From this height, golf’s role in Earth’s ecosystem flickers in and out of focus. Whether they’re tucked next to the foot of ancient pyramids, at the center of residential communities or on the outskirts of bustling urban environments, the courses that capture so much of our imagination are at times barely noticeable. From Benjamin Grant’s view, 8,000 yards doesn’t seem like such a stretch.
Grant, the man behind the Instagram account @dailyoverview, has caught the attention of more than a million followers looking for perspective. In the process, his landscape shots from satellites orbiting the planet have provided an entirely different picture of where we play our favorite game. His success makes the fact that he never intended to go this route with his career—and has yet to play a round of golf in his life—all the more remarkable.
Fresh out of college in 2015, Grant was trying to make it in New York City as a brand-strategy design consultant and was growing tired of the business-buzzword-bingo lunch conversations. So he did what any young, curious, creative person would do: He started a space club.
His focus quickly shifted from pontificating on consumer behavior and listening to the latest office gossip to giving lunchtime presentations on the cosmos. Then, one night, he typed “Earth” into Apple Maps. “I was thinking it would zoom out and do the blue marble that we’ve all seen,” Grant says, “but it went to Earth, Texas.”
He zoomed out a bit to find thousands of pivot irrigation fields bleeding together, creating an abstract mosaic of tawny circles.
“I was like, ‘What the fuck?’” Grant remembers. “‘That’s a beautiful composition.’”
As he would soon learn, “What the fuck?” in this particular scenario actually has a scientific answer: the overview effect. It was first coined in the 1970s by author Frank White while he was looking out an airplane window.
This cognitive shift—or “moment of clarity,” as it’s often referred to—was initially reported by the first astronauts to peek back at Earth from new heights. In one of the more famous examples, Bill Anders frantically searched the cockpit of Apollo 8 for his Hasselblad camera on Christmas Eve of 1968. As the spacecraft rounded the dark side of the moon for the fourth time, a sliver of our planet appeared in the distance. When his photo was finally developed, five days later, humans back on the ground realized—many for the first time—that the world did not, in fact, revolve around them.
The stripping of ego, an acknowledgment of a bigger picture, an overwhelming sense of life’s fragility and a sudden disregard for things that divide a unified whole are just a few of the reported reactions associated with the overview effect. For Grant, the feeling was simply awe.
“I think [‘awesome’ is] a word that’s pretty overused in our culture,” Grant says. “‘Awe’ has a definition of when you’re exposed to things that are perceptually vast or very complex. Like being able to see all of San Francisco, or so much distance in a place like Denver or the Grand Canyon…your jaw drops. People become more generous, they become more pro-social, they have this feeling of being a smaller self, and tiny, and when that happens, you’re more likely to work toward the collective and the idea that we actually are all in this together.”
Earth, Texas, was so awesome to Grant that he started @dailyoverview to provide a daily dose of the overview effect to his followers. He called up a satellite-imaging company, then named Maxar, that supplied high-resolution images to corporations like Apple and Google and told them he wanted to commission images for a blog. Two years later, he took a leave of absence from consulting, landed a deal that would eventually produce the first of three Overview books and moved to his current home in San Francisco.
The fact that Grant lives within driving distance of four of the greatest courses ever built and has never attempted to play them may be jarring to golf obsessives. But it’s not due to lack of respect. Unlike his neighbor, Malcolm Gladwell, whose growing resentment of the game’s footprint has spurred an anti-golf movement within the city, Grant doesn’t see golf courses as unethical or a waste of space. It’s a big, complicated world, after all.
“People say flying is bad, but people aren’t going to stop flying, because travel is amazing,” he says. “The amount of meat consumption in the world is so high because steak tastes amazing. If you’re going to think about land use, yes, a golf course might not be as helpful as a solar farm, but it’s probably better than an oil refinery. It’s getting humans outside and being in nature and moving, and that can’t necessarily be a bad thing.”
Six years after his Apple Maps revelation, Grant is still posting every day. He now works with four satellite companies to capture jaw-dropping landscapes and urban environments. He’s even delved into timely coverage of topical global events, like the Suez Canal blockage and Australian brush fires, in hopes of inspiring some good through the overview effect. Short of that, he’ll settle for stopping somebody’s scroll, if only for a moment, and bringing them back down to Earth.
Featured image: Old Head Golf Links | Kinsale, Ireland | Elevation: 383 miles (satellite)