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The Long Way Home

Heartbreak, Hazeltine and hero shots: How a text thread turned into No Laying Up, the media collective that sauced the industry

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No Laying Up

Every year from May 23 to July 25, the sun does not set in the Lofoten Islands on Norway’s northern tip. During this time, Europe’s most seasoned travelers pack up their campers and set out to bring postcards to life. The land is essentially a long stretch of mountains that jut out from the ocean. Masterful Norwegian transit engineering links the islands seamlessly, making them a bucket-list destination for backpackers. 

At no point during a drive through the Lofoten Islands does one question why there appear to be no golf courses. But, by a minor miracle, a course does exist. And that’s why I was there.

It was my last trip, one final adventure before going home to take the biggest risk of my life. It was June 2017 and I had quit my stable job at an accounting firm, living in a row house in Amsterdam and traveling the world, to go back to live in my childhood bedroom in Ohio.

No Laying Up was no longer a hobby. It was time to pull driver and see how far we could take it. There was no safety net, no backup plan if it didn’t work. But I was confident. After all, we had Justin Thomas and Rory McIlroy on our side.

*

The puddle jumper you take to reach Svolvær Airport in the Lofoten Islands is so small that you’re not allowed to check much baggage. Clubs, golf shoes and any other golf gear are not an option. Nevertheless, Lofoten Links, one of the five northernmost tracks on the planet—and by far the closest links to the North Pole—sits in this remote outpost 96 miles above the Arctic Circle in northern Norway. The views were almost enough to distract me from my inner turmoil.

The coast is rocky and nearly devoid of green grass. The islands get caked with snow throughout the winter, with no sun to melt it away. The snow sticks around through the spring, and by the time the sun fully rises, in late May, the brown grass is only just beginning to grow. Just as the grass matures in the latter half of the year, daylight begins its rapid descent. Before October ends, the sun is rising after 8 a.m. and setting just after 3 p.m. 

One man was crazy enough to build a golf course in this climate. Frode Hov is the founder and managing director of the course, which sits on his family’s land on the north coast of the island of Gimsøya. Construction began in April 1998 and it opened later that July as a nine-hole course measuring just 2,172 yards. Now it is a full 18-hole layout stretching out to over 6,600 yards from the back tees. Considering what was waiting for me back home, I appreciated someone seeing out their vision, no matter how crazy it seemed.

The terrain is mostly a combination of rocks, marshy wetlands and dozens of other logistical challenges that would inhibit saner people from building a golf course. It’s rugged, raw and appears unfinished. The pathways between holes are rocky, and sometimes it’s even difficult to find the next teeing ground. But you’re not there for comfort; you’re there to play a course unlike any other on Earth.

The fairways are narrow, and if you miss them, you probably aren’t finding your ball. The “rough” is the island’s signature combination of rocks, marsh, heather and more rocks. The most demoralizing part is that from a distance, in the midnight sun, the ashy rocks look like golf balls, repeatedly fooling you into thinking that you’ve finally found your ball. You haven’t. There’s a reason why they sell dozens of used golf balls in the pro shop.

During my visit, the course was beginning to emerge from its winter cocoon. Snow was still melting on the mountains in the distance, the greens were furry and the course was not quite in top form. Yet it was hardly noticeable considering the setting. I wasn’t there to grind out a score. I was there to play golf in the middle of the night on the roof of the world. 

The days leading up to my scheduled visit to Lofoten Links were spent watching the forecasts closely, and I could barely contain my excitement when my buddies and I awoke on that Tuesday morning to a glorious 65-degree day. We spent the afternoon at Haukland Beach soaking up the rays, watching Norwegian girls strip down to just their bikini bottoms and sprint toward the freezing-cold water to take Instagram pictures. We hiked, had a picnic on the beach and steamed with envy when six gorgeous girls playing beach volleyball chose to invite four Norwegian guys, and not the three out-of-place Americans, into their game. Damn you, odd numbers.

Finally, it was time to play. When we rounded the corner and first laid eyes on the course sandwiched between the majestic Lofoten mountains and the calm ocean, there were audible gasps in the car. We arrived at 6 p.m. and checked into our cabin down the road. We got an official tee time of 8:40 p.m., with the invitation to play as long as we’d like. This was not a twilight rate where we had to squeeze as many holes in as possible before the sun set; at Lofoten Links, when they say you’re invited to play as long as you like, they literally mean you can play as long as you like.

One of my buddies asked what to do with his rental clubs when he finished.

“Oh, the golf shop will still be open. We’re open until midnight.”

Of course it was. I started with a dozen balls, but by midnight most of my stash had been swallowed up by the rocky depths. My buddies had called it a “night” after nine holes and I was completely alone. My energy was dipping faster than I had anticipated; my body clock was pleading with me to sleep. You might think that the light was at least starting to fade to a dusky twilight glow, but it was as bright as it was at noon. The wind was blowing, my hands were cold and my game was deteriorating. I was having the time of my life.

After 1:30 a.m., the sun, which had been slowly dipping for five hours, rejected the horizon and began to rise up again. I had the golf course to myself; there was not a human in sight. It was me, the wind, the waves and the birds. I finished my 36th hole and checked my watch. My Fitbit had already gone off, signalling that I’d hit 10,000 steps since midnight. It was 2:45 a.m., and I summoned what little energy I had left and hiked over to the second tee to play the signature hole one final time.

It’s just a wedge of a par 3, but the green pushes out onto the ocean on a small rock formation where growing grass still seemed impossible. I stood alone on the green, the sun almost unbearably bright, and finally let my guard down. A swirl of fear, determination, anxiety and excitement overwhelmed me. No Laying Up would be the biggest challenge of my life. All at once I was terrified and couldn’t fucking wait to start.

I let my eyes well up and spill over. 

*

People often ask me about the origin of No Laying Up. It’s tough to pinpoint a definitive moment when it began, but the idea was almost ridiculously simple. The foundation goes back to our hazy college days at Miami University. I formed a friendship with Todd Schuster and Phil Landes (now respectively known by their alter egos, “Tron Carter” and “Big Randy”) through Tiger Woods on PlayStation 2, intramural football and Natural Light. That connection continued after graduation into the real world through a text thread ranging from college football betting lines to our favorite “Chappelle’s Show” quotes, but it always revolved around golf. At the time, the sports-media world was churning from the disruption of audiences leaving traditional media in favor of fan blogs, message boards and social media. As is the case with so many things in the sloth-paced golf world, this change had not yet hit the sport and we thought our text thread was too hilarious not to be public.

So we formed the @NoLayingUp Twitter account. There was no plan other than to maintain the spirit of our text thread; we posted whatever thoughts came to mind, with complete disregard for whether the (nonexistent) audience would understand the joke. For about a year, we posted and laughed at ourselves to the sound of crickets. But we still thought something bigger was there. If we wanted to make a legitimate impact, we needed a stronger foundation. We brought in Tron’s brother, Neil, and with his Silicon Valley résumé, we launched nolayingup.com on Jan. 1, 2014.

Despite the more professional look and the addition of a sporadic podcast, gaining any significant audience traction proved difficult. No one could afford to make No Laying Up a full-time job; it was a hobby for us. We held regular jobs spread out in Chicago, Boston, Columbus and San Francisco, and had absolutely zero experience working in media. Nevertheless, a rough vision of what we wanted had formed—but we had no idea what we were doing. Looking back, our naïveté actually worked in our favor. 

We did know one thing: No Laying Up had to be different from every other media outlet. We poured in whatever hours we could to keep our small audience entertained. What we lacked in polish, we made up for in irreverence and risk-taking that big media entities simply couldn’t get away with. Slowly, our audience began to grow, buoying our belief that we really were onto something.

*

Shortly after launching nolayingup.com, my personal life took a bizarre and difficult turn. Three months after our first marriage discussions and her even asking me what I wanted on my groom’s cake, I returned home from a golf trip to find that my live-in girlfriend was gone. There was no explanation and nothing left but one shirt in the corner of the closet and strands of blonde hair strewn across the bathroom. Eight months later, she was married to an NHL player.

I was 27 and thought I had my life essentially planned out: Get married, have kids, move up the corporate ladder, stay entertained with No Laying Up. Suddenly, everything changed. This was the first and only time I’d been in love, and it hit hard. I never imagined a world where an ex-girlfriend airing out our dirty laundry on six episodes of “The Bachelor” would become my second-worst breakup story.

As the sleepless nights mounted, my mind wandered at work. I was barely present in social situations. My brain needed a distraction. No Laying Up became the only thing I could fully immerse myself in and block out the heartbreak. 

On top of all of this, my path at an accounting firm in Chicago took a 90-degree turn. I had the lead role with a large Dutch client and their 2014 visit disastrously coincided with Masters week. I could not have been less interested in the partner’s conversation, ready to do everything in my power to get out of the office in time to catch the last few minutes of the broadcast. 

But that Thursday afternoon, he sent over a list of questions and remarked smugly that it would take me all night to get through them. Somehow, it was the spark I needed: I became a man possessed. I shifted into a Tiger-circa-2000 auditing zone, and before he left for the evening, I walked through each question with him, addressed and cleared them all. He was stunned.

“We could really use someone at your level in Amsterdam,” he said, and followed up with a very real job offer.

At this time, most of my friends were engaged, married or popping out babies. I was no longer in any hurry to go down that path. I had never been outside of North America and had always dreamed of traveling. But it meant breaking free of every part of my comfort zone. It’s easy to say you’ll do it, but it’s another to commit to moving to a continent you’ve never set foot on, to a country where you know neither a single person nor a word of the language.

This was clearly a make-or-break point in my life; opportunities like this rarely present themselves. As cheesy as it sounds, I was inspired by the ethos of No Laying Up. So I sold everything I had, packed four suitcases and went for it.

On Oct. 1, 2014, I landed in Europe.

I went for the proverbial green at every opportunity. My weekends evolved from playing mediocre golf an hour outside of Chicago to drinking wine on the coast of Italy, exploring the ruins of Chernobyl and road-tripping through France. I jumped out of a plane in Namibia, blacked out at Oktoberfest, paraglided in Romania and got a car stuck in a field in Bosnia. I hung off the edge of Europe on a cliff on the western tip of Iceland, got extorted in Nigeria and slid down a snowy mountain at 1:30 a.m. in complete sunlight on an island north of Norway. I camped in the Sahara, watched two rhinos square off in a territory battle, visited the militarized non-sovereign nation of Northern Cyprus, posed for photos in Egypt with wide-eyed kids and snorkled the Continental Divide between Europe and North America. I got shaken down by the mafia in Sicily, chased waterfalls in Slovenia and picnicked on Omaha Beach. 

What was supposed to be an 18-month secondment quickly turned into 33. When one item got crossed off the bucket list, two more were added. Golf, one of my great passions, went ignored. My clubs lay in the bathtub in my Amsterdam flat (which doubled as my storage unit) and collected dust.

*

I barely touched anything related to No Laying Up during my first three months in Europe, and while my adventures continued, I got the bug again when golf season picked up in 2015. I’m not sure we would have continued at all had it not been for the occasional message from our still-small audience. Despite no podcasts in months, listeners continued telling us something was there.

That spring, we had our first-ever PGA Tour player on the podcast, a young rookie by the name of Justin Thomas. He had followed us on Twitter, which led to some brief communication through text messages. He made it clear that he was a fan, so we shot our shot and invited him onto the show. He was quick to accept. 

At this point in the golf-media landscape, players sitting down and talking uninterrupted for 45 minutes was unheard of. In addition to our takes, this helped us carve an even bigger niche. Audiences responded and, to our surprise, so did players; we were shocked at their willingness to open up to us about their games and their lives. 

“A few years’ worth of irreverent tweets and sporadic podcasts were apparently enough to be granted inside-the-ropes access to walk with some of the biggest stars in the game.”

J.T. opened the doors and we were off. Next was the reigning FedEx Cup champion, Billy Horschel. Then Max Homa. Then Thomas again. Then Charles Howell III. Ollie Schniederjans. We didn’t have a pro on every pod, but they were increasing in frequency.

Then, the white whale. 

My first interaction with Rory McIlroy was at the 2016 Memorial Tournament. I parlayed a work trip from the Netherlands to Washington, D.C., into a visit to my hometown of Dublin, Ohio. We got aggressive and actually applied for official PGA Tour media credentials; a few years’ worth of irreverent tweets and sporadic podcasts were apparently enough to be granted inside-the-ropes access to walk with some of the biggest stars in the game. For a golf fan who had spent many years watching tournaments from outside the ropes, the chance to watch these players from just a few feet away was mind-blowing.

Rory had been following us on Twitter for almost a year and we had even traded a few stray direct messages, which was incredible by itself. He would drop in occasionally to give us props for a tweet that perhaps he couldn’t publicly appreciate. To this point, I had absolutely zero understanding of how frequently he was reading what we were saying.

On that Friday afternoon at Muirfield Village, he was paired with Jordan Spieth and a struggling Thomas. J.T. was well on his way to a missed cut and recklessly took the head cover off a driver on the short but not drivable par-4 14th. He looked over at me and laughed walking to the tee. I rolled my eyes and asked, almost embarrassed, “Is this for me?”

He smirked and mouthed, “Oh, yeah.”

Before he put the tee in the ground, someone yelled out “NO LAYING UP!” to some sparse laughter from the gallery. J.T. unleashed one way offline left, which had Rory and Jordan doubling over with laughter. Rory turned to me, still grinning, and, loud enough for the entire crowd to hear, said, “Can’t wait to see the tweet about that shot!”

I was stunned: Holy shit! Rory knows who I am?!

*

Fast-forward a few months to a fateful Ryder Cup Saturday at Hazeltine. 

In the weeks leading up to the event, I had been clamoring for U.S. captain Davis Love III to pair Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka. Their friendship had not yet been well-documented, but their prodigious length and obvious don’t-give-a-fuck attitude made them a perfect pairing to me. The first three team sessions went by without them teeing it up together. But when the Saturday fourball matches were announced, my phone lit up. DLIII had punched in the nuclear launch codes! D.J. and Brooks were slated against European bombers Thomas Pieters and Rory. 

And I had a front-row seat: Somehow I once again received media credentials to be inside the ropes. I didn’t miss a fist-pump during Rory’s legendary performance; I watched him bow mockingly at the crowd, heard him clap back with the lyrics of “Sweet Caroline” when taunted by the fans and stood in awe as he yelled “I CAN’T HEAR YOU!” after draining a monster putt on Sunday.

He was letting his personality fly as far as his drives, and the Saturday-afternoon match was no exception; thanks to some excellent help from Pieters, Europe led the match 3-up on the ninth tee. I never strayed farther than shouting distance from the group, but noticed some of the more seasoned media members were taking a few shortcuts to save some steps. It was understandable; 36 holes a day in the sun is a grind. But having flown 5,000 miles for my favorite event, I took every opportunity to watch these guys play from as close as possible. 

The ninth tee (No. 18 on Hazeltine’s normal routing) sits way back from where the players enter the hole. Every other media member following the match took a right turn to the landing area. I went backwards to the tee and sat alone on a bench about 30 yards right of it to give my legs a brief respite. 

Rory mashed his tee shot, barely watched it, snatched his tee and coolly handed his driver back to his caddie. With three players still to go, he ambled over toward my bench, threw something in the trash, sat next to me and put his hand on my shoulder. I couldn’t believe it. He then pointed over at the D.J./Koepka pairing that I’d begged for and uttered the words that changed it all:

“Hey, you got your wish.” 

Not only was he balling out and collecting scalps, but Rory also had the wherewithal to talk shit to a no-name golf blogger in the middle of a match at the fucking Ryder Cup

The impact we were making suddenly hit me: No Laying Up had major potential. After the U.S. clinched the victory on Sunday afternoon, Rory stood near the 18th green and passed out his congratulations to the U.S. players. I stood off to the side, well out of the way. He sauntered over in my direction and congratulated me too (what?), said it was good to see me out there and that he hoped to see me out on Tour (what?). We exchanged phone numbers and stayed in touch over the coming weeks.

A month later, Rory withdrew from the Turkish Airlines Open. Knowing that he suddenly had an unplanned week, I saw my shot and took it. I texted him and asked if he was interested in doing a podcast. He hit me right back: “I’d love to. How about tomorrow?”

At the time, I didn’t really know that I probably (definitely) should have gone through his agent for an official media request. But I went for it. Again, our inexperience and reckless approach paid off. One of the game’s most talented, decorated and marketable players was now accessible through just a few simple text messages. 

With the red light on, Rory and I spent the morning of Nov. 1, 2016, chatting like we’d known each other for years. When the podcast was posted, the game officially changed for us. 

The reaction was palpable: It was our most-downloaded podcast ever by a factor of five after just one day. A tiny blog that had emerged from a text thread had pulled off a candid, hour-long interview with one of the game’s biggest stars. What the hell?

Feeling the momentum, I picked up the phone to put a request in for a podcast with Spieth (this time following the proper protocol and working through his management group). “Rory did that, right? Yeah, we’d love to.”

Our audience grew along with the number of pros on our podcast. It was a challenge to get up at all hours of the night in Amsterdam to meet time requests to record with players and still come into the office every day, but I knew we couldn’t pass up these opportunities. Three months later, injured and needing a break from wedding planning, Rory actually hit me up to do another podcast. This thing we believed in for so long was no longer a dream. It was very real.

Rory upped the ante during round two: “You guys have made golf fun to follow again because it’s a different take on it; it’s more aimed at millennials, it’s fun. It’s the way it should be and it’s the social-media age, and this is what people appreciate.…I think you guys are the future of what golf coverage is going to look like, and anything I can do to support, I’m here.”

I knew then that my future was no longer in financial services. With my time in Europe coming to a close, I once again brought our mantra to life: I sent in my letter of resignation, gave up the health insurance, the 401K, the expense account and the pending partnership in the firm to move in with my parents and talk about golf for a living.

For better or worse, No Laying Up was now my life. 

*

Though the sun never actually set, I’ll never forget that sunrise at Lofoten Links. As the waves crashed on both sides of the second green, I reached for my camera but stopped. No picture could adequately capture the moment. My love for travel, golf and life experiences coalesced into one unforgettable scene. It had been a long three years; I had gone from heartbroken and drifting to clarity of purpose.

As I wept, I allowed the significance of the moment to sink in. The world in front of me was wild and open and frightening, but the decisions of the past few years gave me hope and confidence. The head cover was off. It was time to take the shot.