Proof that golf lifers can start at any age and come from anywhere
Interview by Travis Hill
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Erik Anders Lang is a documentary filmmaker based in Los Angeles. He is familiar to golf fans as the host of Skratch TV’s groundbreaking “Adventures in Golf” web series, which followed the exploits of Lang and his crew as they traveled from Mumbai to Tokyo to Compton, discovering people who love golf and the unique ways they play the game.
Where are you from?
My distant heritage is Swedish, my parents both grew up in the northern Midwest and then I was born in New Jersey. I was born 10 miles from Manhattan, but to parents who grew up on a farm. When I was 14, I was kicked out of high school and went to boarding school in New Hampshire, got kicked out of there, then started waiting tables in Manhattan when I was 16. After 10 years there, I ended up in LA.
Did you grow up playing golf?
I grew up intentionally not playing golf. I grew up in a postcard-idyllic Small Town, USA, where everyone played golf. I had sex on a golf course, but that was about it.
I’m the youngest of three kids, [born] 10 years after my brother and sister were born. When I was growing up, I understood my brother to be a conservative, rule-following, higher-education-attaining golfer. He was the opposite of everything I was about. I got kicked out of first grade, almost got expelled in third grade; I was on thin ice every day of my life. But he would always be like, “Let’s play golf!” And I would always be like, “No, no, no. Never will I do that with you.” Finally, one random day, I said yes. And then I hit one golf shot. I hit a 3-wood off the tee on the first hole and it was a 320-yard par-4 little dogleg left. I hit a nice, high slice right into the water and I loved it. I was hooked instantly.
How old were you when that happened?
I was 30.
Did you decide right there that you needed to make a documentary about it?
The first thing I thought was, “I need to learn how to hit a golf ball.”So I went out and hit a bunch of balls the next day. I bought a driver two days later, an old Burner. I was fully addicted. My hands got all messed up; I couldn’t play enough. And then, after two months of playing golf every day, my brother sent me a book called Zen Golf. It explained the Buddhist approach to the puzzle that is golf and I was blown away. I read the book and had a huge, life-changing experience. I realized that my life is mostly in my head and I basically have an option on whether I want to enjoy it or not. And golf’s really interesting because it’s a frustrating game that we play voluntarily. So to play it in a frustrating way is crazy. I see people now and I’m like, “You do realize that you don’t have to be here, right?” It’s just so strange to me.
How do you feel when you’re playing and someone throws a club?
Well, everyone is capable of experiencing anything. I broke a club once—on accident. I had been playing for about a year, and I hit a 6-iron. It was a bad shot and I threw the club and it hit something and snapped. I was immediately embarrassed and mortified. So when I see someone throw a club, I just feel bad. Because the ability to laugh at those mistakes is maybe one of the most important lessons in life, and this person has yet to learn it.
Tell us more about the documentary.
I’m super proud of it. It really does what I wanted it to do, which is give you this anticipatory excitement to go out and try something. Whether they’re golfers or not, people who have watched it [have] said, “Wow, I really want to go out and do something. Maybe there’s something out there that I haven’t explored.”Honestly, that makes me emotional as I say it. Because the purpose of this film from the first day was to make my version of Zen Golf. You read that book and think, “Maybe there’s an opportunity out there that I could live in a way that would be more satisfying to me and others.” What do we really want at the end of the day? If we say we want money, then that’s sort of sad, because money doesn’t ultimately satisfy us. But if we live for satisfaction and joy, then I think we have the opportunity to put our priorities in check and make use of this life. Hopefully that’s what this film gets at. And we’ll see very soon whether people agree with me. [Laughs.]
That’s a different angle than how most come at the game. Is the film more of a passion play for you or is it a statement about how people should play?
OK, to be totally honest, the film started about one thing and then became another. First I found out that “The Legend of Bagger Vance” is actually based on the Bhagavad Gita, which is an ancient Hindu text. Then I found out that Michael Murphy, the author of Golf in the Kingdom, is also known for starting the most famous hippie hot-spring nudist retreat, called the Esalen Institute, in Big Sur, California, which I’ve been to eight times. They have yoga, they’re vegan, they have all these classes on meditation. That basically split my head open and I thought, “Wait a minute, I don’t know golf to be a spiritual game. I know golf to be a conservative, CEO, right-wing, upper-class, private game. So that’s not actually true? I need to discover and share the truth.” A big part of the film was, say you’re into the big mysteries of the world. Maybe you’d be into golf. Or if you’re into golf, maybe you’d be into the big mysteries of the world.
And then maybe you’d be into a nudist camp in Big Sur.
Yeah! So that concept was the driving force behind the original thesis of the film: Is golf spiritual? Then the film morphed into something that’s more fit for a 90-minute story, which became: If we teach golfers meditation, will they get better at [the game]? Can we prove how much of golf is a spiritual game? The film tells that story, with the original stuff blended in.
Sounds more like a passion play.
I’m passionate because golf has maybe given me more than anything else in my life that isn’t human. School, activities, hobbies, whatever—there’s nothing else in my life that’s been that big for me. The part that makes me really emotional is thinking, “What if my brother didn’t play? What if no one had ever opened the door to golf and pulled me through it? What would I be doing right now?” I’m sure I’d be happy and having fun, but I don’t know. Would I have found golf anyway? I don’t think so. The idea that maybe someone who could get something out of it, but wouldn’t play because it’s not supposed to be their game, that was big for me.
Is that quest part of what led to the “Adventures in Golf” series?
Yeah. The ideas for “Adventures” had been in my head for years. I’d researched these things for a long time and I was fascinated by them. Golf—but really, everything on the fucking planet—is essentially man and woman trying to make sense of it all. Whether you’re talking about a course or a way of playing the game or even a swing, golf is deeply personal. So going around the world and watching the more extreme personalities in golf was one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done in my life. I feel really grateful that we got to do that.
Do you watch pro golf? Does that part of the game excite you?
Oh, 100 percent. It’s greatness. You get to watch these pros live to their highest possible potential. And to watch if they will crack and fall back down to their human form is basically the most interesting thing in the world. You know, a robot can hit the same putt 10 times and it will only make it half the time because the variables around them change. So what is going on here? What are they tapping into? It’s not just about hitting balls on the range. It’s much more about belief. They’re almost walking on water. So that one Tiger commercial where he walks on water is actually very profound as far as the trickiness of golf at that level.
Over the last year, you’ve become much closer to the industry side of the game. Has that diminished your passion at all?
At first I despised the bigger, corporate version of the game. It bugged me. I enjoy playing on my own and, like, wearing a hoodie and going barefoot. But then I thought, “You know what? This is the world we live in. I drive a car. I use some of this stuff. Everything’s corporate. I can’t just shun the world; that would be ineffective.” So now I’ve come to embrace it.
You’ve seen a lot of the game all over the world. What’s your perfect golf day?
I’d start with getting up early and watching the leaders tee off in the Open Championship on Sunday morning in Los Angeles. After they finish, I would grab my great friend Stewart and then just go play. I’m a member of a club here and there are no tee times. So I love to just drive in, wearing a comfortable outfit that’s not quite golf attire, but I’m still allowed to wear it on the course; that’s my favorite. Side note: My favorite outfit for golf is sweatpants and a T-shirt. But I’m not allowed to do that at my club.I love my course, but you can really take the course itself out of the equation. I was lucky enough to play at Cypress Point recently and had a great time. But was it as fun as the lowest round I ever shot on a stupid municipal course here in LA? I don’t know, man, they’re pretty close! What really makes a perfect day is great competitive golf, great friends and preferably at sunrise or sunset. There’s something that happens between the eyes and the brain and the skin; it’s almost like we go to another planet.