'Why don't we lean the other way?': How 'Strapped' became a YouTube cult hit

A series about playing golf on a budget manages to resonate on a deeper level
June 20, 2023

"I was talking about this with somebody today about all the craziness in professional golf at the moment. The one thing that's not going to change is that golf will always be golf. Professional golf is not the be-all and end-all. I've had some of my best days of my life at golf courses you would never expect, that you would never have heard of. And more often than not, these public joints have pretty awesome stories. There's just something about what they do at 'Strapped.' It hits home, and it nails what golf is and can be for so many people." —Max Homa

It was my friend Aaron, equally riveted when we discovered "Strapped" together, who opened my eyes.

"This isn't about golf," he said. "It's about adult male friendship."

Adult male friendship is not an easy subject to discuss, but if the goal here is to accurately describe a YouTube golf series that is inherently indescribable, there are worse places to start.

On paper, "Strapped" is a show about two friends and a director who take three-day trips to play cheap, usually municipal golf in cities you would not normally associate with the sport, like Peoria, Ill., or Tallahassee, Fla., or—in the 11th series, coming out this month—Phoenix. They have a budget of $500 to cover all rounds, lodging, food and entertainment, and they can earn extra money (or lose it) based on how they play. They’re joined by occasional guests, ranging from local fans like a Baton Rouge pastor to Homa, a six-time PGA Tour winner who grew up playing cheap golf in California and is such a mega-fan that he volunteered himself for the job. (When we spoke, it was clear that Homa was a legitimate obsessive; he and his caddie Joe Greiner watch every episode and talk about it the next day, and Homa sees his own public course roots reflected in the "Strapped" ethos.)

That premise lends the show a basic shape, but it's also totally irrelevant to what makes it great. Just ask me: For literal years, friends and strangers tried to get me to watch "Strapped," and though I admired No Laying Up, the group that produces the series, none of the appeals made it feel particularly urgent. Mysterious words and phrases came out of their mouths—Icarito, St. Rappeo, the C-Suite—and I would nod politely and make a vague promise or two.

Then, one night last summer, I chose the New Mexico series at random and hit play. (This choice was later derided by the Twitter diehards, most of whom felt "Strapped" should be viewed in order.) The next hour was a shocking education, and now, after consuming all 10 series, I have become the bumbling evangelist I once ignored.

So before we go any further, understand that I'm on a fool's mission and just watch it.

"I have a theory—and I feel like it's been proved out—that grown men love nothing more than meaningless competition. Well, let me rephrase that: low stakes, but meaningful. And that's always been motivating to me." —Neil Schuster

The closest analogue I've found for "Strapped" comes from far outside the world of golf. Not long after watching the New Mexico series, I recognized the familiar feeling it evoked—whatever this was, it existed on the same poignant frequency as 1970s American New Hollywood movies, half-forgotten gems like "Five Easy Pieces" or "Midnight Cowboy." So much happens in the quiet spaces, and there's a rawness underlying the product that is gritty, extremely funny, at times sad, and possessing its own singular rhythms.

It's not lost on me that it's fundamentally insane to be using this language to describe a f***ing YouTube golf series. That's the eye-opening quality here—that between the performances of Phil "Big Randy" Landes and Schuster and the direction of D.J. Piehowski, they've somehow managed a legitimately artistic achievement in an unlikely space.

On a surface level, the engine of the show's success is the interplay between the two stars—Big Randy and Neil would still be entertaining if you dropped them on the surface of the moon. But beneath the humor lies a sincere effort to honor the towns and courses they visit. These are not the world's best tracks, and nobody pretends they are, but they find the heart everywhere they go, and it's a tribute to Piehowski that he balances the two-man show with the unsung men and women across America who make affordable golf possible. "Strapped" never professes to be a full-fledged documentary, but somehow it achieves the same purpose.


"Strapped" hosts Neil Schuster and Phil "Big Randy" Landes, alongside special guest Max Homa.

It's also very fun, and that's down to Landes and Schuster, two people without a lick of acting training who nonetheless have a natural comfort in front of the camera. It’s part talent, but they also maintain a zealous commitment to the mission of the show, and to inhabiting what Piehowski called their "permanent characters."

"The thing that makes me crack up more than anything is just how seriously Neil takes it," Piehowski told me. "Whatever the bit is that day, he is 200 percent in. So if it's like, I bet you can't break par, he is out there living and dying with every shot. And none of that is manufactured. The people who watch care what Neil shoots because he cares so fucking much."

'Grown men love nothing more than meaningless competition.'
Neil Schuster

You only have to watch Schuster swing a club once to understand that he's an athlete—he played college football at Columbia—and you only have to hear him talk once to understand that he's a walking typhoon. If “wounded charisma” is a thing, he has it in spades, and he's aided by an associative brain working at top speed and a rubber face that can climb the emotional registers … even without the aid of the hair and beard changes that, series to series, transform his aesthetic from Bayou soul to Las Vegas sleaze to Baltimore grit.

All of this is embodied in the persona of Icarito. It's a concept Schuster invented himself—a reference to the mythical Icarus, who plunged to his death after flying too close to the sun. Schuster's inner Icarus emerges when he's close to shooting under par for a full round. He’s never done it before, and each new attempt comes with the looming possibility of collapse. You can see it eating away at him, as though his periods of great golf are a special kind of torture; each bombed drive, each birdie, only a prelude to the great fall. When he's getting close, everyone from Piehowski to the “C-Suite”—Chris Solomon and Tron Carter, off site, who play the role of heavies in enforcing the strict budget while they enjoy the world's best private courses—heaps pressure on poor Icarito. Piehowski even chose a special song for the downfalls, a keening little snippet of melody cribbed from a stock music site.

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Big Randy and Neil on the course.

Schuster, 33, grew up mostly in Atlanta, with a father in the contact-lens industry and a mother in healthcare sales. He's the younger brother of Todd Schuster, aka Tron Carter, and it was Tron who met Chris Solomon as freshmen at Miami University in Ohio. "Big Randy," now 39, is a Cincinnati native, second child of an accountant and a teacher who became a stay-at-home mom. He parlayed his ability and 6-foot-8 height into a spot on the basketball team at Washington & Lee University in Virginia, but burned out after two years and came back to Ohio, where he met Tron in the Kappa Alpha fraternity.

The four formed a bond on a shared humor aesthetic, though it's worth noting that as the youngest of the group, Neil began on the periphery. (The first time Landes met him, he was a "wide-eyed high schooler" visiting campus.) After college, Landes worked as an accountant, then quit to become a basketball coach. At Columbia, Schuster played defensive back on a team that he describes as "awful," to the extent that they were mocked by the marching band, then worked in tech sales in San Francisco and at Google in New York. Eventually, both joined the budding business venture their friends had begun, and that's the short version of the origin story of No Laying Up, who are today one of the most inventive independent golf outlets.

"Over the years we've been lost at times as to where to take this. What is it? What are we actually doing here? And Randy said something to me back in the day, maybe 2014, 2015, that has always been my guiding light. He said, 'no matter what it is, it just has to be real.' And once he said that, a light bulb went off. One thing we can do is say and act exactly how we feel." —Chris Solomon, No Laying Up

At the 2017 PGA Championship at Quail Hollow, No Laying Up had what Piehowski called a "super vague deal" to create video content, with the caveat that they couldn't show any actual tournament play. Neil Schuster and Landes were the front men, and the video Piehowski produced, which they called "Golf Adjacent," was the ur-Strapped. It's rough around the edges compared to what would come later, and you can see them trying to find their creative feet, but the dynamic is already evident: the quick banter, the esoteric yet still accessible vernacular, the sense of ease in strange surroundings. At that point, Piehowski was on the verge of producing the series Tourist Sauce with NLU, and he noticed a trend on social media.

"Tron and Soly were just taking barrel fire for playing all this private golf," Piehowski said. "And there was a response of, 'that's awesome for you guys, but that doesn't do much for me. I'm not going to see that place.' So we would joke about that, and then we thought, 'You know, maybe they have a point.' So we asked, what could we do around public golf? What could we do around affordable golf?"

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The chemistry between Landes and Schuster has helped the series take on a cult-like status.

"All these golf videos and things you see, they all focus on the best, most awesome places, these great resorts, the fancy courses," Landes added. "And so we started kicking around, you know, why don't we lean exactly the other way?"

Between a bar inside a grocery store in Neptune Beach and the kitchen at the "Kill House" (their headquarters in Jacksonville Beach), Piehowski and Landes brainstormed the ideas that became "Strapped." They chose Iowa as their first destination, with Landes and Neil Schuster reprising their "Golf Adjacent" roles.

'All these golf videos focus on the best, most awesome places. Why don't we lean exactly the other way?'
Phil 'Big Randy' Landes

The trio set out for Des Moines in late August 2018. After Piehowski and Landes arrived, they learned that Schuster had missed his flight from New York. While he spent the day doing yoga in airports, they began the trip on their own. Schuster finally arrived at midnight, and the next morning, a torrential rainstorm forced them off the course. While all this was happening, Solomon Facetimed them to rub in the fact that he was playing golf in Jupiter with Justin Thomas.

"We were trying to figure out, what the fuck is this?" Piehowski remembered. "What are we doing? Who is ever going to watch this? And I think, in a weird way, that just took so much pressure off. If we had started out trying to cater to everybody, we would have suffocated ourselves. But because we had such a weird, hilarious start, the guys could just be completely themselves."

They soldiered on, and that first series, which remains a favorite to some viewers, immediately stood out as something very different in the world of golf content. To some degree, it wasn't even about the golf—it was about the logistical challenges, about Randy and Neil sleeping in the same bed and bemoaning the rain, about AirBnBs and massage chairs, about shout-singing "Lightning Crashes" with Neil playing (very impressive) air drums in the back seat and, yes, a little about the quirks of golf in the Des Moines area.

It also served as Icarito's debut. In the final round, Schuster stood at two under with six holes to play, tantalizingly close to the "mega bonus" of $500 that goes to either player if they break par. They called Solomon—”due diligence”—and he was without mercy: "I can't wait to see how this all falls apart."

Meanwhile, the increasingly nervous pair imagined how they'd spend the $500.

"I think it's dangerous to pre-spend the bonus, you know?" Landes said. "But I do like your idea of going into the Bud tent in the thrill zone at the state fair and just showering the East Des Moines women with free alcohol."

Piehowski grills Neil about his history of failures, Randy brings up the specter of the "big right miss," and for the first time, the Icarito music rises in the background. Disaster unfolds immediately, and two holes later, the dread result: a horrific slice into the abyss. The meltdown is on—Neil smokes and stares at the camera in silence, while Landes delivers one of his philosophical quasi-koans:

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Schuster eyes a recovery shot.

"All these critics, you know, they'll say what they say. But you're out here, you're fighting the fight. And I don't think that's nothing."

It's a beautiful moment in the carnage, with just the perfect mixture of sincerity, ironic humor and a hint of the cornball—a token of the kindness they reserve for one another.

On the last hole, a par 5, Neil tried and failed to make eagle to get back to one under. The name of the hole—you can't make this up—was "Glory Hole."

From this, a franchise was born.

"What makes them work? That's a phenomenal question. Randy is such a negative person about everything golf, but for whatever reason Neil takes that out of him, and he enjoys himself. And Neil is such a loose cannon that I feel Randy's the only person who can reel him back in. So maybe the two of them together, they're just peas in a pod." —Max Homa

In old Vaudeville comedy duos like Laurel & Hardy, it was a trope that the straight man made more money because his was the harder job. It would be easy, when paired with someone like Schuster, for a partner to try to match his energy, or be funny in the same way. The tougher task by far is to maintain the rigorous commitment to the unspoken premise that all of it matters, while serving as a foil for the manic banana. In this, Landes’ soothing, almost avuncular presence works as the still water beneath Schuster's cresting tidal wave.

"Anything that looks good out there is 1,000 percent because of how naturally engaging and funny those two are together," Piehowski said. "They're almost like drama nerds trapped in these college-athlete bodies. And the whole goal, every morning when we leave the psycho AirBnB or wherever, all they're trying to do in every single scene is make the other person laugh out loud."

They love nothing more than inside jokes, but the magic of these jokes is that somehow, they don't feel exclusionary—the viewer can learn, the viewer wants to learn, and most importantly of all, knowing the references doesn’t really matter. They've also mastered a half-ironic style that seems to channel nothing so much as an average American dad trying to assert his dignity. "Say what you want about the 'Strapped' boys,” Randy might say, “but we're not paper pushers.”

“I think part of what makes Randy so funny is that he is both the most optimistic person I've ever met and the most cynical person I've ever met,” Piehowski said. “And I think those two things are just fighting each other constantly in his head, to where he's constantly both trying to see the best of every possible situation and is just deeply suspect of everything."

Part of the pleasure of their interplay is getting lost in the narrative detours, as when they're marveling about the list of prisoners in a maximum security prison they pass in New Mexico, and the conversation careens into near-obscurity.

"Larry Hoover!"

"Ohhh, Big Meech is in there?!

"Big Meech! Serving six life sentences."


"He was moving some serious weight."

"Yeah. God, we gotta go see Big Meech."

"I think he was deep in it with Noriega down in Central America."

The shared language, like the other elements of the show, is based on immediate buy-in. It can result in small pay-offs, or it can become a critical ingredient that persists from one series to the next. Due to the strange order in which I watched the series, I heard plenty of references to an entity called "St. Rappeo." It became clear that this was the patron saint of cheap golf, and I didn’t need to know the origins—the invocation was funny enough. Then, in the Louisiana series, I watched a pastor named Ben present them with coins he had forged. On the face of the coin, he had inscribed the word "Strapped."

Neil peered at the word, puzzled.

"Who's St. Rappeo?"

And from that misreading of the word "strapped" came a sublime comedic payoff—St. Rappeo stayed with them forever after.

"What's very scary about it, and maybe this is my vulnerability in this thing, is literally trying to figure it out in front of everyone else. And that's where, if it was some big sponsored thing or if it had this built-in audience and all these other stakeholders, there's no way you would do that. You wouldn't want to try and fail. But instead, I think it allows you to take a lot more risks and just figure stuff out and kind of get obsessive about it." —D.J. Piehowski

As the series went on, Piehowski's directing went from very good to inspired, hitting a new level in the Peoria series, the seventh "Strapped" installment. Certain elements, like the voiceover and the sit-down interviews, disappeared, and he learned how to create a narrative that was fully contained within the trip, and thus never lost its immediacy.

He spends roughly 10 days editing each episode by himself, and he pointed out that because there were no huge sponsors, and because he was working with friends, he has the time and the creative control to keep getting better. He also honed his ability to find the beautiful shot. By New Mexico, every drone sequence, every piece of music, and every quick cut all seem perfectly considered, but without adding too much polish and losing the raw spontaneity of the early days.

Piehowski called the music a "character in the show," and though he asked me not to make him sound pretentious, I agreed with him; it’s a character well cast to match both the tone and the geography. To pluck one example, the scene in the third New Mexico episode in which they go to a hot springs is set to "Bananas and Blow" by Ween, and once you've seen it, it's hard to imagine a better choice. When Randy and Neil decide to blow up the whole premise after a dire trip in South Carolina, their great escape is to set the exultant "Lawyers, Guns, and Money" by Warren Zevon. Then there's the moment that hooked me, at the conclusion of the first New Mexico episode, when the sun sets over the desert, Neil and Randy set up camp, and Jerry Dyke's version of the hymn "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" takes us into the night.

"DJ is amazing," Landes told me. "I think my biggest worry at the start was just making sure people knew how crucial and vital his role is just because he wasn't in front of the camera. My thing with him is that I have complete trust in him to put me and Neil in the best possible light. And I just know he's going to kill it."

Both Landes and Schuster said his role goes beyond just filming and editing—he's a touchstone for them, and they check in constantly to get a sense for what angles to pursue and what's actually funny. If they seem comfortable on camera, they told me, it's because Piehowski is the only crew.


D.J. Piehowski, shown with Big Randy and Neil, spends about 10 days editing each episode of "Strapped."

"That was the first trip that I wasn't really a part of," Chris Solomon said, referring to the original "Strapped" series. "And when you see the final product, and none of the process, the light bulb went off, like, 'Oh, this is why people want to watch it.' And I don't want to say D.J. is the unsung hero of it, but he just knows how to draw stuff out of those guys. He's just an artist at work, and the highest compliment I can pay him is that he makes really uninteresting stuff seem interesting."

"Strapped" is just one manifestation of the NLU ethos of pursuing passion projects, and a testament to what happens when you give smart people artistic freedom in any realm. That sense of creative liberty rubs off even on those who play with them.

"Randy and Neil acting as sherpas into those spaces works because they're two of the least pretentious people I know," Kevin Van Valkenburg said. He appeared in one of the Baltimore episodes, and survived the onslaught of Wire references to play the best round of his life, shooting a 73. "They help remind us that the best golf is really about community, about the conversations you have after the round over beers when you're trying to talk yourself into believing the four double bogeys you made weren't that bad.”

The seduction of Van Valkenburg was particularly effective; he worked at ESPN when we spoke, and now he works for No Laying Up.

"A question we get asked out here all the time is, 'Who's your dream foursome?' My dream foursome, as much as I love them, is not Tiger. It's not Justin Thomas, Collin Morikawa, it's not the biggest golfers. It's three of my buddies from home." —Max Homa

Is it possible to not like "Strapped"? Yes. A friend of mine, curious about the hype, watched a couple episodes and came away unimpressed. For the purpose of at least feigning some objectivity, I asked him to elaborate.

“Is it a golf show? Is it a travel show? I’m still not sure,” he wrote. “It strikes me as an idea where friends got together and decided to film themselves traveling around without a cohesive thread other than ‘we like each other.’ It had entertaining parts, but they almost felt accidental.”

The view count on YouTube is certainly very good—most episodes have earned between 100,000 and 200,000 views—but it’s not spectacular in the way I expected, and it’s lower than other independent golf content they might consider competitors. The engagement in the comments, and on Twitter, seems beyond enthusiastic—on many videos, there’s a comment to the effect of “why doesn’t this have a million views?”—but it may be that there’s something about their approach that limits the audience. Without anything to sell, and with total freedom, they can pursue exactly the aesthetic they want, and while that aesthetic may resonate with people like me, it may also be so hyper-specific that the appeal narrows.

If, like my friend, you want a focused premise, it may come off confusing. For many others, it might just be the wrong vibe, the interplay between Randy and Neil less potent than it is for the diehards. To mangle the old adage about jazz, if you don’t “get it” pretty quickly, you may never get it, and you may not even want to get it.

Inevitably we return to adult male friendship. So much of this indie golf genre is centered around content creators selling viewers on belonging to their clique, and the appeals range from the corny to the thirsty to the toxic to the stupid, but their popularity across the board speaks to our fundamental need for companionship … and how we choose, parasocially, to fill that void. And if it’s true that digital golf audiences want to watch dudes hanging out together on the course, it may also be true that most people crave a more accessible, simpler version of that.

I might suggest that if we're looking for models to emulate in this regard, the "Strapped" crew are about as good as it gets—a close-to-ideal embodiment of what friendship might look like for men approaching middle age in the 21st century. There is kindness without sacrificing the cynical edge, vulnerability without a loss of masculinity, and a ubiquitous, fatalistic sense of humor to absorb life's blows.

The glib thing to say after watching the show is that you wish you had friends like Randy and Neil. The truth, which is harder to admit, is that you wish you were a friend like Randy and Neil.

Everyone has their favorite episode, and mine is the first installment of the Peoria trip. At the start, Neil plays Randy a snippet from a new meditation app he's been using. Unimpressed after listening to a few maudlin aphorisms about positive energy and visualization, Randy tries to let him down gently (egged on, off camera, by Piehowski) in a line that has no hope of reading as funny as it came off:

"I'd hate to see you go too far down that road, Neil. Some concerning things there."

Later, Neil compares Randy’s improving game (Randy is a solid golfer, but the worst of the No Laying Up crew) to the paintings of George W. Bush—an analogy that makes me laugh even now as I write it out.

"He's not an artist,” Neil says. “He couldn't sell it. But it's like, dude, he's picking it up!"

But the highlight comes when Neil is once more on the verge of breaking par. After the 12th hole, even for the round, he's heckled by the C-Suite and quickly makes bogey on 13. I caught myself expecting the Icarito music immediately, but what plays out next is like the build-up to a great goal in soccer. Instead of a quick shot, you get one more pass, then another, then another, heightening anticipation as the play unfolds, and finally, at the last moment, the intricate pattern ends with a goal.

Here, too, Piehowski makes you wait. You don't get the music after the bogey, and you don't get it after the wayward drive on 14. The camera lingers on Schuster, the tension rises, and he puts a hand up like a pro confronting a gaggle of media—"not now, guys, please"—as he marches up the fairway. The nerves build with each step, and when the ball isn't immediately visible, he asks Piehowski to check under a nearby bush.

The camera drops to the ground.

The ball appears.

A final beat, as heartbreak sets in.

Piehowski speaks.

"Oh, fuck."

At that moment, the music hits, and the ensuing montage is so stirring that it makes you want to laugh and cry at once. Neil takes the penalty. He muffs a chip. Cut to a shot of him earlier that day, staring out a window. Cut to black-and-white scenes of Icarito’s past failures. Cut to his next chip, which rolls across the green and into a bunker. Cut to more Icaritos. Cut, finally, to the putt for double bogey—another end to another dream.

Through it all, you feel terrible pity for Neil, but you're also laughing, and the effect as you flow with this odd current is that you like him, and you like them, and you especially like golf, more than ever before.