Talking Golf: Brendan Porath on podcasting, Tour collaboration, majors and more

Rory McIlroy in action at Bay Hill

Shotgun Start podcast host Brendan Porath talks PGA Tour, why Rory McIlroy is a gift, what's missing from the sport, and much more.

There is no brief or clean summary of how I came to work in golf...

Like many, my dad got me into the game, I caddied during summers growing up, and then drifted away as I sought a cleaner or more predictable career path in law. I walked out of a law school building early in my second year to get a book from my car and never returned. I wandered about for a few years doing odd jobs and became engrossed reading both the classic sportswriting greats and the new digital voices and style as that rose up about 15 years ago.

I thought my writing skills were passable (they probably weren’t) so I could perhaps try and poke through as the industry changed. I landed at SB Nation doing menial stuff, equivalent to the agate pages at an old newspaper, but it was a chance at a place absolutely loaded with brilliant digital media talents, and that was exciting but intimidating. After a couple years doing the basics and covering all sports, I grabbed the reins of the golf page because I had some working background and love of the sport on a staff where few, if anyone, else did or cared. I’ve covered golf, almost exclusively, for about seven years now. Vox Media was an amazing place to work and I was on the low-end of talent at SB Nation. There was grunt work and long hours/years to get there, but it was a silly and blessed job that’s taken me to the majors, Ryder Cups, and interviews with Hall of Famers.

Most importantly, I’ve become part of this community - a mix of golf media folks and golf twitter lunatics - that I now consider some great friends.

Working on Golf Channel has been a blast...

Another one where I’m not sure how or why I got the chance but I really love doing it. I started in what felt like the deep end with two hours of live TV and was extremely nervous. I remember as we were counting down to go live for the first time I was on, Chantel McCabe, who was hosting that show and probably wondering who the hell I was and why I was there, sort of anxiously asked - and rightfully so -- "so have you ever done TV before?" I replied "Uhh, yeah, no I haven’t." And then the cameras came on. I had no idea what I was doing or what to expect but the other hosts, producers, and great team behind the scenes provided me a million safety nets. It just sort of went and flowed and then it was over. As far as I know, I haven’t done anything exceptionally horrible or embarrassing in the shows since.

I feel I have the freedom to be myself there and think that’s probably why they want me there. Now that doesn’t mean my voice doesn’t change for that medium, same as it would if I’m tweeting v writing v podcasting etc. I can’t and shouldn’t let curse words fly on TV like I occasionally do on Twitter.

As for where I’m most comfortable, it’s probably podcasting right now. Andy (Johnson), in addition to being this amusing golf genius, has become a great friend. It’s not journalism, far from it, but I think we’re both comfortable doing the podcast together, try to have no pretensions, openly admit to being idiots, and just let it rip in a way that I think is lacking due to so many constraints and conflicts in golf media out there. We’re untethered there, aim to have real voice, and the audience has seemed to respond to it even if it might make them dumber.

Andy and I first met at the 2017 Players...

We stayed out late drinking, and sort of became friends ever since. We texted a bunch coming out of that mostly on professional advice and content ideas or concepts. One of those ideas was a shorter, daily podcast on golf. We just thought there was a vacuum there with golf podcasts because, at the time, you didn’t necessarily know when they were coming or how often they were coming into your feed (that’s changed a bit). There were great and are many great golf podcasts out there. After a few months of discussing it but leaving it on the back-burner, we figured we’d just try a new format. It’s neither daily nor short like envisioned but at the moment we think we have a good formula going of three per week dropping in your feed at the same time.

I don’t know if we’ve been surprised by its success. We both trusted our gut and thought we could make something good or else we wouldn’t have tried it. But we’re happy with the success of it for sure. I’d say we’re more surprised by the community, which you referenced, that’s come up around it. It’s a loyal, collegial, and depraved group that really engages and even participates in the podcast. That’s been amazing. That community has made us want to keep pushing and also made us more comfortable to be idiots, briefly swerve into non-golf inanities, and then hopefully add some form of golf insight or entertainment. I don’t think we’d want to upset that community in any way in pursuit of something else.

So much of golf media, and media at large, is some misbegotten chase of for a big bucket of impressions or views when no one even knows the real value of those anymore -- or if the numbers are even real! We’ve all done that rat race and this feels different when it comes to building a community and talking to real people on the other side. We’re fortunate to have no external pressures trying to push us in that direction and no real conflicts preventing us from speaking honestly to the audience (or more critically, not speaking at all on an issue, a more pervasive problem with golf media right now -- i.e. the conflicts with a backer that don’t make you a raving used car salesman but rather someone who is constantly leaving things unsaid).

During the break, the biggest challenge was deciding what not do do...

...as opposed to finding something to do. We had and have a long list of ideas to fill the gaps but which ones are stupid or not worth pursuing? So we’re building this new concept of a Hall of Fame. We pick an era, choose a notable player from that era, and then research and discuss in detail the subject for about an hour. Somehow, it’s more work and the episodes are longer than when we actually had live golf. The audience has not waned and seems to be enjoying it. It’s also creating a new understanding and appreciation for both these players and the storytellers that covered them.

I had an unplanned riff in one episode about finding and seizing the opportunities from what is clearly an unpleasant time. For me, and hopefully for the audience, it’s been acquainting or reacquainting with these great players and characters from the 1980s and 1990s (so far Monty, Woosie, Pavin, Duval, Vijay et al). I’m reading so much truly incredible writing and storytelling from the giants of golf writing, many from the Sports Illustrated archives. It’s enriching and entertaining and it’s an opportunity I would not have if the Tours and news cycles were continuing as normal. That doesn’t make this worth it in any way - it’s a horrific situation for so many people - but it’s trying to seize on the unique opportunities of this golf-less time.

I do not think golf lacks characters...

Although based on my recent research of the 80s and 90s stars for those podcasts, it may be more buttoned up these days. I’m not sure why - the PGA Tour should always be trying to push its villains, its wild child, offbeat characters etc. They want to be an entertainment product, so embrace it. But they always default to the vanilla, beholden to not irking their "members."

Rory McIlroy is the most fun to cover right now, and really has been since I’ve been doing this full time. He’s not one of those villains or offbeat wildmen, but he is supremely entertaining to listen to every time he talks. You rarely feel like you’re not getting his full account or opinion on a subject. And his full effort - he puts real, actual thought into his answers on subjects, which is not a given for many tour pros. And then there is the game. I still maintain when Rory has the strut, when he is holding the finish, when he is on a heater, he’s the most intoxicating to watch. It’s why that 2014 Open win at Hoylake is still maybe the most enjoyable major I’ve written about in what I realise is not a long time I’ve been doing this.

Other characters I love to follow and chronicle, for different reasons, are Patrick Reed, Bryson DeChambeau, Brooks Koepka, and I think Jon Rahm has been giving us a lot more insightful and admirable comments to chew on this year.

The PGL is old news - but it isn't going away...

It would seem they have put a lot of time into preparing this concept, have a deep pockets, and several smart people pushing for it. So I don’t think it is going away just yet and may never fully go away - maybe they just launch with lesser ranked players than planned. I think there has been too much effort and money put behind this for them to go away and give up now. But this is certainly a less tense stretch for the established tours compared to the crackle of February.

Will it change the PGA Tour? Maybe...

I think the primary changes may be ones we don’t hear much about -- namely, the Tour chipping off the higher rated players some more bonus money out of the massive TV rights deal they just signed. Unlike the PGL, the Tour has to walk a line between presenting the all-important "playing opportunities" for the rank-and-file while also recruiting its big money sponsors and media partners with, say, only 10 to 15 people out of that much larger member group. So I don’t think we see much contraction when it comes to events. Maybe a few new formats that pay out to a smaller, more exclusive class. And some more bonus cash for the top ranked players.

The demand for live sports rights has never been higher, and the PGA Tour can offer tonnage. But I just don’t know, on a title sponsor and infrastructure level, how sustainable this long of a schedule is in the states. We don’t need 45-plus events! It’s too watered down and monotonous and they’d be wise to incorporate some of the tenets in the PGL proposal.

A fifth major? No thanks...

Why change a good thing? I think they’re bunched up enough as it is right now in men’s golf. Justin Rose alluded to this at Portrush last year, as it felt like one major came after another without much of a break in the waves. I don’t know if that makes me a traditionalist or not. I’m open to hearing other arguments but I think four is a great number.

They each have their own strong identities, save for the PGA. I’d like to see the PGA dabble with international venues every five years or so. That’s one area of expansion I would like to see explored -- more access outside the United States.

Top-class golf being so monotonous at soft, TPC courses is unfortunate...

We lose way more variety and interesting styles of golf when it pays the most to be a bomber and/or a high-ball hitter dropping darts into soft greens. That’s not to demean those skills. It’s just that fewer skills are required based on the current tour that pays the most prize money

I would love to see more top class players, whether Americans or from abroad, have a chance to succeed with a variety of styles. Pete Cowen recently told Damon Hack of Golf Channel that Viktor Hovland’s short game was a 0 out of 10 when he came to him. Hovland is exceptional and will get much better, but he didn’t even need some of those tools to reach the pinnacles of amateur and college golf in the States. He’s just that good and many of the players behind him at the top have similar deficiencies.

It would be great if the classic European Tour stops are amplified in some way (beyond the Rolex Series contrivance). They deserve it. Whatever events at yet another TPC parklands course in the U.S. should not be competitive in a week opposite a Scottish or Irish or Dunhill or whatever other national open you choose. But they are, and often have deeper fields. So I guess that’s my primary concern with it. I think monotony is always a concern. And I’d love to see more players with different styles playing a wider variety of venues from a wider net cast over the globe.

That we haven’t already seen collaboration between the PGA and LPGA Tours is an embarrassment...

We’ve heard it’s "in the works" and "being discussed" for years now. I doubt Mike Whan, a true leader in the game and someone who distinguished himself significantly from his peers during these shutdowns, has not creatively pushed for such a collaboration.

Promotion of the women’s game and attracting and producing more top flight African American stars in the post Tiger era are two major failures on this front. I think one diversity subject that we all should tout more often is the economic diversity in the pro game. The sport has a bad reputation for being exclusive and the province of the wealthy.

In the States, that may be the case on the amateur side and with the country club system. But this brush is then used to paint the pro game, where so many of the stars and idols in the commercials are not country club kids. Rory, Rickie, Finau, Brooks, Jason Day and many others continually prove that there’s diversity of economic backgrounds on the pro leaderboards. A quick scan of the OWGR reveals it instantly and we should drive awareness around that to combat the notion that it’s just a rich man’s game.


Favourites

Tournament covered on-site…

The 2016 Ryder Cup - not for the outcome, I’m not that much of a homer! It was just a blast to walk and spend with some of those aforementioned colleagues who have become great friends.

Tournament watched as a fan…

The 2009 Open, until the ending.

Tour golf course…

It is Riviera, and I’m not sure there’s a close second. In the States, we have several sporting venues that are worthy of the pilgrimage whether you care for the team that inhabits them or not. In football, it may be Lambeau Field or baseball Fenway Park or college basketball Cameron Indoor Stadium. Golf does not really have that phenomenon, save for Augusta National. I’d put Riviera in that class and think it’s worth the trip for a sports fan on a February weekend.

Player…

Rory McIlroy.

Interviewee…

Rory McIlroy just a hair ahead of Brooks Koepka.

Commentator or pundit…

He stirs the pot and I don’t always agree with him, but Brandel Chamblee. I’d add Jaime Diaz if he’s considered for this category.

Tour…

No real favourite! I enjoy the Korn Ferry Tour Finals.

Recent innovation in golf…

Top née ProTracer

Memory/when you fell in love with golf…

It was a very specific shot during a very specific round at the course where I caddied growing up, Canterbury Golf Club outside Cleveland. I was playing well (for me) and a seven-iron felt perfect from the top of a hill in the fairway on the ninth hole. I was alone carrying my bag on a fall day after school with leaves swirling and the temperature and sunlight just right. Not to get treacly here, just trying to describe it as moment I won’t forget. I’d been around golf for years at that point and the shot didn’t go in or anything memorable like that. It just felt so good off the club and the setting felt so calming that it was a moment of clarity for me - this is just the best and I love it.

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