chasing scratch

Above Average

The magic of "Chasing Scratch" is in two supposedly regular guys and one exceptional bond

Mike Shade has no shot. Waist deep in a patch of green heather, his disembodied torso is all that’s visible. His ball is so thoroughly embedded in a tangle of straw that his halfhearted practice swings sound like the gasps of a dying weed wacker. It is hot. A late-summer Chicago storm has given way to a searing bluebird day. It’s 10:48 a.m. and the heat index is creeping up past 95 degrees. Shade is in a black shirt, visibly sweating. He looks down at the ball and then up at me, the guy in the fairway awkwardly photographing him. He raises his hands to the sky triumphantly. “Is this heaven?!” he asks, flashing a wry smile. Optimism is Shade’s superpower. 

Shade chokes down on his wedge and swings hard. Tendrils of grass and heather follow his ball in a soft arc. His shot disappears over one of the Chicago Highlands Club’s perfectly manicured hills, tracking straight for the green. Shade, bushwacking back to the fairway, is giggling. He steals a glance at Eli Strait, his playing partner and best friend, who is beaming back at him. “Never doubted you for a second,” Strait says before shooting me a comically skeptical look. The pair bursts into laughter and bounds toward the green, falling into an effortless dialogue that hasn’t stopped for 20 years. 

Since 2017, Shade and Strait’s conversation has changed substantially. It is (just barely) more focused, and it revolves around a deepening quest for self-improvement. But the biggest change is that now tens of thousands of random people are listening in every week as the two argue about McDonald’s cookies, falconry and Weezer’s Blue Album (long stories, all), giggle their way through ’90s movie references and try to reach a milestone that 98% of dedicated golfers never even sniff: a 0.0 handicap. 

Shade and Strait are insane. These aren’t my words. Somewhere in the second season of their podcast, Chasing Scratch, they repeat the old, clichéd definition of insanity—doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results—and wonder aloud whether they have indeed lost their minds. Then their low, introspective moment is derailed by a silly argument about whether a great white shark could defeat a polar bear in a fight. By the end of the tangent, they’ve forgotten their existential concerns and are back to feeling optimistic. They still believe that as 40-year-olds with kids and jobs, they can become scratch golfers while still being good employees, husbands and fathers.  

Mike (top) and Eli (bottom) hard at work.

During the pandemic, I managed a rare feat: I made a friend. It was a bit of a setup, really—my partner’s best friend’s husband. Circumstances had found our families unexpectedly bonded in those pre-vaccine days. Fighting cabin fever during the cold gray of the Pacific Northwest winter, my new friend, Joe, proposed we take in some fresh air and, conveniently, 18 holes. I hadn’t touched a club in a decade, but I agreed. Another setup. Five swings into the pre-round range session and I felt the flush contact of the club. Two days later, as we conspired to sneak out for another damp winter round, Joe introduced me to Chasing Scratch. I fell deep into their universe of inside jokes, binge-listening 40 episodes in just a few weeks. 

I’m not alone. Chasing Scratch is a cult phenomenon in the golf world, flying mostly under the radar and popping up in driving range chatter at courses across the world. Last summer at the Open Championship, TV cameras caught one zealous listener bellowing “C’mon, Rick!”—their unofficial catchphrase—on the tee box. (Rick is Shade’s clubfitter; “C’mon, Rick!” is traditionally screamed in triumph after a good shot and in despair after a poorly struck ball.)

I was captivated and entertained. But, if I’m being honest, the strongest feeling I experienced entering the Chasing Scratch universe was jealousy. I was jealous of their show’s conceit, which involved a built-in excuse for heading to the course and obsessing over a hobby. I was jealous of their opportunity to enlist the help of some of golf’s biggest brands (the pair announced a sponsorship with Titleist last spring) and a patchwork crew of experts. But what I was most jealous of was their friendship. Since leaving college, they’ve lived in different states but talk every day without fail. That kind of close non-spousal contact sounds almost impossible—until you hear them banter. Their voices sound different, more alive, when in conversation with one another. The chemistry powers the show.

There is a moment in the final episode of the podcast’s first season when Shade recounts the shot, 17 years ago, that forever changed his relationship with Strait. In a monologue set to classical music, Shade describes Strait melting a driver that was aimed dangerously left toward a nearby road and string of houses. “Eli watched the ball in flight, posing in his finish position, and uttered the words, ‘Fight, honey,’” Shade narrates. He describes how the ball inexplicably listened to Strait, beginning a controlled slice before executing a series of lucky bounces and landing in the middle of the fairway. “I’d heard people speak to their golf balls before, but it was always, ‘Sit!’ ‘Bite!’ ‘Go!’ I’d never heard of somebody telling it to fight,” Shade says, still in awe of the line. Both remember the moment with vivid clarity, down to the regrettable cargo pants and puka-shell necklaces they were wearing at the time. The moment is, despite its ridiculousness, quite poignant. It’s the kind of mundane memory that is the building block of true friendship. It was also, remarkably, the first shot either had hit in each other’s presence. Love at first swing.

The duo’s friendship is the real protagonist here. Though the quest for scratch sucks you in, it’s the relationship that is grounding and sustaining. “It’s like a drug, but it’s safe,” Dr. Jason Novetsky tells me, describing the pair’s chemistry. Novetsky is a sports psychologist and Chasing Scratch listener who, after a series of Twitter DMs, became one of the pair’s unofficial coaches. “The podcast is the place you go to when you need that escape. You know that you will turn it on and at the end of it you’ll feel good.”

I didn’t realize it then, but this is also the reason I wanted to meet Shade and Strait. It is why I agreed, on the spot and with zero consideration, to take a five-day road trip with two strangers as they crisscrossed the Midwest to play rounds with their listeners. On our first Zoom call, the pair seemed flattered by the interest—despite their cult success, they’d never been written about—while also a bit confused by my willingness to join them for 17-hour days of fast food, little sleep and high humidity. “I’m slightly worried this is going to ruin your life,” Shade told me. “It may not ruin your life, but it’ll definitely destroy your career and credibility,” Strait quipped. I laughed and kept to myself that this exchange—this escape—was exactly why I’d called them. I logged off the call feeling better than I had in weeks.

What follows is not the paragon of objective journalism. From the jump, I have not been an impartial chronicler of the Chasing Scratch universe. I didn’t want to observe Shade and Strait’s world as much as participate in it. In the days before I left to meet the guys in Chicago, I accidentally referred to the trip as “vacation.” I could lie and tell you that I’m not proud of this Freudian slip, or that I should’ve mustered a bit more journalistic integrity. But the truth is that it had been a difficult year. I was ready for an escape. And what is a golf trip if not that?

The first time Shade and Strait turned on the recorder was the first moment in the trip that I thought, for a split second, we might die. We were on our way into downtown Chicago when a torrential thunderstorm slowed rush-hour traffic to a crawl. I was in the back of our Yukon XL, coming to the realization that I had entrusted my safety to Strait, a man who’d just bragged about getting from Lexington, Kentucky, to Chicago 57 minutes faster than the time projected by Google Maps. Ever the optimists, Shade and Strait seemed unfazed by our potential to hydroplane into a concrete barrier. Soon, I was too.

I’ve profiled public figures over the years, and when the red light comes on, there is an unsubtle shift. The subject straightens up and usually becomes an exaggerated version of themselves. Sometimes they become a completely different person—typically more charismatic, sometimes less problematic. This isn’t the case with Shade and Strait. With them, the recorder is what I was supposed to be: a quiet bystander capturing something natural. In fact, the recorder often turns on too late. “We should be recording this!” Shade usually shouts when the pair is deep into an inside joke. This time the tangent was about a game of “Wolf” the hosts were planning to play the next day with two listeners. “I can feel a snarl coming on,” Shade said, grinning. Strait interjected with a tangent about the best wolf movies (Teen Wolf, good; 1994’s Wolf with Jack Nicholson, bad) and whether he’d be afraid if he came across a wolf in the wild (he said he would not). The pair started mock-yelling at each other for five minutes. The spectacle culminated with Shade exasperatedly accusing Strait of being “in the pocket of Big Wolf.” 

Golf purists and self-serious types without a reservoir of pop-culture references and a sense of humor bristle at these exchanges. A listener on their paid Patreon page recently called the unedited audio clips from our road trip that the hosts had posted “unlistenable.” If you are looking for staid golf commentary or a sober breakdown of swing mechanics, you need to be willing to sift through at least one 15-minute digression about the 1999 film Varsity Blues. Thankfully for the hosts, most listeners are willing to take that deal. Shade and Strait’s constant ridiculousness is a relatable feature, not a bug. It’s a mindset that is best captured in my favorite iTunes review of their show, which states, simply, “I love you idiots! Just like me and my idiot bros!”

chasing scratch

Of course, your idiot bros probably aren’t sponsored by Titleist. Your idiot bros probably weren’t invited by the PGA Championship tournament director to play Kiawah’s Ocean Course from the championship tees two weeks before the event. Your idiot bros probably didn’t wake up at 5 a.m. to hit the gym, lose 30 pounds, finally figure out how to hit driver consistently and completely overhaul their swings with professional help. Your idiot bros probably didn’t take their handicaps from shaky 11s to 3.2s in two and a half years.

Behind all the antics, Shade and Strait are dedicated. “I love getting slowly better at hard things,” Shade told me one afternoon. This is a good thing, because just weeks before we set out Shade had gone through a complete “rewiring” of his downswing. The move has four or five parts, including a vexing wrist movement and chest rotation that makes him feel as if he’s going to whiff the ball at impact. It’s the kind of move that’s going to take a year to master, which means he’s going to put up some mediocre rounds. Meanwhile, Strait, who went through a similar process a year ago, is playing the best golf of his life. “I’m OK sucking at this,” Shade assured me, “as long as I know I’m doing something with real long-term benefit.”

Before I watched the pair tee off for the first time, I had my first flash of doubt about writing this piece. Currently, their handicaps rest comfortably in the 6s, making them far better than average, but miles away from their stated goal. I was, essentially, here to profile two regular guys. Then I watched the pair pound drives of 280 and 315 yards and barely bat an eye. Our first round, Strait was so nonchalant that he didn’t even realize he was just 2 over going into the par-5 18th with a chance to eagle and shoot even par for the first time. When Shade informed him, he promptly pulled the ball into the woods, doubled and shot a 76. It was familiar and exceptional all at once.

This is the Chasing Scratch sweet spot. “Here are two guys who were average, who are intensely relatable, who are trying to do something extremely difficult with families and limited time,” Allan Blocker, the digital marketing manager for Titleist who helped orchestrate the hosts’ sponsorship, tells me. “Mike and Eli are a product of the modern game, where you’re trying to make golf work at a high level without sacrificing what’s important in life. It’s really cool to cater to somebody trying to make that balance work.”

If you want to get heady about it, Shade and Strait’s quest signals a crucial evolution in golf’s culture, from a very particular baby boomer mentality—check out from your life, leave the kids with the wife and spend all day at the course—to a hobby that can withstand the modern pressures of a career, raising a family and being a functional human being off the course. If there’s a genius to their years-long experiment, it is the constraint of not letting golf interfere with their other obligations. They play fast. They rarely golf on the weekends, when rounds can take six hours. They squeeze in dawn range sessions and beat darkness during solo twilight rounds. They don’t drink on the course. They play with purpose because it’s the only way to make it work.

Both men confessed to me that they often feel guilty about their endeavor. During our trip, Strait missed his son’s junior golf outing and a few soccer games. Shade was anxious to get back to his daughter and wife. Both their spouses aren’t just supportive, but are deeply involved in the Chasing Scratch media empire as the heads of the merch department. At one point in the podcast (I won’t spoil it), Shade’s wife, Bethany, saved her husband from quitting the show altogether. “They’re as bought in as you can be,” Shade said. “But, still, it’s this indulgent thing that causes us to miss time.” 

After our first round, the golf was unremarkable. Shade’s swing had flashes of brilliance and scratch potential; Strait compressed the ball like a plus-handicap and, according to Shade, played the best, most consistent golf he’d ever seen. But in the near 100-degree heat and humidity, swings fell apart easily. At one point, 28 holes into a steamy Chicago afternoon, I was more concerned about Shade getting heatstroke than I was about his score. 

The golf wasn’t the point. And that became readily apparent in the clubhouse at Cog Hill Golf and Country Club, where, for 48 minutes, Shade and Strait’s 30-odd listeners who came to play and meet them sat in a circle and peppered the two with questions—about their games, their show and their lives. 

I want to be clear about the effect that Shade and Strait—two extremely unassuming men of above-average height who’ve spent their careers working jobs in finance—have on grown men in performance-fabric golf polos. When the duo walks into a room, the fans instantly flash wide-eyed smiles that I can describe only as “Christmas-Morning Face.” If you’re curious how deep the fandom runs, here’s a gauge: In Toronto, we stayed at the home of two listeners we’d never met—a hockey-obsessed cardiologist and his photographer wife, who greeted us in the driveway wearing Chasing Scratch shirts, beaming ear-to-ear smiles and carrying a tray stacked with Molson Canadian tall boys. It could’ve been a horror-movie disaster. Instead, it was the best hospitality I’ve ever received. Throughout the week, their fans giddily parroted the pair’s catchphrases back at them. These diehards have absorbed years’ worth of Shade and Strait’s personality quirks and inside jokes, and, just like me, they want in. 

chasing scratch

At the end of each round, Shade and Strait would gather the group for drinks while passing out free T-shirts. No matter the location—Buffalo, Chicago, Toronto, Detroit—the bull sessions grew increasingly endearing. “What I’ve enjoyed from this—what we all enjoy—is the journey,” said one fan. “The tangents and the trials and tribulations. We play golf, and the fellowship is why we do this.”

“It’s so relatable,” another guy chimed in. “I live in Atlanta and my other buddy lives in Minneapolis, and we’re constantly calling each other and talking about our lives and our rounds. It’s just really important, and you guys capture that.”

Occasionally, fans would gush to the point that they seemed like audience plants. Another listener, a contractor in Buffalo, told me that he’s cut five strokes off his handicap since listening. He and his friends discovered the podcast during the first wave of the pandemic, and it motivated them to start a golf league. “The show gave us a reason to be together, to spend time with each other,” he told me. 

It all sounded a bit too perfect until I considered my own relationship to Shade and Strait’s quest. I was introduced to the pair’s friendship through a budding golf-based friendship of my own. Just as hours fighting the driving winter rain with Joe at North Bellingham Golf Club have fortified and transformed an arranged friendship into a pandemic lifeline, Shade and Strait’s journey has spurred our own. During the darkest moments of 2020 and early 2021, golf wasn’t just an escape—it was an on-ramp to self-improvement at a time when survival felt like a global luxury. For me and Joe, the sport grew load-bearing, as did our time together. It wasn’t about swinging a club; it was about finding ways during difficult times to stay connected with people who matter. We found solace in a game that punishes its participants, only to offer them flashes of future success so tantalizing that they can’t dream of giving it up. Despite its cruelty, golf is a game that encourages irrational optimism.

chasing scratch

Shade and Strait are the standard bearers of irrational optimism. Still, I was curious if they know exactly why their story resonates enough to make them a success in a game whose identity is evolving. At the end of the trip, just before he left for the airport, I asked Shade why he thought people were so invested in his journey. “Part of it, I think, is because I do it with my best friend,” he said. 

He’s right, at least in my experience. From the back of the Yukon, through border crossings, a short trip to Niagara Falls, 90 holes of golf and two near-death experiences navigating Great Lakes thundershowers at high speeds, I basked in the glow of their friendship—in the hope and reassurance that such a one can be durable and meaningful enough to sustain 20 years of long distance.

Back home, I texted Shade and Strait separately, taking pains to make sure they didn’t collude on their answers. I asked the same question: “What about the other person makes this friendship so special?”

Their answers were long and endearing. They mentioned shared interests, like obscure movie quotes and, of course, golf. Eventually they touched on something deeper. They mentioned each other’s devotion to their wives and families, and a feeling of genuine decency that they admired. Buried in each answer, though, was a strikingly similar notion. 

“He has a positive outlook on life—you know what you are going to get day in and day out.…He is a genuinely happy guy,” Strait wrote.

“We are both by default happy, optimistic people.…We agree on what’s most important in life. But, at the end of the day, maybe the best way to describe it is [that] he’s a joy to be around. I think we just get each other,” Shade replied.

Like the sport, their quest and the friendship that supports it, Chasing Scratch is a convincing case for irrational optimism and the importance of staying positive even when all available data suggests otherwise. Shade and Strait are a reminder of what’s really important about the game and the lives that surround it. (Hint: It’s not about the handicap index.) Ultimately, their story is as much about golf as it is about using golf to protect and enhance the things that really matter.

“Is this heaven?!” Well, it’s a start. 

chasing scratch