Social media to social anxiety, this is Grayson Murray

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A QUICK GOOGLE SEARCH confirms that no PGA Tour rookie has generated more headlines this season than Grayson Murray, and maybe soon they’ll even be about his play.

With apologies to Steve Elkington, Murray has become golf’s most irreverent tweeter, tapping out controversial 140-character riffs on his peers, a Playboy model, the world-ranking system, the physical appearance of a high school student, a mid-round split with his caddie, internet trolls, police shootings … the hits keep coming.

In a sport celebrated for its decorum, Murray, 23, has emerged as a polarizing antihero: He is either crude or complex, selfish or generous, ill-informed or misunderstood. Sure, those closest to him wish he’d just put down the damn phone. But the fact that a newbie with one career top-10 has gained more than 12,000 followers and some level of social-media fame (infamy?) suggests there’s an audience for his incendiary commentary on a Tour that often takes itself too seriously.

“He’s a rookie, and I know how that goes,” says Tour pro John Peterson, who has had his own share of Twitter run-ins. “Four years ago, I had no clue what I was doing out here. The more people I pissed off, the funnier I thought it was. I think Grayson is almost right there. He needs to tone it down a little bit, but he’s doing great in the sense that people know who he is and know his beliefs.”

Maybe so, but Murray’s various blunders epitomize his complicated journey to the big leagues. Each step has been marked by conflict.

There was conflict as the phenom bounced around three colleges in four semesters. There was conflict as he grappled with anxiety and depression. And there is conflict now as he fights to keep his card, as he navigates the potential landmines of social media and the competing desires to be connected and honest while also staying true to himself.

The proper balance still eludes him – for now.

“As a parent, I’m wishing and telling him my thoughts, but you have to live your own life and your own experiences,” says Grayson’s father, Eric. “With my older two kids, it was like a light came on when they hit 25 and they became an adult. That’s what I’m waiting for with Grayson.”

***

“NO ONE WILL OUT WORK ME. I WILL BECOME THE GREATEST EVER.” – Murray, on Twitter, Aug. 26, 2011

***

GRAYSON STUMBLED UPON golf accidentally. When he was 7, he tagged along with his dad and older brother, Cameron, at the Triangle Golf Complex, just down the road from their home in Raleigh, N.C. Using his mother’s clubs, Grayson took a few swings and struck high, crisp iron shots. The rest of his family looked on in disbelief.

“Where’d you learn to do that?” Eric asked.

Grayson shrugged. “I saw it on TV once,” he said.

Within a year, Grayson was winning local tournaments and begging his parents to let him quit soccer and baseball. At age 10, he met Arnold Palmer, who had attended a banquet in the nearby town of Wake Forest. After returning to the car, Grayson tapped his dad on the shoulder and asked, “Would Wake Forest be a good school to go to? Because that’s what I think I want to do. I want to go to Wake and be a golfer.”



The pieces were already in place, as he had begun working with Ted Kiegiel, the longtime director of golf at Carolina Country Club and the man responsible for helping mold Webb Simpson into a major champion. “I’ve coached hundreds of elite-level players,” Kiegiel says, “and I truly never thought I’d see another talent like Webb. But I knew right away that Grayson was going to be that special talent again.”

Others saw similar promise. Wake Forest coach Jerry Haas was speaking to a hundred parents and juniors about how the recruiting process works when a 12-year-old in the back raised his hand.

“How do you get the Arnold Palmer Scholarship?” Grayson asked.

Haas was stunned. Well, you’ve gotta be a good player, he explained. A good student. A good person.

Later, Haas asked someone about the young questioner.

“He said, ‘That’s Grayson Murray,’” Haas recalls. “‘That’s the kid who’s so good.’”

Everyone who followed junior golf soon learned about Murray. Not only did he grow into the perfect golf build, at 6-foot-1 with long arms and a powerful base, but he also possessed remarkable hand-eye coordination at an early age; at 13, his sidespin rate compared favorably to Tour players when tested at the Callaway Performance Center. Murray smoked his competition, joining Tiger Woods as a three-time Junior World champion (2006-08) and at one point rising to No. 2 in the high school class of 2012.

“He was a guy that you didn’t want to play against growing up,” says Alberto Sanchez, a former teammate who has known Murray since they were 8. “He was going to dominate. He had that attitude, a lot of confidence. He had an intimidating, very aggressive look to him and how he would play the game.”

And yet, as ruthless as Murray appeared on the course, he also displayed a compassionate side. There was the time he made his friend’s mom turn the car around so he could hand a homeless man his last $5. And when he carried his buddy’s broken golf bag for the final five holes of an event because the kid was too despondent over a tongue-lashing he’d received from a parent. And when, years later, he wrote a four-figure check to a family with mounting bills at a Nashville children’s hospital.

By the time Haas finally watched Murray play, in 2010, as a high school sophomore, he saw the total package. “I was like, Oh my, he looked like a Tour pro at that age,” Haas says. “Selfishly, I like kids who look like they have a chance to go to the next level, and it’s just a bonus if they play well in college. Grayson had that look about him.”

The same weekend that an apple-cheeked Texan named Jordan Spieth dazzled crowds at the Nelson, Murray, also 16, became the second-youngest player to make the cut at a Web.com Tour event, at his hometown Rex Hospital Open in Raleigh. Later that year, Golf Magazine ran a photo spread of both Spieth and Murray. The buzz was building, and they were seemingly on the same path for success – the publication declared theirs the “swings of the future.”



There was little mystery about Murray’s college intentions. Eight years after he met the King, and six years after he asked Haas, Murray received the Arnold Palmer Scholarship and a full ride to Wake Forest, his dream school.

His career there lasted all of three events.

***

“I feel like this might be the best year of my life on the course and in the class. #workhard” – Murray, on Twitter, Aug. 29, 2012

***

IT WAS APPARENT ALMOST immediately that Murray’s time at Wake Forest would be short.  

Academically, socially, “I didn’t fit in there,” he says. “It was a little preppy. It wasn’t what I grew up with.”

That realization crushed him. Before his first tournament, he met with his parents and Haas in a hotel room and said that he was so uncomfortable at school that he wanted to leave. Instead of the Freshman 15, he lost 25 pounds because of stress and was briefly hospitalized. The scholarship he’d always dreamed about became a burden.

“He always felt that there was a price to pay for that,” Eric says, “and that price was that you needed to carry your team as a freshman. It got to him.”

Murray tied for eighth in one of the events but his short-lived Wake career came to an end after the U.S. Collegiate Championship. Following a second-round 82, he exploded in front of his parents, barking, “This was your dream and not my dream!”

After a few days, he changed his mind about quitting the team, only to reverse his decision a month later. Eric Murray described that time as “the hardest thing ever” for Grayson. “He literally cried like a baby,” he says. “He felt like a failure.”

As Haas says now, “I fully expected it to be a long-term deal. I thought he needed it. I thought he needed to become a leader and a teammate you could count on. I thought his social skills could use a little work. I get the fact they’re competing against each other, and on the course you should want to beat each other’s ass. But off the course you have to have a little respect for each other.”

Though he finished out the semester academically, Murray had a heart-to-heart with Haas before they parted ways. Says Haas: “I told him: ‘Young man, I’m worried about your health. I’m not worried about your golf – that’ll always be there. But I’m worried about you as a person.’”

Murray wasn’t granted a full release, limiting his options for the spring semester. He transferred to East Carolina, which should have been a perfect fit: It was an hour and a half from home, he was more comfortable academically, and a family friend, Jacob Hicks, was already on the golf team. But Murray’s stint at ECU was even shorter – only eight weeks, after a series of disagreements with coach Press McPhaul. The coach tried to create behavioral expectations and an atmosphere of accountability, but after one tense meeting, Murray left the team and moved out of the dorms. He finished the semester driving 70 miles each way to class. 

“I wanted to do my own thing,” Murray says. “I was stubborn in a sense. I thought my own thing was good enough to get me there. So why try and change me and tell me what to do? If you’re not motivated, you’re not going to be a pro anyway, right?”

That summer Murray committed to play at a third school, UNC-Greensboro, but later backtracked and took off the entire fall semester. Facing a one-year benching under the NCAA transfer rules, he contemplated turning pro. “I was trying to deter him,” Kiegiel says. “Selfishly, I wanted him to have a few more years of maturing and growing as a player and also as a young man. There were some life skills that he was growing into and managing, and it needed some more time to develop.”

What Murray wanted most was a fresh start. So in 2014 he moved across the country and signed with Arizona State, where he joined a star-laden team headlined by Jon Rahm. In retrospect, Eric Murray concedes that decision was a mistake.

“If I had to do it all over again, I hate to say it, but for someone who had the talent that Grayson had in the beginning, maybe we were the ones who held him back by talking him into staying in school so long,” he says. “He could have done a one-and-done sort of thing and been better off that way, getting out there and competing.”

***

“I feel like Im the only student at ASU that doesn’t have a bicycle. I’ll start taking donations from anyone for the Grayson Murray bike fund” – Murray, on Twitter, Aug. 26, 2014

***

AS MURRAY LEFT AN early-morning workout that fall, his jacket got caught in the front wheel of his new bike and he flew over the handlebars, smacking his head. He was admitted to a local hospital for evaluation, but Eric could tell something was still amiss a few months later, when his son came home for Christmas break. He was moody and couldn’t focus. His head throbbed and vision was blurred. He slept all day and had no motivation.



Grayson didn’t want to return to school, but that spring he was finally eligible to compete after sitting out nearly a year and a half. He played only one tournament, finishing 32nd, and the phone conversations home grew even more alarming. Eric flew to Tempe and stayed for six weeks, searching for answers.

There was already cause for concern, with Grayson experiencing minor issues with anxiety in the past. The turning point came at the 2014 Southern Amateur, when he walked off the course despite sitting only a few shots off the lead. His arms had locked up and he couldn’t pull back the club, so he bailed, unable to control his anxiety. Players and parents gossiped about the latest sign of distress from the former junior prodigy.

That night, Murray tweeted: “When you reach a low point in your life, you find out quickly who truly cares about you. Keep that circle very tight and don’t let go…” A few days later, he added: “You guys have no clue what’s going on in my life so stop judging me….”

Only recently had Murray gotten clarity himself. After the tournament, he was diagnosed with social anxiety, which, according to the institute that studies the disorder, “is the fear of being judged and evaluated negatively by other people, leading to feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, embarrassment, humiliation and depression.” Those troubling years now had context.

“He was not only playing the top golfers in the world, but he was also battling himself, and that was the toughest battle of all,” Eric says. “He was already in trouble – the concussion just pushed him over the edge. The combination was overwhelming.”

And so, with his son’s depression deepening, Eric called an anxiety specialist in Raleigh and told him about Grayson’s dire state, about the dark thoughts and the concussion the previous fall.

“Oh my God, that’s the issue,” the doctor told him. “He needs to come back here now.”

Grayson spent 10 days at the University of North Carolina’s Sport-Related Traumatic Brain Injury Research Center, where he was put through a battery of tests. Doctors told the family that after the concussion, Grayson had been using only 20 percent of his brain on the right side, and that he had just 20 percent of his eyesight in one eye. “Bad shape,” Eric says. Grayson was prescribed mild anxiety medication and anti-depressants, which he still takes today, and he must stay mindful of his breathing, diet and workouts.

“It’s such an easy thing to hide from at that age because you don’t want to be judged,” he says. “But now I can use my past experiences to help others. I’m not ashamed of it. It’s just what I had to go through to get where I’m at.

“I hated every second being in that hospital, but it saved my life.”

***

“Lots of positives to take away from my first pro event. Looking forward to getting out there and doing it again soon.” – Murray, on Twitter, May 31, 2015

***

MURRAY NEVER RETURNED TO school. Crashing at his parents’ house while on the mend, he turned pro that spring, caddied at Old Chatham for a little cash and played the mini-tour circuit.

His energy levels remained low, but he didn’t need to look far for motivation. When he was 10, his mom, Terry, was crushed by an SUV after a freak accident in the parking lot of a Bed Bath & Beyond. She nearly lost her life and endured a 30-day hospital stay, about a dozen surgeries on her legs and a lengthy recovery in which she could only lie on her back for months. “That taught him early on that you just have to fight,” Eric says.

Though he couldn’t beat balls for hours like he used to, or fine-tune his game after rounds, Grayson found that his form returned quicker than anticipated – even with his vision impaired for the next year. “There were times when I kept thinking, How is he putting?” Eric says. “He would lose his focus to the point where he couldn’t see enough of the line on the green. He was sort of winging it, I guess.”

Eric, who worked in the auto parts industry, loaned Grayson the entry fees for the first two tournaments – about $2,600 total – and he never looked back. No longer multitasking, Grayson played in anything and everything, sometimes driving 200 miles for a 20-man event. “As soon as he cleared his mind and golf was his only responsibility, the sky was the limit,” says Sanchez, his former ASU teammate. “He’s super talented and always has been.”



Murray headed into the fall brimming with confidence, and he placed 74th in the final stage of Web.com Tour Q-School, which gave him conditional status but not a concrete plan for 2016. Another home game in Raleigh helped put his career on track, as he parlayed a top-10 off a sponsor exemption into another good finish a week later. He racked up five more top-10s before winning last September at the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Championship – a well-timed breakthrough, for it guaranteed him fully exempt status on the PGA Tour for this season.

“I’m telling you,” Eric says, “Grayson is my hero because I have seen first-hand how hard it’s been. Most people would have given up. Said it was too hard. Gone and gotten a real job. But here’s a kid who had a problem, everyone is telling him there’s no issue, and yet he just kept digging his heels in and finding a way to do what he always wanted to do in life.”

Except the light still didn’t turn on.

***

“First tweet. #Confusing” – Murray, on Twitter, July 5, 2011

***

AND SO BEGAN GRAYSON MURRAY’S love-hate relationship with Twitter.

Over the next few years, he tried to find his voice, frequently updating his handful of followers with mundane details of his practice routine and his travel schedule and his girl problems. Sure, there was the occasional inflammatory tweet, but nothing outrageous for a college-aged kid. It wasn’t until he earned his PGA Tour card last fall that anybody began to notice.

Murray first stood out because of his dental work. One of his front teeth got knocked out when he was 12, causing nerve damage, and last May he bit into a piece of Bojangles’ chicken that jarred the tooth loose. Annoyed, he simply yanked it out. With no time to get fitted for an implant, he went toothless for months, and a few of his hillbilly photos – including from the formal Web.com Tour graduation ceremony, where he also wore a T-shirt – began to circulate on social media.



For athletes, one of the main benefits of Twitter is also its biggest drawback: Yes, they’re more connected to their fans than ever before, able to reach them directly, without an agent intervening. But they’re also more exposed to the keyboard heroes, to the angry and the anonymous. It’s why many of the world’s top athletes use the site to promote their sponsors and little else.

For Murray, it was a perfect storm. He had tweeted prolifically for years, with no consequence. He was adjusting to the rhythms of Tour life, with all of the downtime. And he’s combative by nature, unwilling to let any troll get in the last word, consequences be damned.

His first controversy of the year came in February, when he called out a fellow Tour pro (Bryson DeChambeau) for withdrawing from Riviera after receiving a sponsor exemption. That personal attack was one of the few tweets he regrets – he apologized to DeChambeau the following week – but fans initially revered Murray, the rare player who was willing to opine about the sanitized world of pro golf. The instant gratification was intoxicating. “I went from a nobody,” he says, “to a little bit of a somebody just through a few tweets.”

Emboldened, the next few months were a whirlwind. He lamented that so many of his peers were “boring” on social media. He asked Playboy model Lindsey Pelas if she would caddie for him in the Par 3 Contest if he qualified for the Masters. (Pelas agreed, but Murray didn’t earn a spot.) And he started a Twitter war with some European Tour players after suggesting that playing overseas would boost his world ranking faster. After those tweets nearly caused an international incident, Murray texted his agent, Kevin Canning, and told him to change his password so he couldn’t access his account. “But I cracked back in again,” he said with a mischievous smile.

Not for long, because in April, Murray sent a creepy tweet to a high school student that got picked up worldwide. (“Idk but I hate the fact you are in high school. You are pretty.”) He finally had enough of Twitter in May, deactivating his account following a heated, mid-round confrontation with his caddie and close family friend, Mike Hicks, at the Wells Fargo Championship. Hicks declined to be interviewed for this story.

“Twitter was fun and games when I first started,” Murray says, “but it became this thing where people are taking me too seriously. If I defend myself, then it looks like I’ve done something wrong. If I stay quiet, all they’re going to do is lie and make up their own stories. So it’s a tough situation for me.”



At The Players, Murray made a bet with his performance coach, Josh Gregory, that if he got through the Memorial without social media – a span of five weeks – then Gregory would have to take him out to dinner. Murray lasted four weeks and asked Gregory if he could send a tweet reminiscing about the Web.com event in Raleigh, the tournament that kick-started his run to the Tour. Gregory agreed. “Unfortunately, he didn’t just stick to that,” Gregory sighed. After ranting about police shootings – “Obey by the law and I promise you will live” – Murray protected his account, which means that only confirmed followers can view his tweets. He has tweeted only once in the past three weeks.

“With guys with anxiety, it’s easy to fall into an addictive pattern,” Gregory says. “It’s hard for him, because when somebody bad-mouths him or trolls him, he wants to lash out. But they want you to do that. That makes their day – they  got a PGA Tour player going back at them. They can go to their buddies and say, ‘Hey, I got in Grayson’s grill today.’”  

Indeed, whatever good comes from Murray’s social-media interactions – giving a family $10,000 for a down payment on a car, doling out tickets to a tournament, hosting Q&A sessions – often is lost amid an avalanche of unfiltered, unvarnished tweets. Inaccurate media reports, about his caddie breakup and then a fan altercation at the Memorial, only fueled his bad-boy image.

“A lot of guys have to be politically correct or a sponsor will drop you, and it’s a shame,” Murray says. “So they shy away from it. They toe the line.

“I am not one to care how much money I make if I’m not being myself. I don’t want to be a double person out here on Tour. I don’t want to be a person on social media and inside the ropes, and then another guy with my buddies. Who I am on social media is who I am with my buddies and who I am on the course.”

***

“How come when I mess up everyone hates me. #NotFair” – Murray, on Twitter, June 2, 2017

***

ERIC MURRAY CAN’T EVEN LOG IN to his Twitter and Facebook accounts, and yet somehow he always becomes aware of his son’s social-media exploits.

Someone will send him a screenshot. Or he’ll see a headline on a website. Heck, one day, he was listening to PGA Tour Radio in his car when the hosts started discussing the incident in Wilmington. “It’s very painful,” says Eric, 66, “and I wish he would get off the social-media thing. It may help with his anxiety issues, and it may be therapeutic for him in a roundabout way, because he can converse with other people. But with some of the things I’ve seen, I’d have more anxiety if people were talking about me the way that they were.”

And that was the biggest fallout from Murray’s Twitter travails: It affected his performance. Of that there seems to be little doubt.

“Early on, absolutely, 100 percent,” Gregory says. “He was almost setting himself up for failure. He was putting all this pressure on himself and putting himself in a position where you get people pulling against you and wanting to see you fail. You don’t need that when you’re 23 and a PGA Tour rookie. You want to keep it positive and only be in the limelight because of the way you’re playing.”

Gregory began working with Murray in March, after walking a nine-hole practice round with him at Bay Hill. They immediately hit it off, for a couple of reasons. “He’s my kind of guy,” says Gregory, who also coaches Patrick Reed. “I’ve always had success with guys who were a little on the edge, who were not afraid to speak their minds. Grayson needed coaching more than he needed instruction.”

But Gregory also could relate to Murray’s inner battle – he, too, takes anxiety medication (and has for the past 13 years). Consistency in a daily routine helped Gregory, and now he passes along that same message to his enigmatic pupil, who hadn't reported any recent episodes ... until last week's Greenbrier Classic, when he withdrew after two holes, shaky and anxious. Murray met with his doctor last week to sort out his medication, and the hope is that it was just bad timing, a minor setback, a product of burnout, nothing more.

He had been rolling. Under Gregory’s tutelage, Murray has eliminated the left side of the course with a release fade; added an array of short-game shots to his arsenal; and purchased a TrackMan to dial in his carry distances with his wedges, an attempt, like Dustin Johnson, to take advantage of his awesome power, as Murray ranks ninth on Tour in driving distance, at 307 yards a pop. Though he’s still looking for one big week to move off the FedExCup bubble  he is No. 117 in the standings, the reason he can't take a few weeks off to regroup  Murray had survived 10 consecutive cuts, prior to Greenbrier. That’s no small achievement considering he’s seeing many of these courses for the first time. After a tie for 18th in Memphis, he sent Gregory a heartfelt text message: Thank you for believing in me. I know we’re heading in the right direction. Great things are coming. We make a great team.

“I think he’s terribly misunderstood,” Gregory says. “Like a lot of young players that come out, they want to fit in so badly and they want to be funny and be cool and they realize, let’s just slow down and let our clubs do the talking. This isn’t about being the coolest – it’s about being a true pro.”

And so there’s optimism that it’s not too late for Murray to repair his image, or to manage his issues. That it's not too late for him to develop into the star he could be, or was supposed to be. That it’s not too late for him to become a well-adjusted adult – once the light flicks on at 25.

“I think I’ll always be concerned, because no parent wants to have a physical or mental obstacle put in their kids’ way,” Eric says. “I’m concerned because I know how hard it is for him. I would love to see Grayson play golf without these issues and see how good he could have been. Oh my gosh, just unbelievable. But this is what he was dealt with, and he’s dealing with it, and he’s always going to be dealing with it.

“At the end of 20 years, I think he’s going to look back and say that he’s had a good career. But only he’s in control of that.”