PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — At first the noise came to Joel Dahmen in ripples, calm and steady, like the bay hitting the shore. But then came the tidal wave.
You could hear the buzz building as Dahmen walked from the 16th green towards the 17th tee at TPC Sawgrass. The area surrounding the famed island green 17th is the loudest on the golf course by several standard deviations, and as many as 36,000 people jam into spots along the lawn to lend their voices to the day’s developments. The massive plastic-and-metal hospitality tents bounce soundwaves toward the tee box like the springs of a trampoline. If there were ever a moment to feel the weight of one’s own career, it would be here.
As Dahmen and caddie Geno Bonnalie arrived at the 17th tee box on Friday afternoon, the wave crashed over them. They could hardly hear their own thoughts.
“The reception on 17 tee today was ridiculous,” Dahmen said later. “As we were standing there I said to Geno, ‘I feel like Rickie Fowler.’”
Fans roared for Dahmen all week at the Players Championship. On Friday at 17, they reached a fever pitch. They roared as he waited to hit his tee shot, they roared as his ball soared into the sky for the first time, and they roared again when his ball landed safely on the island green.
“We love you Joel!”
“Joel, I’ve got one White Claw!”
“I’ve got TWO White Claws!!!”
Dahmen was disoriented by the noise. Partially because of its volume, and partially because, at 1 over for the week, battling for the cut line, he wasn’t sure he’d earned it.
“It’s hard to get used to,” he said. “Especially when I’ve been over par for most of the tournament.”
Dahmen was receiving the latest lesson in a crash course on life as a golf celebrity. But unlike most golf heroes who have come before him, Dahmen’s fame wasn’t preempted by the splendors of golf success. No, Joel became famous the new-fashioned way: by starring on reality TV.
It’s unclear if Dahmen realized the full impact of his role in Netflix’s Full Swing when he agreed to be one of a handful of players spotlighted in the yearlong docuseries. But at the Players Championship, it’s obvious that it hasn’t taken him very long since the show’s release to figure it out.
“I’m still getting used to it,” Dahmen said. “I used to be able to float under the radar. I was a silly guy in a hat. But now it’s crazy — and Geno is really popular too.”
“It’s really weird.”
Rickie Fowler was first.
Back in 2020, when Full Swing was more idea than actual show, golf’s preeminent pitchman beat all of his PGA Tour counterparts to throw his support behind the theoretical docuseries.
“It was cool to be a part of things early on,” Fowler said. “I wouldn’t say we were the ones that made it happen by any means, but yeah, I’m pretty sure I was the first one to commit as far as being a player in the show. I was the first to give it the okay.”
With the help of his production company, Main Event Productions, Fowler proved an impactful figure in the show’s early discussions with golf stakeholders, even briefly seeking an “executive producer” credit for his efforts. (The show’s production companies, Vox and Box To Box Films, declined Fowler’s request on the grounds of a conflict of interest.) When the show announced its player lineup months later, it was no coincidence to see two of Fowler’s close friends, Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth, among the commits.
“It’s just about showing people a little bit more of what we really do,” he said. “Everyone gets to see, you know, Thursday to Sunday, but the show sheds some light on who everyone is, and the time and effort and everything that goes into playing out here on a weekly basis.”
At the time Fowler signed on, the show looked like it could be a boon for golf’s biggest stars, bolstering their profile and earnings potential. But now, a month after the show’s release, a different reality has become clear: the show’s biggest winners are its underdogs.
Zoomph, a brand analytics company, reported Friday that most of the show’s stars have seen seismic gains in their social media followings in the last month, while PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan said the Tour’s official social platforms nearly doubled their engagement on the week of the show’s release.
“I’ve probably gained my most followers ever,” said Sahith Theegala, star of episode seven. “I don’t have the exact numbers, but probably like 20,000 in two, three weeks.”
The growth has been mind-boggling for the typically understated Theegala, like watching a dandelion sprout from the crack in a sidewalk.
“The crazy thing is, I don’t even do anything on social media,” he said. “There’s literally zero reason to follow me.”
But the growth of Theegala’s star can be quantified in more tangible ways, too. Back in reality, the reaction at tournaments has been just as overwhelming.
“Last week was crazy,” Theegala said. “My parents didn’t travel with me to Orlando, and all these random people were asking where they were. Half the people there seemed like they were talking about the show.”
If this week is any indication, things aren’t changing anytime soon. Theegala’s Wednesday practice round concluded with a lengthy autograph-and-selfie session, while his play has been interrupted frequently by newfound admirers, many of whom are still learning to tell the Netflix co-stars apart.
As Theegala walked to the 18th tee on Wednesday, he laughed as he offered a startling admission.
“That’s the fifth person to call me ‘Tony.’”
How does one star in a reality TV show by accident? Ask Will Zalatoris.
The 26-year-old appears in Full Swing more than any golfer not featured in the show — a product of runner-up finishes at the PGA Championship and U.S. Open. He says he enjoyed his watch of Season 1 (“Joel and Geno were hilarious”) and appreciated the thoughtfulness producers put into his portrayal. But with the possible exception of major championship screentime, he says he’s unlikely to make an appearance in Season 2.
“I don’t think I’m gonna do it,” he said. “I’m not 100 percent sure. I don’t know — I’m kind of low-key. I just like taking care of my own business.”
One problem for Netflix’s producers is it seems Zalatoris isn’t alone in that opinion. Some portion of the golf world is of the opinion that taking care of business inside the ropes is the easiest path to success outside of them.
“Dudes keep asking me how I finished ninth in the PIP,” Zalatoris said. “I tell them: I played good.“
For some, disinterest in the show runs more conceptual. Never mind appearing in Full Swing — World No. 6 Xander Schauffele said Tuesday that he still hasn’t watched the show.
“I don’t really like taking my work home with me,” Schauffele said with a grin. “I’m more of a murder-mystery guy, so unless there’s been a murder on the show, I’m probably not going to watch.”
Fowler said he’s never gone as far as to recruit a player for the show. To this point, he hasn’t had to.
“You know, some guys asked me about it, but I never pushed anyone,” he said. “I think more guys are open for it after seeing how Season 1 has gone. It’s easier now.”
But some of those featured in the show aren’t so sure. Even though Theegala doesn’t regret his Netflix experience, he wasn’t overly excited at the premise of contributing to Season 2.
“I probably won’t do it again,” Theegala said. “I wasn’t even supposed to be in the first season. I just got like, thrown in. They didn’t really bug me a lot, and I love that stuff. It’s been awesome this last year and a half, but there’s still too much stuff.
“I know a lot of people want to see ‘the rise’ and all that — I just feel like I haven’t been anything yet.”
Back on 17, Dahmen wasn’t the only name brand.
His beloved caddie Geno Bonnalie stayed on his left hip as the two walked up to the tee, shielding player from crowd. While Dahmen looked tense and focused, Bonnalie looked giddy, his smile wider than a Tour bag.
The fans along the ropeline were yelling, alright. They were yelling at him.
“You got this, Geno!”
Bonnalie isn’t just another caddie. Especially now. At the Players, there was talk of him fielding offers for a clothing deal. Such a development would put him in rarefied air amongst pro caddies. Watching him on the 17th, it was easy to understand why brands might be interested.
“He’s been soaking it in,” Dahmen said of his lifelong friend and partner. “Hopefully he can reap some benefits from it.”
This, it should be noted, is everything that golf could have hoped for.
The reaction to Dahmen, Bonnalie and the rest of the cast has been tremendous, and so has the audience that has rallied around the show. The show’s success planted it immediately inside Netflix’s worldwide top 10 and a second season was greenlit soon after.
When golf’s stakeholders talked about their interest in creating a documentary-style show, they talked about building the sport’s profile, about solidifying its superstars, about elevating new ones. With the help of Netflix’s 231 million subscribers, Full Swing has managed to eclipse its most enthusiastic predictions. Like it or not, Dahmen is now a bonafide superstar — and so is Bonnalie.
“Geno has always been, like, the most genuine human being I’ve ever met,” Dahmen says. “When people get to know Geno, you’re just going to love him even more. There’s nothing fake about him.”
Another challenge for Netflix will be ensuring Dahmen and Bonnalie want to return for Season 2. F1’s top driver, Max Verstappen, recused himself from its Full Swing equivalent in 2022, citing the attention drawn by the show as a principal factor in his decision. He returned to the show later in the year, stating its importance to the sport, but has continued a public war of words with the show’s producers for their portrayal of him. Tennis’ Break Point fared worse than Full Swing in terms of Netflix popularity — a fate tied mostly to a less notable cast.
The reality is that Full Swing will remain only as good as its characters. As the show grows more popular, it’s a good bet those starring in the show will too. This raises a strange possibility for those in the cast: not everyone enjoys being famous.
“I felt like we gave so much in Season 1. It does a good job on it. But we already told our story,” Dahmen. “Now, if I go out and play great golf and I’m winning tournaments, that’d be fun to follow in Season 2, right? But as far as day-to-day life stuff, probably not so much.”
At the Players, there was no mistaking Dahmen and Bonnalie. Not anymore. The pair is entangled in the sudden embrace of fame, even if they’re not sure whether to be thrilled or shellshocked.
“The only time the people have ever been hugely for me is when I’ve been in one of the last couple of groups or playing with a big guy,” Dahmen said. “Now, that’s all the time.”
Fame is a strange companion for an everyman. Those two things don’t often exist together, partially because they can’t often exist together. Can a famous regular guy remain a regular guy? Maybe that’s a question for Season 2.
“I keep my head down more now,” he said. “I used to be able to kind of look and acknowledge people, but now there’s enough people, if you give one person a little something then there’s gonna be more of them.”
“As we say … Don’t feed the monkeys.”
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