December 2, 2009

No. 11 -- Twitter

Soon, perhaps, they will only be characters in fiction, made obsolete by Twitter. Dan Jenkins, Golf Digest's own 79-year-old Ancient Twitterer, had one in several of his golf novels who lugged around the deliciously perfect name, Smoky Barwood. And then there was Sidney Falco, a slippery sort brought to life by Tony Curtis in the 1957 film noir classic "Sweet Smell of Success." Press agents, they were, PR men, flaks -- the link between a star or star-wannabe and the public. Now, more and more celebrities are taking their message directly to the masses through Twitter -- and professional golfers are no exceptions.

When Stewart Cink won the British Open, breaking the heart of not only Tom Watson but about every golf fan on the planet not related to Cink, he posted a photo of the spoils of victory -- the sliver claret jug -- on Twitter. When John Daly decided his injured ribs had recovered enough to allow him to play in the upcoming Australian Open and Australian PGA Championship, he broke the news on Twitter. And when Morgan Pressel wants to update her fans about her breast cancer charity work, or just say she is out practicing, she takes to Twitter.

Dozens of PGA Tour and LPGA players, in fact, are now on Twitter. The information ranges from the banal -- what someone had for lunch -- to the revealing -- Daly playing in Australia, for example. Sometimes posts provide insight that raise more questions than they answer, as in the case of this series of posts by Suzann Pettersen during the June 11-14 McDonald's LPGA Championship, from which she eventually withdrew:

so tired, feels like ive played 36 holes,must be the medicin.glad i have a late tee time tomorrow, need all the sleep and rest i can get!!

unfortunatly i had to withdraw from the tournament . my body has been pushed way over the top. you always want to give it a go

but sometimes there is only so much you can do. i need rest, bloodtests done and some recoverytime at home. i will make sure iam ready when

come back.I think this is the first time i have pulled out ,i feel bad,but i have to listen to my body. i should maybe never have teed it up

Several things were made clear by Pettersen's posts: Something was going on physically or emotionally that was affecting her play; and she wasn't entirely grasping that whole 140-character thing. In any case, she returned after those posts to finish in the top-10 in five of her next seven events, including a victory at the CN Canadian Women's Open -- and never really said what was going on when she withdrew from the McDonald's. Perhaps just venting was all she needed.

Yayyyyyyyy golf is in the olympics!!!!:) this is the best thing that can happen to golf!!!' -- Michelle Wie on Twitter

The main benefit players derive from Twitter is an immediate connection with their fans. This can also provide another platform on which to promote the various goods and services with which they have lucrative endorsement deals. That makes both the player and the sponsor happy, and it helps cement the bond between the player and the fan. The tweets help to humanize the celebrity.

This is how Michelle Wie, who traveled to Copenhagen as part of golf's presentation to the International Olympic Committee to get into the 2016 Summer Games, told the world her efforts were met with success:

Yayyyyyyyy golf is in the olympics!!!!:) this is the best thing that can happen to golf!!!

Here's a bit of atmosphere from life on the PGA Tour from Kevin Streelman at the Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospitals for Children Open, as he hints at the pre-dawn (or all-night) activity in the casino:

Walking through the Bellagio at 5 am for a 7.09 tee time is wildly entertaining! Expecting more great weather here in Vegas. Need more BIRDS

And here is PGA Championship winner Y.E. Yang reacting to this week's PGA Grand Slam of Golf:

Representing Asia for its first participation in the PGA Grand Slam...hope it won't be my last.!!!

There is definitely a beneficial contact created by tweets between the player and the fan. But Twitter also presents some trouble spots, all of which seem to have been avoided thus far by golfers. The first is fraudulent posts. How do you know someone is who they say they are? What if someone says they are Tiger Woods and they aren't?

St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa sued Twitter because someone had created an account purporting to be him on which offensive, though clearly satirical, material was posted. The case was settled out of court and the site was removed.

There are at least six Twitter sites that bear the name of Olympic gold-medal swimmer Michael Phelps. But Phelps told The Associated Press: "I've never Twittered in my life. Excuse me, I've never tweeted in my life."

The other danger for the athletes is losing their temper and lashing out without thinking through the ramifications. After a game in which hometown fans booed the team, Washington Redskins rookie Robert Henson tweeted that the critics are "dim wits" and asked how people who "work 9 to 5 at Mcdonalds" could know what's best for the team. Henson apologized and took down his Twitter account.

Twitter followers also have to take what they are getting with a grain of salt. For one, a tweet from an athlete can often be little more than a press release with bad grammar. Golfer A can tweet all he wants about how he shot 79 but "hit the ball great," yet who's to say if that was really the case?

And then there's the possibility that the author in question isn't even the one behind the tweets. The New York Times says that as the Twitter phenomena has grown, so has the presence of ghost-tweeters. According to the Times, the rapper 50 Cent posted a poetic tweet saying: "My ambition leads me through a tunnel that never ends."

That's a nice image, one for which Chris Romero should be proud. He's the director of 50 Cent's Web product and he typed in those words after a chat with the rapper. "He doesn't actually use Twitter," Romero told the Times about 50 Cent, "but the energy of it is all his."

That's probably a good way to view posts: As entertainment mixed with some information -- the energy of a person but not their essence. Many of the professional golfers on Twitter clearly enjoy having a direct and immediate vehicle of communication with their fans. And many fans enjoy the sensation -- some would say illusion -- of being able to dip a toe into the celebrity life.

For journalists, Twitter provides another weapon to wield in an increasingly competitive business. At this year's U.S. Women's Open -- where it was clear the job of then-LPGA commissioner Carolyn Bivens was in jeopardy -- I found out on Wednesday afternoon that she had canceled her scheduled Thursday arrival at the tournament.

I was able to post that information on Twitter, which provided a strong hint that Bivens was likely losing her fight to save her job. If she was not going to attend the premier event of women's golf it was likely she was going to be removed. The post was a simple statement of fact that allowed my followers to read between the lines and draw their own conclusions.

I only followed the Presidents Cup to see if we could whip captain Greg Norman worse than Chrissie did.' -- Dan Jenkins, a.k.a. "The Ancient Twitterer"

Twitter was also among the sources of some ill-afforded bad publicity for Bivens during her closing days as commissioner. In a lengthy interview with the Bloomberg news agency, Bivens said she would like to see players tweet during competitive rounds. The idea was universally hammered as violating the spirit of the game, if not the rules, not to mention its impact on pace of play. Bivens appeared out of touch with her sport.

Perhaps one of the most fascinating things about Twitter, and the example of how it can be best used, is the work of Jenkins, who started before electric typewriters and has already mastered the newest of media.

During the PGA Championship, in a reference to the Philadelphia Eagles signing Michael Vick after his release from prison for running a dog-fighting ring, Jenkins tweeted this about attempted Presidential assassin Squeaky Fromme:

I see 'Squeaky' Fromme was let out of prison Friday. Maybe the Eagles will sign her.

This Presidents Cup tweet tweaked the recent break-up of Greg Norman and Chris Evert:

I only followed the Presidents Cup to see if we could whip captain Greg Norman worse than Chrissie did.

And most recently Jenkins said this about 90-year-olfd Furman Bisher, when he wrote his final column for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

A farewell column by Furman Bisher, the Red Smith of the South. I don't think anybody in our lodge ever wrote better over a longer period

In an odd sort of way, golfers, the fans who follow them and the writers who try to understand them have found a common place to hang out -- Twitter. Its functions are diverse -- promotional, informational and humorous -- but its impact is unified: To make the world a smaller place, reducing it all the way down to 140 characters. And that's clearly a comfort zone millions are finding to be quite cozy. Clearly, it is a world of characters that is having a population explosion.