News & Opinion

Golfers favor safe shot with social media

Max Homa at 2020 PGA Championship
Max Homa, a leader among golfers in social media, has altered his approach to the medium.

Genesis winner Max Homa engages with a smile as Phil Mickelson, Paige Spiranac, et al., lure fans while staying mostly above the fray

Willie Nelson, country music’s 87-year-old poet laureate, wrote in the title cut to “Shotgun Willie,” “You can’t make a record if you ain’t got nothin’ to say.” Which is why social media screeches these days instead of sings. Once, it was the gentle domain of ordinary people in a big and busy world as a way to make a small, basic human connection with others, but the original mission was lost long ago.

Now, social media has transformed itself into a vehicle for self-promotion and selling stuff – and the two have become connected. It’s about likes and re-tweets and friends and followers. It’s not certain exactly when, but it had to be when someone in a board meeting suggested that social media could monetize, in fact, was forced to find a way to make a profit as to ensure its continued existence.

Now, social-media companies host an absurd amount of advertising, making them worth billions and losing their charm in the process. They have devolved into marketing tools. Facebook has a Twitter account (@Facebook). “Our mission is to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together,” it reads. And Twitter has a Facebook account (@TwitterInc). Might as well take advantage of every platform to promote yourself.

Professional golfers, for the most part, use social media sparingly, ostensibly to promote their “brand,” whatever that means. Tiger Woods has 6.4 million Twitter followers, and whoever is in charge of his account – it’s not Woods – posts very little other than to talk about the companies that he endorses. You’ll never see Tiger in a Twitter war with anyone.

Most other male and female tour players are in the same camp: Be as harmless as possible, and promote whatever company as directed by your agent.

But not all golfers have bland social-media accounts. Max Homa, the winner Sunday of the PGA Tour's Genesis Invitational, offers funny and sometimes brutal analysis of the swings of regular golfers. You’d better have a thick skin if you send Homa your video.

And we give you Phil Mickelson, the 50-year-old late adopter, who has taken to Instagram as if he invented it. His “Phireside With Phil” chats are wickedly smart, and Mickelson is absolutely fearless in the way he portrays himself. Case in point, his recent “Risky Business” send-up where he dances in a shirt and boxers to “Old Time Rock and Roll” to promote the clothing company with whom he is associated. He now has 1 million followers on Instagram.

Now, we have what are called “influencers,” people who have a large social-media following that companies pay to promote their goods or services. Shane Bacon was hired as a new host of “Golf Today” on Golf Channel, and he has a substantial social-media presence. One might not have anything to do with the other, but it’s probably not a coincidence.

Then, there’s Paige Spiranac. You’ve probably heard of her. She has about 4 million combined followers on all platforms, and if you’ve seen her (admit it: you have), you undoubtedly know why.

She won a Cactus Tour event in 2016, and after she failed to qualify for the LPGA Tour, she retired from professional golf in December of that year at age 23. She is not a trained commentator on any subject but feels free to criticize the performance of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Ben Rothlisberger and appears to be the lone apologist for Woods’ many extramarital affairs after the recent HBO special aired. Whatever she says on social media about celebrities and athletes winds up in the pages of the New York Post, for whatever reason.

She recently was hired by PointsBet, an online sports book, that was featured for four days during the Waste Management Phoenix Open in a partnership with NBC and the PGA Tour. Spiranac’s duties are “sports commentary, bettor education, and hosting events,” according to a press release. For instance, if you follow Spiranac and PointsBet on Instagram, you are eligible to win a round of golf with her at TPC Scottsdale. Enough said.

It’s not whether you have influence; it’s how you achieved it. The way it should work is that you have a lot of followers because you have something to say, not that you say whatever’s on your mind – whether or not it has any substance or legitimate humor – because you have a lot of followers.

Because people were told not to believe those of us who work in what the Barstool Sports guys call “old man golf media,” many people turned to social media for information, and you can find whatever you’re seeking. Whether it’s reliable and truthful is another issue entirely.

But when enough electricity was produced, Frankenstein’s monster came to life. The fallout is that millions of people have been given permission to call fellow citizens demeaning names, some of them vile and vulgar, all wrapped in the cloak of free speech. And it’s highly contagious.

Just last week, Rudy Giulani, lawyer-turned-provocateur, told an unseemly story on a podcast about looking up Michelle Wie-West’s skort (it’s a combination of a skirt and shorts) when they were paired together in a pro-am outing.

Her response on social media raised a firestorm, and countless people and organizations came to her defense.

Which brings us to Eddie Pepperell, a young Englishman who plays the European Tour. He has a decidedly dry, witty and sometimes sharp sense of humor that made him a must-follow on Twitter (@PepperellEddie). But along with the recognition came the haters, and he recently shut off his comments on Twitter so he doesn’t see who responds to his tweets or what they say to him, which seems a little cowardly. If you’re going to throw it, you ought to be willing to catch it. (I offer my e-mail inbox as evidence.)

In many ways and in countless corners of it, social media has become a cesspool. It’s a fight club in the war of words. Whether it burns itself down depends, in large part, on our behavior toward one another in the platforms. Can we be kind and decent, or at least civil? Professional golfers, by and large, continue to be smart enough to keep from being consumed by the approaching flames.

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