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It's showtime for PGA Tour stars as Netflix docuseries finally debuts

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LOS ANGELES – In a city full of stars, Netflix is hoping to create a few more with the Hollywood launch Wednesday of its highly anticipated docuseries, “Full Swing”, which set out to chronicle the lives and careers of more than a dozen PGA Tour players.

Following the model of Netflix’s game-changing “Drive to Survive”, which has been credited with Formula 1’s massive spike in popularity, the eight-episode “Full Swing” series doesn’t just bring fans inside the ropes – it also provides unprecedented access into the fitness trailer, private jets and locker rooms occupied by the game’s biggest stars, from Rory McIlroy to Jordan Spieth to Justin Thomas.

Filming began in January 2022 at the Farmers Insurance Open – and producers couldn’t have possibly foreseen the drama that would unfold throughout the year, with the polarizing PGA Tour-LIV Golf rift serving as the underlying subplot to all of the on-course action.

“We’re all lucky that Netflix picked a great year for storylines,” Tony Finau said.

Is 'evolved' version of Finau here to stay?

Is 'evolved' version of Finau here to stay?

The 45-minute episodes are only as strong as the access granted, and Finau proved to be one of the most accessible, allowing the film crew basically free reign throughout the year as he looked to boost his profile with the casual sports fan. With Finau, the crew started shooting at last year’s Genesis Invitational and continued with him through the Tour Championship, catching up with him, at some point, at nearly all of his remaining tournaments. They also spent time with him at home, with his family, and captured the elation of his back-to-back wins in the summer set against the backdrop of an emotional year for his wife, Alayna, who lost her father at the end of 2021.

“I allowed a lot,” Finau said, “because it was something I wanted to share on and off the course. I hope that it resonates with non-golfers, mostly, and brings that attraction that F1 has done.”

Just as forthcoming – not surprisingly – was Joel Dahmen, who was hoping to add depth to his back story as the self-deprecating, cancer-surviving journeyman who is battling a top tier that is younger, more athletic and more talented. Much like Finau, Dahmen said he “just dove off the deep end and did whatever they wanted us to do. We really put ourselves out there. I didn’t say ‘no’ very often.”

That meant a deep dive during the week of the WM Phoenix Open, when he allowed the crew to film a pre-tournament party at his house. (That was the same week that Dahmen ripped off his shirt on 16th green, prompting a disapproving phone call from Tour HQ.) They traveled to Idaho for two days with Dahmen’s caddie, Geno Bonnalie, as he explored the origins of their friendship and explained how he’s trying to unlock Dahmen’s peak performance. As if on cue, they played their way into serious contention at the U.S. Open, which gave the audience new insight into Dahmen’s strengths and vulnerabilities as player and caddie chased their dream, together.

Every player featured was able to preview the main episode in which they appear (Dahmen’s was titled, “Imposter Syndrome”), and a few hours before he sat down to watch, Dahmen tweeted: “I’m nervous about how this turned out. I hope everyone enjoys it.”

“But the nerves were gone after I saw it,” Dahmen said afterward. “It’s so much access, and you can go so many different ways with it, and you always want people to like you – it’s just a natural human behavior. You feel exposed. But we were just trying to be ourselves, and hopefully people like that.”

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The biggest names bookended the series, in the first and final episodes, with the show opening with Spieth and Thomas on a private jet playing a (thousand-dollar-a-hand) card game, while McIlroy shared a private moment in the locker room, FedExCup trophy in hand, following a disruptive year in the men’s game. McIlroy wasn’t initially part of the production plans but joined after The Open to lend his voice to a season-long story unlike any in Tour history. (Though the LIV threat is omnipresent, especially in episodes with Brooks Koepka and Ian Poulter, their controversial decisions and post-Tour lives aren’t examined in rich detail. Thomas, for instance, said LIV was only a “very, very small” part of his on-camera material, despite being one of the Tour’s most vocal supporters.)

Last week in Phoenix, McIlroy said that he established “ground rules” for his appearances in Season 1 – nothing shot at home, nothing with his family, nothing in his car. He apparently wasn’t the only one to set parameters for filming; Spieth and Collin Morikawa also appeared to have kept camera crews at an arm’s length, with more focus on their training and preparation than their at-home lives.

“It definitely was a little awkward and different at times, driving in a car or traveling somewhere or working out and having a camera in your face,” Thomas said. “I don’t think anyone on the PGA Tour is used to that level of fame, so that was an adjustment. It was truly a fly-on-the-wall situation and doing everything I normally would, they just so happened to be right there with me.”

Asked what he hoped fans would take away from his appearances that they wouldn’t ordinarily see on a telecast or in a press-conference setting, Thomas said: “I feel this way when I’m with my friends at home, but I’m just a 29-year-old dude who likes to watch football and drink beer and do normal stuff. I just so happen to play pro golf and want to win big tournaments, and a lot of us feel the same way.”

Rickie Fowler, whose production company was involved in the early development of the show, was initially billed as one of the headliners, but his role was rather limited in the first season. Unlike the other characters, he didn’t have his own dedicated episode; much of his filming centered around U.S. Open qualifying that never made air. And so he was mostly left to fill in the storytelling gaps, either with the Spieth-Thomas relationship or other players’ evolutions or the stars-only meeting he attended during the FedExCup playoffs.

“It wasn’t a heavy lift; it wasn’t anything crazy,” Fowler said. “It’s really up to the player with what they wanted to do and how much to let them in.”

And those who opened up most?

They were rewarded with a deeply moving narrative that should create a new legion of fans – or so the Tour hopes.