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).
Clampett: Is confusion the leading cause of golfers quitting the game?
It seems that lately I’ve had a run of golfers attending my two-day Signature School with similar stories.
“Bobby, I have too many swing thoughts! I don’t know what I should think about when I swing.” Nearly without exception, these golfers tell me that their increased frustration had led to a deterioration of their game. It’s really a shame, because many of these frustrated golfers were at one time low, single-digit handicap players that had fallen to bogey-level golf.
In these schools, I have the time to start peeling back the onion with each student, and I’m hearing the same story over and over. My first question is always, “How did you find out about us?” Usually, it’s through referral or the result of an internet search for instruction help. My second questions is, “What do you hope to accomplish in our two days together?” They almost always respond, “Bobby, my head is spinning with too many swing thoughts. I don’t know what to do. Your approach to impact makes the most sense I’ve seen. That’s why I’m here.”
Statistics indicate that 4 million golfers quit the game in the United States every year. And if you polled each of these 4 million golfers, you’d find confusion to be the common denominator in their decision to quit.
I googled “golf instruction” and received more than 33 million results. Then I went to “YouTube” and typed in “Golf Tip.” There were 932,000 results. Scores of golfers get emails everyday suggesting a new thought or idea to improve their game. They watch television and pick up some more advice. They subscribe to golf magazines suggesting all kinds of ideas. Then they go to the range or course and put as much of it into action as their memories and bodies will allow… only to find it just doesn’t work! They’re farther away from playing good golf than they were when they began seeking out these swing fixes.
Many of my students are avid golfers who come to my schools on the brink of quitting the game all together. One student’s story was so sad. He confessed that no one at his club wanted to play with him anymore because his game had declined so sharply. He was considering selling his membership. In tears, he shared with us that all of his friends were members of his club.
Why is there all this confusion around the golf swing? There are two simple reasons.
The first involves the idea that “style-based” teaching is still the most common approach to improving a golfer’s game, and in my opinion, this doesn’t work very well for most golfers. Style-based instruction centers around a certain look. These teachers ask golfers to set up to the ball this way, get in these backswing positions, make this move on the downswing, look like this at the finish… and so on. Meanwhile, the Dustin Johnsons, Jim Furyks, and Bubba Watsons of the golfing world don’t possess golf swings that look anything like the “style” being suggested. When swing tips are given for “style” reasons, they’re arbitrary, a visual preference, and can’t be measured.
The second reason golfers are more confused today than they’ve ever been is the climate of today’s golf instruction world. We live in a new age, the digital age, and golfers are being bombarded by countless forms of media suggesting how to improve their games. These tips have a very wide range of theories and suggestions, most of which are conflicting.
Set up with your weight on the left foot. No, on the right foot. No, in the middle.
Have a short, compact swing. No, get a big shoulder turn for more distance. No, just swing around your body.
Finish high. No, finish low and left.
You get the picture. Without the ability to discern fact from fiction when it comes to all of this information, golfers go to the driving range in search of that secret pill that’s going to make it all work. The truth is that a secret pill that’s “style-based” just doesn’t exist. The best golf teachers know that the “style” of swing really doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters in playing good golf is creating good impact. That’s what Dustin Johnson, Jim Furyk and Bubba Watson all have in common, and that’s why they are all great golfers and great ball-strikers.
Good instructors understand what it is that these great players do to create that good impact, and they have the ability to offer clear remedies that might be built on only one or two simple thoughts. When a golfer is limited to thinking about only one or two key things, their mind is free and so is their swing. It’s not paralysis by analysis that ruins golfers, but rather paralysis by having too many needless and ineffective swing thoughts that ruins golfers.
Good instruction and good swing tips help golfers understand the impact their swing needs to create to be a good ball-striker. When a golfer’s impact isn’t good, a good instructor will help the student understand the specific element of their impact that wasn’t good and provide the appropriate remedy to fix it. Using today’s modern technology helps reveal precisely what was good or bad about a swing’s impact. After the remedy is given, technology will specifically be able to measure and show improvement in the various elements of impact. Game improvement can now be measured and verified by viewing the specific areas where impact is improved. When students see this measured improvement, hope is restored, confidence grows, scores drop and fewer golfers quit the game!
Be aware that it’s fine to read these articles and view these swing tips for their entertainment and educational value, but golfers should only apply the tips when they know they will help them improve a specific element of their impact. Then and only then will their game improve. One thing is for certain in golf, better impact equals better golf. That is where the “hope” of a good golf game is to be found.
The difference between “ugly” and “unorthodox” golf swings
I’d like you pretend for a moment that you were asked to name the five ugliest golf swings by players who had won a major championship. Who would you select, and what criteria would you use to make that judgment? You might say you’re not sure, but you would have no difficulty identifying an ugly swing if you were to see one, right? The question is, what factors would move you toward that decision?
I struggled with this exact question when it was posed to me and others who were members of Golf Magazine’s “Top 100” panel at the time. In making my decision, I was concerned that I did not confuse UNORTHODOX with UGLY. The fact is that some of the greatest golfers throughout history have been considered to have had unorthodox swings.
- The word “unorthodox” is defined as that which is contrary to what is usual, traditional or generally accepted.
- The word “ugly” is defined as that which is unpleasant or repulsive in appearance.
In comparing the two definitions, they are clearly quite different. The word “unorthodox” suggests something that is different from the norm, while the word “ugly” relates to the appearance of an object regardless of its status. The problem with labeling any golf swing as unorthodox is that the definition of that condition varies with time. What was once considered to be unorthodox may later be considered perfectly acceptable, and we’ve seen this happen over and over again in golf instruction.
Case No. 1
It was considered unorthodox when Harry Vardon moved his thumbs toward the top of the shaft and placed the little finger of his right hand over his left forefinger knuckle. The standard grip in his era featured both thumbs to the sides of the shaft. The club was held more in the palms of both hands and with all ten fingers, rather than more diagonally through the palm as in Vardon’s Grip. As Vardon began to win, however, his competitors copied his grip. What once was considered unorthodox became orthodox.
Case No. 2
Hogan and Nicklaus were paired together in the final round of the 1957 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills. The dichotomy between their backswings couldn’t have been more evident. This was due to the way in which they utilized their right elbows in the backswing. Nicklaus allowed his right elbow to work up and away, pointing more outward at the top. Hogan’s right elbow was closer to his body and pointed more downward.
At the time, Hogan’s backswing was considered orthodox while Nicklaus’ swing was considered unorthodox. As Hogan faded from the winner’s circle and Nicklaus began to emerge, what was once thought to be unorthodox later came to be considered orthodox.
There are some swings that most observers would agree are both unorthodox and ugly. For example, most observers would say that Jim Furyk’s swing is not pretty — they might even go so far as to categorize it as ugly. This is despite the face that Furyk has had an outstanding career and has a U.S. Open victory to his credit. What is it that observers find so offense in his swing? The answer is the differential in planes between the backswing and the downswing, or what might be referred to as a “loop” in his swing.
In Furyk’s case, the club is taken well outside what might be considered the traditional backswing plane. Then it is looped well to the inside and back into position on the downswing. This is is a perfectly acceptable way to play golf, which is evidenced by the size of his bank account and the number of trophies on his mantle. As you might surmise, because of his golf swing, Furyk has not been asked to write any full-swing instruction books.
The problem is that, in the eyes of the observer, the combination of the two distinctly different planes gives a disjoined appearance to the swing. Does it follow then that the variance in the backswing and downswing is the primary factor in determining if a swing qualifies as being ugly? The problem with reaching that conclusion is that it doesn’t hold up to comparison with other players who employ a similar pattern… beginning with Freddy Couples. He begins his swing by lifting his arms well outside the traditional plane line. With a delayed turn of his torso, he then brings the club back into a more traditional plane at the top.
In the case of both Couples and Furyk, their backswings operate well outside the traditional plane line with both players “looping” the club back into position prior to impact. And yet Couples’ swing is universally admired, while Furyk’s swing is in some quarters ridiculed. This begs the question of why Couples’ “looping” swing motion is considered more acceptable than Furyk’s. The answer to that question is two-fold.
- Furyk’s loop is created ostensibly by a change in plane with the arms and the hands, giving the swing a frenetic appearance.
- Couples’ loop is created with a graceful turn of his body with the arms following in perfect harmony.
And so, when taking the swings of Couples and other “loopers” into consideration, it would seem that the dramatic change in plane between the backswing and the downswing in and of itself does not warrant the classification of ugly.
Author Footnote: A point worth considering as part of this discussion is that there have been other accomplished players throughout the history of the game whose backswings have operated on the same principles as Couples. This would include perennial Champion’s Tour winners Kenny Perry, and earlier Jay Haas, whose swings were generally admired despite their unorthodox approach to the backswing.
What does this all mean? First, while a loop in the golf swing may be unorthodox, is not necessary considered ugly provided that the club is routed into plane with the turn of the body rather than just the arms and the hands. Second, as stated earlier, the definition of unorthodox can and does change depending on the era. And third, an unorthodox swing is not necessarily ugly. The two classifications are very different.
As you evaluate golf swings, remember this adage; an unorthodox swing is not necessarily ugly, but an ugly swing is always unorthodox.
TG2: Should Tiger Woods play in The Masters without a driver?
Tiger Woods’ No. 1 concern heading into the Masters is the driver, according to Notah Begay. Equipment expert Brian Knudson and Editor Andrew Tursky argue whether Tiger should even use a driver during the Masters. Also, they discuss Rory’s new prototype putter and how it was made, and they talk about a new shaft company called “LA Golf Shafts.”
Listen to the full podcast on SoundCloud below, or click here to listen on iTunes!
For more info on the topics, check out the links below.
- Rory’s putter: www.golfwrx.com/503976/rory-mcilr…rmade-soto-proto/
- Tiger’s driver: www.golfwrx.com/503940/tiger-wood…irms-notah-begay/
- LA Golf Shafts: www.golfwrx.com/503818/la-golf-pa…s-la-golf-shafts/
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