Is Joel Dahmen the best interview on the PGA Tour?
Editor’s Note: Joel Dahmen had never made a cut in a U.S. Open prior to this week at The Country Club, where the now 34-year-old shares the lead heading into the third round with Collin Morikawa. Dahmen claimed his first PGA Tour win in March 2021 at the Corales Puntacana Resort and Club Championship, and has just one top-10 finish in eight prior major starts. The self-deprecating native of Washington state insisted before arriving at Brookline, Mass., that he had no shot of winning a major. But here he is. And you can get to know him more from this entertaining interview Golf Digest did with Dahmen in October 2019.
The assumption is you’ve never heard of Joel Dahmen. Maybe you know him as the guy who wears the bucket hat, or if you follow golf very closely, it’s possible you remember him accusing fellow pro Sung Kang of taking an illegal drop last year at a PGA Tour event. But mostly quietly, Dahmen made $2 million in his third season on tour and at one point was the 80th-best golfer on the planet, according to Big Data. Life-changing stuff for him; for golf fans, not so much. Our culture teaches us to scan past Dahmen’s name to wonder how a Day or DeChambeau might’ve played, or better yet, a Brooks or Rory. Winners. But let’s not forget a challenge posed by the late writer David Foster Wallace—incidentally, in the context of pro tennis: “You are invited to try to imagine what it would be like to be among the hundred best in the world at something. At anything. I have tried to imagine; it’s hard.”
So if you want to begin to appreciate what it takes for a talented but by no means otherworldly gifted golfer to get to the PGA Tour, Joel Dahmen is happy to talk. We caught up with him at his favorite dive bar in Scottsdale—Pattie’s—where the autographed dollar bills on the walls add up to “eight or maybe 12 thousand,” the bartender says, or about the same as a made cut. Son of a mill worker and a school teacher from eastern Washington, Dahmen flunked out of college, met his wife in a pizza line at 2 in the morning, and loves his dog, too. You’ll like him once you get to know him.
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What’s the difference between you and a golfer who’s never going to graduate from the Korn Ferry Tour?
It’s hard to describe, but that guy is never going to have total control of his golf ball. You can see it in his ball flight and around the greens. When he’s hot, he shoots 63 and looks great, but he can’t do it for four days, much less a season. Scratch golfers are really good, but they don’t always know which way the ball is going to curve. I sometimes forget how good I am and can be, then I go play with my caddie, Geno Bonnalie, who qualified for the U.S. Mid-Am in 2017. At an easy course with light rough where he can wedge it on from anywhere, I’ll give him one shot a side. At 7,500 yards with trouble everywhere, I might give him seven a side. Not to sound like a jerk, but people don’t understand the control required to play PGA Tour setups.
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How about the difference between you and a top-10 player?
I’ll never be top 10. I don’t hit it far enough. [Dahmen’s driver swing speed is 112 miles per hour, and a typical carry is 276 yards.] Jon Rahm drives the eyes out of the golf ball. Even when Rory plays bad, he’s so much better than I am at almost every facet. I’m not sure I’m even straighter than him, and I’m one of the straightest hitters in the world. It’s a matter of, How good is your great? Sure, there’s Zach Johnson, who dinks it around and wins a couple majors by being an exceptional putter and wedge player, but length is going to be the biggest predictor of success going forward in this game.
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Compare the vibe of your rookie year on tour to now.
I was really uncomfortable my first year. Until you can walk into a lunch room and feel like you can sit anywhere, it’s a lonely existence. A lot of time with my phone. I’d grown used to the camaraderie [on the PGA Tour Canada], where guys are sleeping four to a room and sharing minivans, rooting for each other. Korn Ferry is a level more serious, but still buddy-buddy. The PGA Tour is every man for himself. I understand why, given what’s at stake. I now know enough people to enjoy brief interactions throughout my day. But in the beginning the tour is not a welcoming place. Especially if you’re not playing well. No one is going to bother investing time to get to know you until it’s apparent you’re keeping your card for a while.
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I’d imagine your effort to protect the field by calling out Kang for a bad drop raised your profile a bit. [Without video evidence, Kang was not penalized and finished third.]
It was wild how many people came up to me at dinner to shake my hand and say, “The game needs more of that.” Not that I was necessarily right, but that I stood up for what I believed was right. Guys started calling me Sheriff. Overall, I think there’s a trend of players becoming more active discussing on-course incidents. Every day there’s something, even if it doesn’t always get out to the media. Sometimes it’s a serious thing about rules or pace of play, but more often it’s a hole location several players didn’t like, or a certain fan who was yelling stupid things at everybody. Whereas the tour atmosphere used to be more hush-hush, it’s become more acceptable to talk openly.
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Tell us the genesis of the bucket hat.
It gets hot as hell in Arizona, where I live, so I’ve worn them on and off over the years. A no-brainer for sun protection and staying marginally cooler. Anyway, some buddies and I get on Fishers Island Club the week heading into Hartford. Loved the place. I’m not an architecture junkie, but it’s so fun and refreshing to play a course that isn’t a million yards and tree-lined. So I buy a hat in the shop. I wear it at Hartford but miss the cut, so no one notices. But the next week in Washington, D.C., I get paired with Tiger on Saturday, so it gets all this attention. Everyone’s teasing my wife, Lona, calling me the zookeeper and the beekeeper. But three weeks later, I had a hat deal. I also heard from our Fishers host that the club got inundated with requests for bucket hats they couldn’t fill, so I do take pride in selling out their pro shop.
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What was it like playing with Tiger?
Most nervous I’ve ever been. Walking off the first tee, I looked at the enormous gallery and said, “So this is your world?” And he says, “This ain’t nothing.” He was super nice, told funny stories, instructed me that he’d always mark near the cup so I could finish first without a stampede. I shot 69 to his 68, covered the head-to-head spread in Vegas, so I figure after playing with Tiger on a weekend I’m ready for any stage.
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You once played in a paper Waffle House hat. You once no-looked in an eight-foot birdie putt while saying to your caddie, “That’s how we do it in the pros.” What’s the slickest move you’ve pulled on tour no one knows about?
Hmm. I qualified for this year’s U.S. Open a couple beers deep. I’d bogeyed two of my last five at the Columbus qualifier and was dejected. Pebble Beach is my favorite place, and I’d really wanted to make it. So Geno and I sit in the bar at Scioto Country Club for about an hour, drowning our sorrows. Then an official announces there’s going to be a seven-for-one-playoff for first alternate, which from this site, he says, probably gets in. I’m fired up. The first playoff hole is a super-narrow short par 4, and we’re up against mostly bombers—Kevin Tway, Cameron Champ, Scott Piercy. They hit it all over the place trying to drive the green. No birdies. Then Kyle Jones hits his approach to six inches, and I’m like, Oh, no! But then I bury a 25-footer from across the green. Long story short, he three-putts the next hole, and I tap in for par to go to my first U.S. Open. Ended up being an expensive missed cut, but it showed me once again there’s a fine line between caring too much and playing with freedom.
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Are you starting to feel famous?
Yes, it’s weird, and I’m not sure I like it. At the New Jersey playoff event, some fans shouted my name, and I thought, How do they know who I am? Used to be nobody had any idea who I was—tournament officials, locker-room attendants, other players—and I’d take shortcuts through the gallery, do whatever I felt like. Now when I have my golf clothes on, I have to make sure I do everything the right way. Make a bogey, toss that ball to a kid instead of in the water. Post something silly on Snapchat, remind my friends to keep it in the circle. I want Golf Joel and Regular Joel to remain the same person, but being just slightly under the microscope of the public eye can steer a person to living separate lives.
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Have differences emerged between Golf Joel and Regular Joel?
I hope not. I’ve had so many people thank me for not changing. There’s a solid group around me who will cut me down the minute I start thinking I’m cool. Being a prick is an easy trap to fall into on tour. Everywhere we go, people wait on us. The chauffeurs, courtesy cars, dry cleaning, club repair—anything at all we could possibly want, there’s a person whose job it is to make it happen. We get accustomed, and pretty soon a guy is complaining about a certain food item missing from player dining. Seriously? Some people find a way to see trivial inconveniences no matter how fortunate they are. You wouldn’t believe how many caddies have thanked me for treating them like real people.
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Judging from his Twitter account, your caddie’s getting famous, too.
Didn’t Fluff once get fired for that? Geno’s edging toward that line. Can’t have people shouting his name instead of mine as we walk down the fairway. [Laughs.] In all seriousness, I’m probably the only player on tour whose caddie cares more about me as a person than the financial implications of any shot I’ll ever hit. We’ve been friends since we were kids. He married Lona and I. Geno’s the most genuine human I know. I always catch him staring at famous players on the range because he’s just so psyched to be here.
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Still waiting on win No. 1, obviously, but beyond that, would you rather win a major or the FedEx Cup?
FedEx Cup, without question. The top guys might be concerned with leaving their mark on history, but I want to leave a mark on my family. Fifteen million would impact my kids, my grandkids. My caddie just bought a new house. Granted, Geno’s wife has a good job, but that move was directly related to my actions. If you said right now I could make $1.5 million every year for the next 12 years, keep keeping my card, without ever winning a trophy, I’d take it. The kids coming on tour nowadays are ready to win right away, and that scares me.
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We almost never hear golfers admit such ambivalence about winning.
The cool thing about the PGA Tour is, they still pay a quarter-million dollars for finishing T-7. Look, I don’t want to be sitting around with my buddies when I’m 60, lamenting that I could’ve been really good. Every step of my career, from college to mini-tours to here, has been about getting to the next level. When I locked up my card last May, job security way earlier than I’d ever had, a big part of me wanted to sit on my couch with my dog and drink beer the rest of the year. I’d never dreamed beyond locking up my card, so when I finally did, it was disappointing. I guess I’d always imagined Porsches and private jets to Vegas and other cool stuff, but $2 million actually doesn’t go that far after taxes and expenses. I’m realizing goals need to be less results oriented. This same time next year sitting on my couch, will I be able to look back and say I worked as hard and consistently as I could to be great? I still have slip-ups—have too much fun one night and the next day’s a wash—but I’m getting better. I want to make it to East Lake, and my coach, Rob Rashell, and I have a physical plan to do that from studying stats. The key is resetting mentally. Identifying the bottom I’ll be satisfied with, because that’s what you tend to reach.
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A moment in your golf career when it all could’ve gone the other way?
Spring of 2007. I’d just flunked out of the University of Washington. I show up to play a practice round for the state amateur with my cousin to caddie for me and no tee time. The starter pairs us with a gentleman who’s caddieing for his 15-year-old son. They’re from Hawaii, but the father is establishing residency in Washington for tax purposes. I’m oblivious, but my cousin, who’s about to start his career as an accountant, chats him up. “Joel,” my cousin says, “This guy is f—ing rich.” He ends up offering my cousin his penthouse apartment in downtown Seattle for the summer. I win that state amateur with “Uncle Bob” in the gallery the whole way. I call him Uncle Bob because that’s what he would become to me, an almost second father. Without his financial backing, I would’ve never made it through the mini-tours. If I call ahead and make a tee time for that state am practice round like I’m supposed to, there’s no way I make it to the PGA Tour.
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Does Uncle Bob have a last name?
Bob Yosaitis. A business genius who traded jet fuel on a global scale, was very involved in building Hawaii’s aviation industry. When I was 23 and got diagnosed with testicular cancer, without health insurance, he was the first person I called, crying. He said not to worry, to just put everything on his credit card, which I had in my possession. It was Bob’s idea for Lona to quit her job and travel with me for the South American portion of the Korn Ferry Tour. “You play better when she’s around,” he said. Bob caddied for me in Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Panama on that swing. And sure enough, that was the season I graduated to the PGA Tour. Nabbed the 25th spot when Xander Schauffele finished 26th.
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Why do you think Bob took such an interest in you?
I don’t know. He’s helped out a few golfers, loves being around the game. He tells a story about how his grandfather told him he was going to be very successful, and to never forget the little people.
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And how did you meet Lona?
It was the end of a late night out in Scottsdale. We were at a pizza place that had two lines for ordering. I noticed her in the other line and said I’d buy her slice if she got to the counter before me. I also said she had pretty eyes and got her phone number. Neither of us can remember who got to the counter first.
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Growing up at Clarkston [Wash.] Golf & Country Club, how did you think your game compared to the competitive junior set at large?
No clue. Never played in a U.S. Junior, nor many big AJGA events. Played in one U.S. Amateur and missed the cut. Classic case of big fish, small pond. Clarkston is a blue-collar town with a high percentage of people on welfare. I was a good all-around athlete, played point guard on the basketball team, quarterback in football until I broke my thumb. My dad knew golf was my future and said, “What are we doing here?” He’d take the early shift at the pulp and paper mill so he could get home by 3:30 to play golf with us. He was a 5-handicap, and my mom was a solid bogey golfer. We’d play nine or 12 holes after dinner, too. Funny, I didn’t know how good we had it until I entered the real world beyond the cost of small-town living. We had a house with a river view, Jet Skis, cars when we turned 16, and for $125 a month, a membership to a nice golf course.
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Walk me through a day in the life at the University of Washington, where your days were numbered.
I’d run 10 minutes to the gym to make 6 a.m. golf team workouts. Then I’d shower and eat breakfast before my first class at 8, but odds were I’d go back to bed. Lunch at noon, and then hop on the team bus to go to the golf course. Usually shoot a good round or win qualifying for our next tournament. Then probably dinner at Chipotle, watch a movie, and go to bed. It’s not like I was a crazy partyer—I went out socially three nights a week. Basically getting paid to go to college on an athletic scholarship, I couldn’t motivate. I knew the subjects of academia weren’t going to help me get where I wanted to go. I should’ve paid better attention to my roommate [now fellow PGA Tour player], Nick Taylor, who never missed a class. At 20, Nick understood what I’m only starting to realize at 30: Greatness in golf—or really anything—is about consistently making the right decisions, day in and day out.
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Any other golfers you’ve learned from?
I had a problem packing it in when I was near the bottom of the field. My good friend and neighbor Max Homa has a rule: Never go backward. Turn a T-46 into a T-45. It’s an interesting game to play against yourself in the grind of a season.
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There’s a 19-year-old kid out there who can break 70 in competition now and again. He dreams of playing the tour one day. What do you tell him?
How far does he hit it? He’s probably a sophomore in college, so I’d tell him to work his butt off for three years and then see where his game is. My first win on the Gateway Tour—where I got a check for 11 grand—I played against Ted Purdy in the final round. Afterward, he insists, “Son, let me buy you a beer.” I’m feeling like the richest guy in the world, but Purdy has made $8 million in his career. He’s like, “I was good 10 years ago, so don’t get too excited about beating me.” His message was, the All-Americans in high school become the best players in college become the best players on tour. Every once in a while there’s a feel-good story about a journeyman, but there are 10,000 golfers with enough talent to play on the PGA Tour, and it keeps getting more competitive. Does this 19-year-old kid have the maturity to make the right decisions every day? Is there an Uncle Bob lined up to support him for at least five years? If not, I’d tell him to think about getting a real job.