 yards) and being able to pair the right players together based on how they each play off the tee and with their approach shots from the rough. For example, a pairing of Phil Mickelson (who misses a lot of fairways) and Zach Johnson (who is not very good from the rough) would likely be a poor pairing.

In the Fourball format (lowest score), the best performers are high birdie makers and players that perform well on the par-4s, par-5s, and par-3s. Bubba Watson makes a lot of birdies and plays the par-4s and par-5s well, thus making him a good candidate for the Fourball format. The only issue with Bubba in the past is he has occasionally struggled on the par-3s. That can be resolved by pairing him with a player who makes a lot of birdies and is a strong performer on the par-3s. The reason for Jim Furyk’s struggles in the Fourball format is that he does not make a lot of birdies and is a merely average performer on the par-5s.

Note: All rankings below are based out of 209 golfers.

1. Patrick Reed

In the past, it has been difficult to get an accurate depiction of Reed’s game. He was notorious for either getting into contention or blowing up if he wasn’t in contention after the first round. He is now far better at avoiding those blowup rounds and remaining competitive regardless of how he well he performs at the beginning of the tournament. His iron play has been excellent, and since he is good on approach shots from the rough, short game around the green and he makes a lot of birdies and plays the par-4s and par-5s well, he should continue to be a great competitor in the Ryder Cup format. Given his inability to find the fairway off the tee, however, I would recommend pairing him with a quality performer from the rough in the alternate shot format.

2. Justin Thomas

On paper, Thomas should be Team USA’s toughest competitor as he has little in the way of holes in his game. He drives it great, hits his irons well from every distance, has a superb short game and can putt. He also makes a ton of birdies, plays every type of hole well and rarely makes bogeys. Like Reed, it would be advisable to pair him with a player that is a quality performer from the rough in the alternate shot format.

3. Dustin Johnson

DJ is the second-strongest performer on paper. The only thing that currently separates Justin Thomas from DJ is their Red Zone play. DJ has typically been a world-class performer from the Red Zone, however, and the data suggests that his ranking from the Red Zone should rapidly improve. He struck it well from the Red Zone in his last two events at Harbour Town Golf Links and TPC Sawgrass. And with his putting performance this season, he could make for a great competitor in this year’s Ryder Cup.

4. Jordan Spieth

Spieth has the metrics to be a strong Ryder Cup performer, as he strikes the ball well with his driver and his irons while having a superb short game around the green. His only weakness in the Fourball format is his performance on the par-3s, but that is due to his inability to make putts from 15-25 feet (198th). That is the crux of the situation for Spieth; can he get his old putting form back?

A look at previous great putters on Tour that inexplicably struggled with their putter shows that Spieth is going about his putting woes the correct way. He’s not making equipment or wholesale changes to his putting stroke. He is continuing to work with what made him a great putter just like Jason Day did last year when he inexplicably struggled with the putter early in the season… and then turned it around and regained his old putting form.

The question is, how long will it take for Spieth to regain his old form? Typically, players like Spieth that have a dramatic drop-off in their putting take about a year to regain their old form. He may not regain that form by the time the Ryder Cup takes place. If he does, Team USA is very strong with its top-4 points earners.

5. Bubba Watson

Bubba is off to a strong enough year to make the U.S. Ryder Cup Team, but the best bet for him is to stick to the Fourball format given his struggles around the green. Watson’s performance on the par-5s has not exactly been remarkable, but typically he’s one of the very best in the world on par-5s and can make a ton of birdies.

6. Rickie Fowler

Fowler has not been as strong in some areas of the game such as Red Zone, shots from the rough and putting as he has been in recent years. That makes him a little less appealing in the alternate shot format, but he still has a solid foundation to be a quality contributor in either format. The upside is if Rickie gets back to his old form with the putter and from the Red Zone, he should be a top-notch Ryder Cup performer because he is well suited to perform in either team format. At this time, he would be best suited to play with an accurate driver and very good performer around the green (i.e. Matt Kuchar) in the alternate shot format.

7. Brooks Koepka

There currently is not enough data on Koepka due to his wrist injury he suffered early in the season. Koepka is arguably the best bomber in the world who is also a great putter and a solid performer from the Red Zone. The main issue for Koepka has been his short game performance around the green. That would typically make for a weak partner in the alternate shot format, but Koepka was spectacular in the 2016 Ryder Cup. His combination of length and putting may make him a formidable Ryder Cup performer for years to come.

8. Phil Mickelson

As a statistical analyst for golf, I never quite know what I’m going to get from Lefty. This season Lefty has putted superbly, but his performance around the green has left a lot to be desired.

In recent Ryder Cups, he has been a quality performer in both the Foursome and Fourball formats. His recent success in the alternate shot format makes him a mandatory candidate, however, his inability to find the fairway means he would need a partner who is very good from the rough. The data suggests that his performance around the green should get closer to his old form as the season goes along.

9. Webb Simpson

Like Mickelson, it’s always a surprise as to what the strengths and weaknesses of Simpson’s game will be by the end of the season. Typically, he’s been a decent driver of the ball that is often a superb iron player and short game performer. With the anchoring ban, he has struggled with the putter up to this season. Lately, he has been an incredible putter that is struggling a bit with the irons.

Most of Simpson’s struggles with the irons have been from the rough, so a partner who finds a lot of fairways off the tee could be an excellent pairing in the foursome format with Simpson.

10. Matt Kuchar

Kuchar could be a very critical player for Team USA down the stretch. There are potential players on the team that could be valuable in the alternate shot format if they can find a teammate to find fairways off the tee to make up for their struggles on approach shots from the rough. Historically, Kuchar has been the most accurate off the tee of the players mentioned thus far.

This season, however, Kuchar has been underwhelming in his ability to find the fairway. The next most-accurate drivers of the ball that are near the top-12 in Ryder Cup points are Brian Harman, Bryson DeChambeau, Kevin Kisner and Andrew Landry, and none of them have nearly the experience in the Ryder Cup as Kuchar has. If Kuchar continues to miss fairways, his chances of making the team are not good unless he’s a Captain’s pick. If he cannot find the fairway, he has little-projected value as a member of the team. He is not making a lot of birdies, and his struggles on the par-3s and does not make him a favorable teammate in the Fourball format either.

11. Brian Harman

Harman’s value is that he has fairly decent Fourball metrics and his accuracy off the tee, putting, and iron play can work well with players like Fowler, Simpson, and Kuchar in the alternate shot format.

Harman has not performed that well from around the green using the Strokes Gained methodology, however; he ranks 15th on shots from 10-20 yards. I placed that metric in there as strokes gained takes into account all shots from less than 30 yards, but 10-20 yards is the most common distance range from which scrambling opportunities occur on Tour. Thus, Harman is an excellent performer from 10-20 yards and is only losing strokes around the green due to poor performance from 20-30 yards, and those shots occur less frequently on Tour. His struggles from 20-30 yards would also explain why his par-5 performance is roughly average, as that is the distance players typically finish from the hole when they go for par-5s in two and do not make the green.

And even though Harman is not very long off the tee (147th in Measured Driving Distance), he is a quality performer from the rough and thus he does not have to be tethered to another short-hitting, accurate driver in the alternate shot format.

12. Bryson DeChambeau

Dechambeau makes for a solid Ryder Cup candidate, as he has no outstanding weaknesses in his game this season as he appears to have rid himself of the putting woes that have hurt him in the past. I think he is better suited for the Fourball format, however, given how many birdies he makes. Pair him with a strong performer on the par-3s like Rickie Fowler or Phil Mickelson and it would make a very formidable duo in that format.

A pairing with Mickelson in the Fourball format would be intriguing given DeChambeau’s excellent driving. DeChambeau could hit first and — if he continues to drive it superbly — that would free up Mickelson to not worry so much about his woeful driving and focus more on making birdies. Perhaps a Fourball pairing with Bubba would make for a situation where DeChambeau could tee off first and pipe his drive, and then give Bubba a free rip to hit it as far as he possibly can and give them a sizeable advantage over their opponents.

31. Tiger Woods

I know I said I was only going to look at the top-12 players in Ryder Cup points, but the readers would inevitably ask about Tiger anyway. Furthermore, Tiger is an intriguing candidate for the team given his current game.

Tiger has struggled in both the Foursome and Fourball format. He seems to not play that great in alternate shot. In Fourball, it appears that he plays well by himself, but he is often let down by his teammates. The Europeans have always gunned for Tiger in the Ryder Cup, and it takes a special type of teammate to deal with the hysteria of having Tiger as their partner.

There are the makings of a very good alternate shot partner with Tiger, as his iron play and putting are still really good and his short game has been incredible this season. In the Fourball format, it would be advisable to find a strong par-5 performer, as Tiger’s performance on the par-5s has not been outstanding thus far. Having said that, I could see three excellent partners for Tiger in either format.

Patrick Reed has the numbers to be compatible with Tiger’s game, and he also has the track record of living up to the moment in the Ryder Cup. Dustin Johnson is can make up for Tiger’s possible big misses off the tee and can overpower a course with Tiger. And Phil Mickelson, whose game is compatible with Tiger’s, and could provide a symbol of the old guard working together to beat the Europeans.

There are certainly a lot of compelling possible pairings for Team USA, and there is still a long way to go before we start to see what pairings are available. The European Team looks like one of the strongest in years, and with all of the potential storylines for the 2018 Ryder Cup, it could be one of the greatest Ryder Cups of all time.

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Gear Dive: How Tiger Woods used to adjust his clubs based on swing changes

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Ben Giunta, a former Nike Tour Rep and now owner of the TheTourVan.com, joins host Johnny Wunder and TXG’s Ian Fraser on this episode of The Gear Dive. Ben discusses working in-depth with Nike Athletes before the company stopped producing hard goods. He has some fantastic intel on TW and the setup of his sticks (around the 14-minute mark). They also discuss Ben’s new endeavor.

Check out the full podcast on SoundCloud below, or click here to listen on iTunes!

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