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!”
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.
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).