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Are social-media feuds the future of professional golf?

May 27, 2021

The phrase “all publicity is good publicity” is not universally true. Let’s say we learned tomorrow that a professional golfer was caught on camera stealing food from an orphanage. There’s no silver lining there, no material benefit to the fact that this player’s name was being mentioned often on digital platforms. It would be comprehensively b-a-d bad. To give a real-world example, if you’re Scott Piercy and you post an offensive meme on Instagram, you lose your sponsors and 14 months later you’re snapping a putter over your knee. Some publicity is bad publicity.

That said, a statement doesn’t have to be true 100 percent of the time in order to be mostly right. Which brings us to Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau. Humor me while I tell you something you almost certainly already know: Leaked footage from an aborted Golf Channel video showed Koepka expressing clear annoyance at DeChambeau, which quickly spiraled into a Twitter feud that involved Phil Mickelson, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. In a sport where bad relationships and negative storylines are routinely squelched, and where even players who don’t like each other tend to circle the wagons publicly, this was a remarkably overt display of hostility. Clearly, Koepka’s disdain for DeChambeau had reached such a degree that he no longer cares about decorum.

Who fared worst? Opinions run the gamut, but what’s clear is that this generated a whole heap of attention. Koepka’s video had 10 million views on Twitter in a little more than a day before it was taken down. The subsequent drama has lit up social media and driven heaps of content across the golf web, including this piece. It made the home page of ESPN.com, no small feat for a golf story that doesn’t involve a major championship or Tiger Woods. Mickelson’s PGA Championship win at Kiawah is still the biggest story of the week … right? But even though I originally thought this would be one of those Twitter echo chamber stories, the Koepka-DeChambeau feud has obviously broken through to the mainstream and challenged one of the most historic victories in 150 years of major championship golf for media supremacy.

At the risk of sounding ancient, this is very much a sign of the times. And I fully admit to being as fascinated as everyone else, which makes me complicit in whatever is happening here. And it makes me wonder: Are we in for a lot more of this, in golf and beyond?

The mind begins to reel, because while this kind of attention would be classified as “negative”—it stems from antipathy and continues to be fueled after the initial act by digital insults—we also have to reckon with the idea that in terms of exposure and name recognition and the dreaded #brand, this has been an emphatic net positive for both players. You may personally think less of one or both of them, but I can guarantee you their agents are happy. These were already two of the most famous golfers in the world, but today, more people know their names than ever before. And even if you already knew them, you likely care more—your opinions are stronger, your sense of their personalities is more acute and your desire to see them face off in a tournament, against each other or anyone else, is heightened.

In the broadest, crassest sense, this means they can make more money.

Seriously, it’s that simple. It doesn’t take a genius to imagine all the ways this feud can be parlayed into additional opportunities, from commercials to exhibitions to media appearances, and you can bet their respective PR teams—who are geniuses, at least in a limited way—are just waiting to get to work. Drama and hullabaloo like this is also good for the sport, in that it creates interest. And that interest it generates trickles down to other entities, including other players. The PGA Tour usually doesn’t lean into controversy, so it will be interesting to see if there’s any kind of institutional pushback here. It might be wise, however, not to do anything.

I’m not a conspiracy-minded person, and believe me when I tell you I’m not endorsing what I say next, but indulge me in a hypothetical: Imagine these two players wanted to increase their already high profiles by crafting a storyline. If this whole feud had been planned all along, could they have executed it any better? Could they have more thoroughly seized the news cycle, or fed more brilliantly into the churning content machines of media and social media? Professional wrestling learned this lesson decades ago: If you want attention, drum up conflict.

None of this was on purpose, but that almost doesn’t matter, because you can bet that the rest of the golf world is taking notice. It’s an interesting coincidence that the PGA Tour is on the verge of rewarding 10 players millions of dollars for what amounts to audience engagement. The Player Impact Program is a smart move, incentivizing player outreach in a way that’s designed to—say it with me—Grow The Game, and it also functions as a nice way to head off the Super Golf League/Premier Golf League at the pass. But once you put a dollar sign on publicity, you can’t necessarily control how that publicity is achieved.

If you were a middling or even an exceptional golfer with your eyes on that PIP money, how would you go about getting it? You could try to be funny, like Max Homa, or release interesting YouTube videos, or chat with your fans on Twitter all day, or gain 50 pounds of muscle and win the U.S. Open. Or you could internalize the lesson that any Internet writer has known since his first day on the job, which is that negativity gets clicks. (I’ll never forget a conversation I had with the owner of one of those sites that compiles the “best/worst cities to live in” listicles, in which he told me that the “worst” lists do 10 times the traffic.) If you doubted that principle, you now have a test case in Koepka and DeChambeau. Conflict works.

But a feud can’t necessarily be fabricated from thin air. The roots of it need to be real, and from there, it’s a simple matter of exaggerating and publicizing. The disincentives are your own sense of propriety and dignity; the incentives—money—are much more tangible. Even without PIP, there’s always value in raising your profile, and as long as the media exists, there will always be someone to spread the word.

Are we truly on the verge of a clickbait era in professional golf, where players pursue feuds and other negative ploys to ratchet up their Q scores? I don’t know. What’s clear, though, is that in the Koepka-DeChambeau drama we’ve witnessed an accidental example of how effective it can be. Combine human nature with the “follow the money” truism and, to quote Bob Dylan, you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.