The Netflix effect: How golf can capitalize on the success of 'Full Swing'
9 Min Read
Written by Michael LoRé
Scottie Scheffler won his second consecutive WM Phoenix Open on Sunday to regain the top spot in the Official World Golf Ranking. Hours later, Patrick Mahomes burnished his reputation as the top quarterback in the game by leading the Kansas City Chiefs to a second Super Bowl victory in the last four years.
Those accomplishments weren’t the only occasions for celebration last week in Phoenix. With golf’s biggest party, the WM Phoenix Open, as the backdrop, the sport celebrated the impending release of Netflix’s “Full Swing” with a star-studded premiere. The docuseries, which promises to give viewers unprecedented access to the PGA TOUR and its players, was finally released to the public on Feb. 15 after months of anticipation.
“When I originally signed up for it, I don’t really think they wanted very much from me, and all of a sudden I started winning tournaments and stuff and they were like, ‘We need a lot more stuff now,’” said Scheffler, the back-to-back champ in Phoenix and reigning Masters champion. “It was kind of a tough balance, but it was a lot of fun. I think it’s going to be great for the game. I think it’s going to get a whole new audience watching golf, and it should be great for our TOUR and good for the game of golf as well.”
“Full Swing” was produced by Vox Media Studios and Box to Box Films, the company behind Netflix’s “Formula 1: Drive to Survive” and tennis’ “Point Break.”
Netflix's 'Full Swing' trailer
The eight-episode docuseries will give viewers a behind-the-scenes look at the 2022 PGA TOUR season and features the likes of Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Collin Morikawa, Matt Fitzpatrick, Tony Finau and Scheffler.
Finau, who was one of the first players to sign up for the show, said other golfers who weren’t featured have reached out to him about the filming process and experience.
“I thought it was important to share my story and just highlight who I am off the golf course,” said Finau, a father of five. “I allowed pretty much full access throughout the season and although I wasn’t playing well early in the season, I thought it was important to get my story out there and show people who I am off the golf course.
“It was a great opportunity for a company like Netflix to step up in the way they … showcase talent on the PGA TOUR and document talent on the PGA TOUR, which I think is a great thing for our game. … We can only grow. We’re not going to lose fans doing something like this. We only have room to grow and we can only grow through this experience. Hopefully that’s the case and our game continues to grow. It’s such a beautiful game.”
Fans, media and a who’s who list of celebrities were given a sneak peak of the series at last Saturday’s premiere at Topgolf Scottsdale. Stars in attendance included Serena Williams, Shaquille O’Neal, DJ Khaled and boxer Canelo Alvarez. They walked the green carpet along with TOUR players Joel Dahmen, Sahith Theegala and Fitzpatrick before watching Episode 1, which explores the relationship between Spieth and Thomas. The premiere’s festive atmosphere reflected the optimism around the show and the effect it will have on the game.
“I think that this show has a chance to introduce golf to a whole new audience and I want people to see golf for what it really is and this kind of crazy traveling circus that is life on the PGA TOUR,” said Chad Mumm, Chief Creative Officer for Vox Media Studios. “I think general sports fans may have some impression in their head about what pro golfers are like, and like anything, if you look under the surface, it’s nothing like you expect. I think people are going to have their expectations completely subverted in the first five minutes of this show and hopefully we can make golf as exciting as Formula 1.
“We poured our heart into this thing and I think it lived up to it. I hope everybody watches and enjoys it as much as we did making it.”
Whether “Full Swing” can replicate the success of “Drive to Survive,” which has helped Formula 1 grow by leaps and bounds, especially in the United States, is still to be seen, but the PGA TOUR is ready for what’s to come.
The timing of the release of “Full Swing” is fortuitous, falling during a period of increased innovation on the PGA TOUR. With an unprecedented agreement from its top players to compete together more often, the TOUR’s 2023 calendar features 17 designated events that will have strong fields and big purses. The WM Phoenix Open, which had 22 of the top 25 players in the world and a $20 million purse, showed the potential of these events. Scheffler outlasted a leaderboard that also included stars like Jon Rahm and Justin Thomas, as well as a persistent upset threat from Canada’s Nick Taylor, who entered the week ranked 223rd in the world.
There have also been technological enhancements to broadcasts in the new year, including mic’d up interviews during competition with players like Max Homa and Tom Kim, as well as augmented and virtual reality features.
“The pressure is definitely there,” said Chris Wandell, PGA TOUR vice president of media business development. “The great news is that we think that in 2023 with this new schedule and these designated events with gigantic purses and much stronger fields, that’s going to be a big benefit for fans when they tune in for the first time. Secondly, when we work with CBS, ESPN+ and Comcast, we’re making significant improvements and positive enhancements to our broadcasts.
“We want to make sure when fans tune into a golf tournament for the first time on any of our U.S. or international media partner platforms, they’re like, ‘OK, I know who these guys are from the show, now I want to learn what covering the competition really is like,’ and I think we’re taking gigantic steps forward in that respect as well.”
The debut of “Full Swing” comes during a time of growth for not just the professional game, but also the recreational one.
Rounds played in 2022 were 15% above the average of the 2017-2019 period. The National Golf Foundation also said that the number of on-course participants increased to 25.6 million, a net gain of 500,000 over the previous year.
A record 3.3 million people played on a golf course for the first time last year. Newcomers to golf also continue to be more diverse than the overall participation base, with beginners 45% more likely to be non-White and 35% more likely to be female, compared to current golfers.
“There’s a lot of people I know—friends or friends of friends—who maybe played a little bit beforehand and are now fully hooked and playing all the time,” said Rickie Fowler, who also is part of the “Full Swing” cast. “With ‘Full Swing,’ it’s going to be exposed to a lot more people outside of the golf world. Hopefully people will see that and at least want to check out an episode and from there, I feel people will be hooked because it’s just a lot different look than what people are used to.”
Michael Phelps, the most-decorated Olympian of all-time with 28 medals, including 23 gold medals, has gotten more into golf since retiring in 2016. Speaking during the WM Phoenix Open pro-am, he said he’s looking forward to watching the Netflix series.
“It's going to be fun having an inside look at their lives and what they do away from the golf course and kind of how they are as humans,” said Phelps. “It brings that factor into it, which I think is really cool for all of us to see. I’m a golf nut, so to see some of this, especially with everything that was going on last year going on, I’m going to be on the edge of my seat waiting to watch the next episode. It’s going to be fun.”
While a second season of “Full Swing” has not been confirmed, it is definitely a possibility. Gabe Spitzer, documentary series director at Netflix, said at this year’s AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am that “when we get into these, we hope for not one, but 10 years.”
Mumm, who serves as one of the show’s executive producers along with Vox’s Mark Olsen and Paul Martin and James Gay-Reese of Box to Box Films, said he’s received calls from golfers who would love to be part of another season.
Unlike Finau, who was quick to participate, or Fowler, whose production company, Main Event Productions, was involved early on, some golfers needed coaxing before committing their time to the additional cameras, responsibilities and pressures.
“I sort of took the attitude of see how the first season works out—see if I like it, like the idea, feel comfortable letting cameras get into my life a little bit more,” said McIlroy, a three-time FedExCup champion. “But I had a good chat with Chad in the summertime. Obviously with everything that's going on in the world of golf, he just said having my voice in there in some way could just add a layer of context that wasn't there already.”
McIlroy wasn’t the only PGA TOUR pro who expressed hesitation about opening his off-course life to the cameras. But regardless of who agrees to be a potential future participant, the show’s impact can only help bring more eyeballs to the PGA TOUR and golf.
“I think the ceiling is quite high when you try to compare it to Formula 1,” Finau said. “I think a lot of us became Formula 1 fans—myself included—just watching ‘Drive to Survive.’ We can only hope that our popularity grows, but more importantly, that the game grows because of the way they documented and showcased the talent we have out here.
“Golf fell in my lap. It was nothing I ever tried to pursue or had any interest in playing. It fell in my lap, so I’m extremely blessed to play the game and be involved in the game. Now being on this side of it, where I’ve been around the game for 25-plus years, I’ve seen some pretty cool things and I’ve met some pretty cool people all through this unbelievable game. There’s a story to be told there and I know Netflix is the one to tell that story.”