“I’m Usually Thinking About Other Shit”: Drew Millard On The Healing Power Of Golf
2:27 PM EDT on May 10, 2023
The last time I played a round of golf was in November of 2019. I was in Colombia visiting my dad for Thanksgiving, and had just quit my job at a website. You know the one. I won't say that the round of golf I played in the mountains of Medellin changed my outlook on life, or my career, or even my year, but it felt good to return to a sport that I'd last played when I was much younger.
Drew Millard, the author of the new book How Golf Can Save Your Life, can relate. After a nervous breakdown led to a depressive episode in 2016, Millard moved from Los Angeles back to his native North Carolina. A doctor told him that he needed to get some exercise to help work through the episode, and Millard's way of doing just that was to go back to the golf courses of his youth. Slowly but surely, he writes in the book, he was able to find equilibrium between maintaining a career in media, his mental health, and his love of playing 18 holes.
Once the pandemic started, plenty of people followed suit. Those early days in 2020 were constrictive and paranoid, with every stranger a potential carrier of the coronavirus, but golf—spaced-out, individual, extremely outdoors—seemed uniquely suited for safe, healthy fun. According to a study by the National Golf Foundation, the U.S. saw a net increase of 500,000 golfers in 2020, compared to 2019; that was the largest increase in 17 years. In total, there were about 6 million golfers who were either taking up the game for the first time or returning to it after a long absence. For people who were otherwise losing their bearings at home, alone, golf turned out to be their solution, just as it had been for Millard four years earlier.
Ahead of the release of How Golf Can Save Your Life, I spoke to Millard over Zoom about writing the book, the differences between city and country golf courses, and the best golfing rapper. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
I went into the book expecting, well, a book about golf. Instead, it was more about understanding certain parts of your life—mental health, the state of media, politics, and such—through golf. Was that the framing you had in mind when you started writing the book, or did it come out of the writing process?
I always wanted to use golf as a way of talking about different things. The first kind of germ of the book was this piece I wrote way the hell back in like 2017. It was a letter of recommendation for high-visibility golf balls for the New York Times. The point of recommending the high-visibility golf balls was that these are a light that helped me shine the way out of depression, or whatever the fuck.
To your point, I like the history of golf. I like the PGA Tour, but I'm not super interested in talking about that stuff, especially for like an entire book. There are already a bunch of books that do that. And so I was like, "I'm just not going to do that."
My initial idea was that each chapter was going to be about a different golf course, and each golf course was going to represent something happening either in golf or the wider world. I was gonna write about Pebble Beach, where the bunkers around the eighth green were redesigned by this guy named Robert Hunter, who I write about in the book. He wrote the book on golf course design, and was also a prominent member of the U.S. Socialist Party, who went to the Communist International and hung out with Lenin. But he was also one of the elite amateur golfers of the day. Initially, the way I was going to talk about him was going to be through writing about Pebble Beach.
It turns out that it was a pretty good idea, but it was also a super expensive idea. Because I would have had to spend several months just flying to different very expensive golf courses and playing them. So I dropped that idea. After that, I thought, well, I gotta use my own experiences about playing golf as the basis for this because when I play golf, I'm never thinking like, "Oh, I have to be focused on my technique" or whatever. I'm usually thinking about other shit while golfing, and I think that's like true for a lot of people.
You mentioned Robert Hunter, the socialist golfer from the early 20th century. That chapter of the book is great, I loved learning about a random golfer I had never heard of. Were there other historical figures you wanted to fit into the book but couldn't for whatever reason?
I thought about putting in Charlie Sifford, who was the first black man on the PGA Tour. And he actually started playing on tour before a lot of other sports were integrated. But also it's this thing where golf holds that up as a virtue, going "You see? We were great!" even though like he could only play in tour events in the north. He never got to play the Masters even though he was probably better than Arnold Palmer. And so I thought about putting him in, but I also thought that if I do put him in, then am I going to end up doing the opposite of what I want to do? I'd end up carrying water for the PGA Tour and golf as a whole. So I chose not to.
It's hard to find people who have good politics and who have also historically been into golf. Well, it was doable in the 1900s and 1910s, the last time it was "hip" to be a socialist, so there were a lot more people who were into golf that had good politics. But after 1917, for whatever reason, it becomes harder to find golfers with leftist politics. Although there is a great set of photos of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro playing golf at a country club they had reappropriated after the revolution, but they were just screwing around.
This is something I think about as I've gotten into Formula One recently. It's hard to watch it and not think that this is awful, it's bad for the planet, and it's full of these hyper-rich, elitist figures. Like golf, in many ways. But there are also movements to make both of those things more inclusive, given their roots in more working-class pastimes. Do you think, with golf, we can get back to a sport closer to its roots, which you talk about in the book, as a sport for the working class? Or are we past the point of no return?
This is a great question. And I love the comparison to Formula One because I feel like car racing in general, and golf too, they're both arguably folk sports, in a way. For example, where I grew up in North Carolina, one of my friend's dads was a drag racer. And every year, on New Year's Day, he would take a hose and fill his yard full of mud, and convert his yard into a mud pit to create a mud track that people from around the county would race in. And it was a thing where the rule was, OK, you could only spend $1,000 on a car, and you had to fix it up yourself. The understanding was that the cars would not be functional at the end of the day. It was this opportunity for people who are really into cars in the country just sort of show off their ingenuity and creativity, in this really fun way. Especially like, among the type of, you know, like Southern dudes who like, if you call them creative they would be like, "The hell you say to me?"
I think with golf, below the surface-level perception, there's a lot of people for whom golf is just a thing that they do after they're done with work, be it construction or whatever. Especially at public municipal courses, there's this wholly separate culture. I've played golf with construction workers, and a Ski-Doo repairman, and I played a couple times with a trans woman who had been a butcher in San Francisco. There is that element of inclusiveness that has always been there in the open.
Once the pandemic started, you just had so many more people getting into golf, and I think that is changing the character of the game in interesting ways. I wouldn't necessarily say it's always super positive, though. For example, you had people who are more into #menswear who have gotten really into golf over the past few years. And they have created this like sort of alternate version of aspirational golf where like, you have to have the coolest vintage clubs, and all these expensive accessories, just to show up to the course. And you want to have clothes from these certain brands. So there's a tension, where there is an opportunity for golf to become way more democratic right now, but that may get influencer-ed out of the realm of possibility.
You write about first playing in North Carolina, where there are courses everywhere, and then contrast it with city courses in New York and Philadelphia. What's the difference between those styles of golf? Do you take a different mindset into a city course than you would more of a rural course?
I think the thing that's cool about city courses is they are usually affordable and either publicly owned, or privately owned but still affordable. They offer this refuge from the overall urban environment in a way that is obviously different from a public park or something. They're both like public utilities, but there's just something very special about going and playing a round of golf in a city because it really does feel like it transports you in a way that I really appreciate.
When I was spending a summer in New York City, and I would drive like 15 minutes to Dyker Beach, which is a public course in Brooklyn. And I remember once, I got two flat tires on the way, and there happened to be a tire shop right across the street from the course. And so I go, and I leave my car there. They give me new tires, and then I played 18 holes.
In terms of playing a city course versus something in the country that's more wide open, it's actually way harder. The holes tend to be shorter, but they're also thinner. If you're playing in the country, you've got big, wide open fairways, and you can just wail on the ball. You have to be more of a tactician if you're playing a city course.
How has your relationship with working in media changed through your relationship with golf?
On a basic level, the people that I play golf with are not impressed. They're just like, "Oh, you're a writer. Great. No one cares." It doesn't matter. I recently played with a guy who told me that he has woken up at 2:45 in the morning to get to his construction job. And he's, you know, worked his way up the ladder over many years, but he still has woken up at 2:45 every morning since 1987. He can't remember the last time he used an alarm clock. He also told me that he got COVID twice and worked through it, which is somewhat admirable if not incredibly irresponsible. But someone like that, like, he's not going to be impressed by a blog, right? And so, on one level, it's given me an opportunity to organically meet a bunch of interesting people who have absolutely no interest in the media or what I'm doing. That's a good bit of perspective to have.
On another level, playing golf also can make you very comfortable at dealing with minor fuck-ups, like the kind that happen every single day in a newsroom. Just because able to work out your mental muscles, like "OK, how do I deal with this snafu," which is pretty helpful to have in your back pocket while working in media.
Ok, I have a few rapid-fire golf questions for you. First, what's your favorite club?
I have a 54 degree wedge, that is a rusty Titleist from 15 years ago that I bought for five bucks at a used golf store. And I can do anything with that thing. It's just a lot of fun to hit. You can ask yourself "Okay, what kind of goofy shit do I want to do with this golf ball right now?" and the 54 degree wedge will help me create that.
Also, I'm going on record here: Everyone should have a 54 degree sand wedge, and a 58 degree lob wedge. This is canon, because it's what Scarface the rapper does.
How did you find that out?
I follow Scarface and his golf teacher on Twitter. And there's great videos that the teacher makes where he's giving Scarface short game instruction that I have actually adopted myself. And Scarface ... he's a marksman. I think Scarface is probably the best golfing rapper. Although DJ Khaled is also pretty good.
What's the best and worst course you've played at? I'll let you define those terms however you want.
The best course I had ever played is Lake Lure Golf Course in Lake Lure, North Carolina. It has everything I want in a golf course. It is very inexpensive. It's very old. It was designed by this guy named Donald Ross who is, I think, the greatest golf course architect ever. He was like the Andy Warhol of golf course design, where he would just have other people design things, and he would look at it and go, "yeah, that's good, let's do that."
The course is in this really beautiful area of North Carolina, near a lake. And Ross just built it in a valley, so the trajectory of the course is going up one side of the valley and down. It's a very creative use of landscape in a way that is not invasive to the local fauna, and it doesn't involve significantly changing the landscape, which is another thing I like in a golf course.
The worst golf course I've ever played is every golf course that is surrounded by a housing development that came out of a wave of white flight.
Finally, what is your handicap?
It is 11.5. They changed the handicap system, I think, to make handicaps lower, or to make it easier to have a lower handicap. I do not play as well as like an 11.5 handicap might imply.