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Social media can reveal the true nature of players

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For the second time in five months Steve Elkington landed himself in the social media penalty box following an ill-advised tweet about a helicopter crash into a Scottish pub.

“Locals report no beer was spilt,” he joked last week.

An avalanche of criticism ensued and the Australian deleted the tweet and offered a less-than-convincing apology, “Our report was helicopter flopped on pub. No injuries. Obviously it’s very serious.”

In July, Elkington landed in Twitter timeout when he used a racist term for Pakistanis in a tweet.

Elkington’s social media record is what it says he is, an opinionated extrovert without a pause button. This is neither analysis nor apology for his continued missteps, as if we could fix in 800 words what it took 140 characters, or less, to break.

But it is a curious case study as more and more of the game’s top players join the outspoken masses.

At best, social media (specifically Twitter) is a sprawling platform that allows unfiltered interaction between player and fan. At worst, it’s a narcissistic pastime that leaves players one ill-advised “send” button away from an embarrassing media maelstrom.

Elk is hardly the only player to plow through a sensitive social media stop sign.

In October, Stacy Lewis blasted fans at the Reignwood LPGA Classic in a tweet and promptly retired her Twitter account. “For those whose (sic) where actually supportive on Twitter, sorry to say I will be signing off of here. I’m sorry to say what I believe.”

In Lewis’ case, it was the faceless masses who lashed out and prompted her electronic exodus. Similarly, Lee Westwood threatened to sign off for good in 2011 telling The Scotsman, “It's losing its meaning. It’s social media, not social slagging. It seems to have turned into that for some people.”

Even Ian Poulter – who from a pure branding point of view, may be the most savvy player in the social media game – ran afoul of some of his followers (which have climbed to nearly 1.6 million faithful) and initiated a self-imposed eight-day ban from Twitter earlier this year.

“Ninety-nine percent of you guys I will be back soon and you guys are great, thank you. To the 1 percent of you jealous low life scum, get a job and a life,” Poulter tweeted in April.

The roll call of players who have endured a social media misstep is a who’s who list of the game’s elite. Even Luke Donald, one of golf’s most well-spoken and thoughtful types, accidentally tweeted an unflattering take on Gil Hanse’s redesign of TPC Boston that was supposed to have been a direct message a few years ago.

The potential pitfalls have prompted the PGA Tour to offer incoming rookies some unsolicited advice on the do’s and don’ts of social media along with their Tour cards, and most management firms adhere to a less-is-more philosophy when it comes to sharing.

“No religion, no politics, no race and don’t do it while you’re drinking,” one longtime Tour manager tells his young players. “We take for granted all these guys are great golfers and they are smart, but they are all very young and can make mistakes. It’s more important to interact with fans than just having a bunch of people following you.”

It is telling that Phil Mickelson, whose interaction with fans at Tour events is the benchmark for player involvement, doesn’t have a Twitter account, and rookie phenom Jordan Spieth’s account is a textbook example of how to engage with fans while toeing the line with the mainstream high ground. The same could be said for PGA champion Jason Dufner.

College football, testimonials for his various sponsors and the occasional observation (“Learned my lesson not to travel to the northeast the day before Thanksgiving when it’s storming everywhere. Stuck in (Philadelphia) airport all day,” Speith recently tweeted) highlight both accounts.

But that dovetails with Spieth and Dufner’s personalities. Just as Paul Azinger’s Twitter account is a reflection of his outspoken and often polarizing persona.

The former Ryder Cup captain has criticized presidents and pedestrians with equal abandon on social media and once referred to some on Twitter as “a bunch of clowns.” He regularly lashes out at those who disagree with him in the type of electronic give-and-take that most experts say should be avoided at all cost.

And yet Captain Contentious still has more than 107,000 followers on Twitter, more than twice as many as Spieth.

The voyeuristic nature of social media has become a pastime unto itself. Like NASCAR, if you watch long enough you know there’s going to be a pile up. It’s a reality fueled by players with an over inflated sense of self-importance and a faceless audience emboldened by anonymity.

The electronic void is all at once an unrivaled marketing tool to expand one’s brand and the lowest form of human interaction – clipped, confidential, contentious.

It’s also a telling glimpse into a player’s true self. Without the restraint of handlers and the built-in firewalls that have become the standard when interacting with the mainstream media, players can be themselves for better (Spieth and Dufner) or worse (Elkington).