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Beyond the Twitterverse

Rory McIlroy
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Those who can, do. Those who can’t … cover those who can?

Maybe it’s because golf is a sport that everyone can play, but I’ve never understood the opinion that those in the media who haven’t competed at the highest professional level are somehow unqualified or incapable of critically analyzing current professionals.

There are men and women who cover Major League Baseball without having stepped inside the batter’s box or the National Football League without having battled in the trenches. Competing at such levels undoubtedly gives some experts a certain type of knowledge that enables them to provide analysis, but it’s hardly mandatory.

In fact, if only those who could compete on the same level were capable of critiquing the world’s best, there may be no such thing as instructors – many of whom weren’t elite players, but often understand the mechanics of the golf swing better than those who do it for a living.

This topic arose on Thursday when European Tour commentator Jay Townsend criticized the strategy of Rory McIlroy during the opening round of the Irish Open, where the U.S. Open champion posted a 1-under 70.

Townsend made his opinion known on the television broadcast, then later tweeted his thoughts on the 22-year-old’s play thusly:

“McIlroy’s course management was shocking … Some of the worst course management I have ever seen beyond under 10’s boys’ golf competition.”

The opinion wouldn’t have been construed as anything other than an analyst, well, analyzing – which is exactly what Townsend’s job description entails.

That is, until McIlroy felt the need to combat those comments with a tweet of his own in response:

“Shut up…You’re a commentator and a failed golfer, your opinion means nothing!”

Townsend also tweeted that McIlroy “should hire Stevie Williams, as I thought [caddie] JP [Fitzgerald] allowed some SHOCKING course management today.” To which the player replied, “Well, I stand by my caddie.”

It should come as no surprise that a golfer – or any professional athlete – would take exception to criticism leveled against him in a public forum. While most competitors will contend that they don’t read the news or listen to announcers, it’s difficult not to pay attention when your name is being called out – especially in a negative light.

The real story here isn’t that Townsend criticized McIlroy or that McIlroy took exception to such criticism. It’s that the player resorted to bringing up the commentator’s past career as the reason he isn’t qualified to own such an opinion.

There are two major problems with this theory.

First off, it’s plain wrong. While Townsend may not have claimed a major championship like McIlroy, he did compete at the game’s highest level. There are several tiers of what may be considered “success” in this game, but to denounce him as a failure is blatantly imprecise and factually incorrect.

Secondly – and more importantly – it doesn’t matter. Everybody is entitled to an opinion and as long as a commentator can put together thoughtful, cogent analysis, his ability to play the game should remain a non-factor.

Of course, this issue transcends whether someone can critique another person who is more talented. The root of what turned this into a headline-inducing story is the new frontier of journalism meeting social media.

That’s right. This is less a player-commentator problem and more a Twitter problem.

While Townsend – who has tweeted 6,015 times and has 4,266 followers at the time of this writing – sent the first part of the aforementioned tweet to everyone, the second part was in response to another person on Twitter. For the uninitiated, that’s like a private conversation through a bullhorn – a one-on-one discussion that the entire world can read.

For his part, McIlroy – who has posted 1,737 tweets and has 546,323 followers – was also only replying to Townsend, however in a forum visible to anyone who either follows both men or clicks on his timeline to view everything he has added to Twitter.

The point is, if both Townsend and McIlroy really wanted to keep this disagreement between themselves, they easily could have done so through direct messages or – laptops and phones be damned – a face-to-face confrontation. Instead, the analyst analyzed and the player analyzed the analyst, sending us into a meta-spiral that created a frenzy on an otherwise busy Thursday in golf.

Really, though, Rory’s outburst has less to do with him as a person or a player and more to do with him as a tweeter. Expect this to be a lesson learned. He likely won’t discontinue tweeting like buddy Lee Westwood did for a while, but he may edit down his posts to a more milquetoast persuasion in the future.

Being able to not only read unfiltered opinions from players and analysts, but interacting with them is a large part of what makes Twitter such a useful tool for most sports fans, as well as those who work in the industry. When handled improperly, though, it can become a dangerous device, as certain newsmakers can cause headlines with a few simple keystrokes.

The key for players and analysts is controlling the message through this medium, but controlling emotions is a major component of it, too.

Golf’s latest squabble featured an outspoken analyst who is entitled to his opinion and an uber-talented young player who went over the line in addressing his. It’s not the first time new-age media has created such turmoil and it surely won’t be the last.