I can pinpoint the moment I hit rock bottom: around 3:30 a.m. on a Saturday in early June. My spouse was out of town for the weekend, and I woke up alone and confused in the dark. The only light in the room was the flickering glow of my laptop, perched on a pillow on my stomach. The video playing from my machine had no words, just the jaunty, inoffensive melody of some royalty-free music punctuated by the unmistakable whoosh and hollow thwack of a poorly struck mid-iron. I tried to get my bearings. I’d been asleep for 45 minutes and YouTube’s algorithm had taken over and served me a heavyset man playing a nondescript public course in eastern Wisconsin by himself. By the looks of it, he was a high handicapper. I glanced at the screen again to watch this man block a 5-iron 40 yards right. The red shot tracer on the screen was gloriously ugly. I was suddenly awake. The video description showed I was the 108th person to view this montage. But now I was invested. I dutifully watched our hero plod around the course to finish what I’m sure even he would conclude was an unremarkable round. I had to be up in four hours.
I wasn’t always this way. My online viewing history used to be diverse: random guitar tutorials, footage from concerts, celebrities eating hot wings, esoteric deep dives into historical rabbit holes. Now my YouTube homepage looks like a pro shop: It’s a sea of thumbnails featuring average-looking dudes in polo shirts. Half of the titles have “Breaking” in them or the phrase “Every Shot.” That’s because about eight months ago I developed a new time-devouring obsession: I am addicted to watching complete strangers play mediocre golf on the internet.
Judging by the glut of amateur-golf content clogging YouTube’s servers, and the soaring views, I’m not alone. The great wonder and horror of the internet is that there are random humans recording themselves doing pretty much everything and that there is likely a niche audience who will show up enthusiastically to watch it. But even as obscure viewing interests go, YouTube golf is unique in that most of its participants are average players—at best. Search for amateur basketball highlights and you’ll find mashups and mixtapes of athletic feats or young prodigies. People aren’t flocking in droves to watch some sweaty 30-somethings run a broken-triangle offense while playing shirts and skins at the local YMCA. But 476,000 people will show up to watch a nearly two-hour video of Barstool Sports’ Trent Ryan as he shoots a cool 106 at Bandon Trails. I know this because I am one of these poor souls. Why? What exactly is broken in my brain (our brains) that we—21st century humans with near-instant access to every great work of art, literature, film and prestige television ever made—are watching feature-film-length versions of adult men chunking pitch shots during our precious downtime?
To find out, I went even deeper. During an unseasonably gloomy Pacific Northwest weekend in early June, I mainlined YouTube golf eight hours a day. It wasn’t the worst assignment, but I do not recommend trying this at home. I watched Random Golf Club’s Erik Anders Lang struggle around a damp, moody two-part loop at The Country Club to shoot 99. I spent about three hours with the six young Kansans who run Good Good, watching them battle through a three-round “major” tournament. Terrified, I joined 890,000 onlookers to watch the crew from Bob Does Sports consume 18 shots of Fireball in nine holes.
At the mercy of the algorithm, I watched Tiger Woods teach a few B-list celebrities how to read putts, then joined the Foreplay crew from Barstool as they played The Olympic Club from the U.S. Women’s Open tees. I hopped the pond and ended up in Scotland on the Old Course with Rick Shiels as he gamely tried to break par. YouTube then fed me a rewatch of my favorite golf series, Strapped, where No Laying Up’s Neil and Big Randy try to play three munis in three days and Anthony Bourdain their way around unassuming American cities for under $500. From there, the algorithm walked me chronologically through the entire fourth season of No Laying Up’s Tourist Sauce as the boys explored Ireland with TGJ’s very own Tom Coyne. At one point on the second day, the rounds and personalities started to blend together into a dizzying melange of jokes, missed putts, errant tee shots, trash talking and beautiful drone shots of cliffside greens—punctuated only by ceaseless ads for breathable quarter-zips and WHOOP heart-rate monitors.
What you learn consuming a weapons-grade amount of YouTube golf is just how much overlap each channel has with its peers. Most every outlet visits the big-name destinations for their hole-by-hole play-throughs, which means that, despite never settling foot within 40 miles of Pinehurst, I now have a full appreciation for how difficult it is to hold Donald Ross’ turtleback greens. Bandon, Torrey, the Old Course, Sawgrass—these are fan favorites and must-plays for any content creator who wants jealous onlookers to live vicariously through them.
But it doesn’t matter that the locations overlap or that the golf is unremarkable by professional standards. YouTube golf is largely about the company. There’s so much similarity in the golf YouTube world because, while many people dabble across channels, most viewers seem to pick favorites and stick with them. You’ve got the architecture nerds and liberal-arts folks with the dry senses of humor. You’ve got the bros and the well-dressed influencers who are trying very hard to be cool and make golf feel accessible. There are comedians and pranksters doing on-course dares to remind people that this is not your father’s country club. You’ve got the gearheads and the Zoomers doing YouTube-y challenges. Spend enough time with any of these crews and a very particular, very online parasocial relationship begins to take shape. It’s not just about the expensive courses or the fact that all of these dudes (the great majority of them are dudes) get paid to take golf trips with their pals. Spending time on a course with anyone is a disarmingly intimate experience; there’s no place to hide, and chances are you’re going to humble yourself before your partner at some point during the round. Walking the course virtually offers an imperfect facsimile of this experience. You become invested in the friendships and you are privy to the inside jokes. These people aren’t your friends, but they feel like your friends. Often these videos are the gateway drug to other branches of their multimedia trees. Soon you’re consuming their podcasts, TikToks and Instagram feeds and spending hours each week with them. Fall deep enough into this well and you might find yourself knowing more about a stranger’s golf game than your friends’.
It is startling how invested you can get. I’m desperate for Neil Schuster of No Laying Up to break par and win the elusive “megabonus” on Strapped, and I watch with equal parts schadenfreude and dismay when he yet again flies too close to the sun and comes up short. And I was a bit taken aback by just how many hours of my life I’ve devoted to watching Trent Ryan try to break 100 and then 90. Watching him, a self-professed “terrible golfer,” four-putt to make triple bogies is excruciating. By the standard of raw entertainment value, I should notenjoy watching a grown man line up a 4-footer 6 yards left of the desired line. But I do. And so do hundreds of thousands of other viewers. The comments section on Ryan’s Breaking 90 YouTube series is shockingly one of the more supportive spaces on the internet. When he finally broke 100, one commenter confessed that he teared up.
Ryan (a high handicapper) and Schuster (a former college athlete zeroing in on scratch) seem like very different personalities. But, as golfers, they represent two different parts of my own journey into the game: the kind of player I was and the one I aspire to be. Both of them make the same kinds of mindless errors I find myself obsessing over, but, crucially, their progressions are undeniable. It is relatable, even cathartic, to watch the game humble each man, but there’s hope embedded inside those struggles. Watching them toil once is tedious, but checking in over and over again is rewarding—the timeless joy of observing slow, methodical improvement.
Is it weird for the YouTube golfers themselves? I posed this question to No Laying Up’s D.J. Piehowski, who both helped pioneer the format with Tourist Sauce and also plays in the videos. Does he know why so many tune in?
“It used to weird me out at first,” he said. “There was this Truman Show feeling to it all.” But Piehowski has embraced his role. “Golf on TV is so unrelatable. The pros—the men and women—are just so unfathomably good. You look at their swings and the shots they hit and there’s simply nothing that my body could ever do to replicate the numbers they’re hitting.”
If modern professional golf is mostly a game of bomb-and-gouge, YouTube golf is unpredictable. A pro is almost always going to get out of a bunker, but a buried lie on YouTube could spell certain death. The stakes are simultaneously higher and lower.
Piehowski also cited more-pragmatic reasons for the appeal, namely that the videos offer a cheap escape to desired destinations. “Travel has become a massive part of the game, and there are so many destinations and such limited time and budget for most people,” he said. Sometimes the views of a big-name course are simply vicarious; people will likely never play North Berwick, but want to see others do it. The videos also appeal because the viewer has played it. They want to see somebody hit the precarious shots theyhit, from the spots the pros would never be in.
“Every bone in my body wants to put out these lean, edited videos that focus on the art and storytelling elements of what we do,” Piehowski said. “But people want to immerse themselves in our trips.” During a Tourist Sauce loop at Bandon Trails in 2020, Piehowski shot a personal-best even-par round. In the course of filming the 30-minute video, he forgot to get footage of his eighth hole, and viewers still give him grief about it. “It’s almost like, in the absence of people actually being able to go out and play as much golf as they’d like, YouTube becomes a surrogate. It’s the closest thing they can get to scratch the itch,” he said.
The No Laying Up collective in their element at the Jax Beach muni. Photos by Ryan Young, from TGJ No. 7.
Ultimately, the community element is the real reason Piehowski has made peace with his influencer status. “To be a 30-something golfer in America—like, a true sicko who is obsessed with the game and its nuances—can be pretty lonely,” he said. There are so many reasons golf can feel isolating, he argued. It’s too expensive, too niche, too inaccessible. It takes up too much time. “It’s hard to find your people in the sport who experience the game the way you do,” he said. When they’re doing their job, Piehowski hopes, the No Laying Up guys offer up a version of that golf community to others. It’s not a solution for the constraints of the game—the parts that feel isolating or inaccessible—but it is a model of the spirit of golf that is infectious. It’s hard to watch an episode of Tourist Sauce or Strapped and not want to grab your best friends and go on an adventure to find new places, meet new people and embrace old traditions while creating new ones.
Mediocre YouTube golf is not for everyone. I know plus-handicaps who can’t stomach watching a parade of topped shots and double-bogey fests. Maybe they simply can’t see themselves in the protagonist’s slog. Perhaps they’re just normal, well-adjusted people.
But, for my money, there is something pure about bad golf played earnestly for the masses. Yes, they’re hitting the same skulled wedges that I do, but it’s not that, really. When I watch professional golf—and I do quite a bit—it’s the golfers who are largely in charge. Armed with the most expensive technology and with all the time and resources to train and hone their skills, they are constantly flirting with perfection. The men and women of the pro tours frequently bend golf courses to their will, to the point that the land has to be renovated just to keep up. Mediocre golf, on the other hand, offers a return to the roots of the sport. The courses bend the golfers to their will. There’s a beauty and elegance in watching a struggle that feels to me like golf in its elemental form.
Or maybe mediocre YouTube golf is just an inevitable outcome of the post-Tiger era, where millennials like myself were spoiled, perhaps even ruined, by the dominance and brilliance of a once-in-a-lifetime talent and competitor. We will never stop in our collective desire to witness true greatness, but there’s something equally appealing about running in the opposite direction and wallowing in something that feels so real and attainable. Maybe what online spectators crave now is to see themselves in the game they watch.
For me, YouTube golf is more than a vicarious escape. It’s a gateway. The struggles and successes of these influencers are more than relatable; they expand my sense of what’s possible in my own journey through the sport. Their exceeding averageness motivates, educates and even inspires me. But, most importantly, watching bad YouTube golf is a lifeline. It tethers me to the game when so many of the stresses and demands of my life endeavor to pull me away or make me resent the amount of time I have to give the sport. That’s not an escape. It’s a gift.