There are professional golfers who are very good at using Twitter, and there are professional golfers who are very bad. Ryan Palmer falls somewhere in the middle, but his recent interactions on the Accursed Website (as it should be known to all) prove that he is definitely not a master of the medium.
As Joel Beall wrote on Monday, Palmer took some mild heat for failing to play a provisional on the 18th hole at the Sony Open in Hawaii on Sunday, which resulted in a frustrating delay that might have iced Brendan Steele out of a win. Then again, it might not have—Steele waited 20 minutes to hit his tee shot, and another 15 for his approach, but so did Cameron Smith, who caught him on the final hole and won in a playoff.
All in all, it wasn’t that a big deal. The delay was bad, but Palmer believed he’d find his first ball, and on the ladder of golf sins this is a low rung. He caught flack from the inevitable scolds on social media, but it should have been filed away quickly as the latest example of an institutional problem that nobody has the wit or will to solve.
Instead, Palmer took to Twitter to defend himself, which is almost never a good idea. His first tweet wasn’t so bad:
The majority of the responses were supportive, but as anyone who has ever performed, played or written for a public audience can attest, it’s the negative feedback that sticks in the brain. Palmer couldn’t resist replying to one of the haters:
This was the start of his blunder—Mungo was not, in fact, the only negative reply (if he was, Palmer wouldn’t have sent the original tweet in the first place). But Palmer had caught a bad case of Twitter rabbit ears, so he got suckered in and revealed some thin skin. What he failed to understand is that the minute you show defensiveness or weakness on Twitter, you’ve descended into the snake pit and are at the mercy of the vermin. Sometimes, the vermin even have a point. This tweet spawned more negativity, at which point Palmer responded yet again:
That tweet was the worst, because it can be read as a sideways dig at a fellow player—Steele’s the one who choked, not me!—even though he didn’t intend it that way. More negativity followed, mixed in with support, and finally Palmer, 44 and a 17-year PGA Tour veteran, learned his lesson and powered down the Twitter machine.
All in all, this was a brief exchange that won’t really have much effect on Palmer’s life. Minor as it might be, however, it effectively demonstrates a universal truth: Athletes, including professional golfers, should never engage on Twitter.
The word “engage” is key here—Twitter can and should be used for self-promotion and #sponsored posts. By all means, tell us how your new SupremeGolf Blood Diamond Tee Holders have shaved eight strokes off your game. It can also be used for one-off messages from on high—I won’t tire of Phil Mickelson posting two-minute monologues from his car bragging about how, with the right technology, he could hit a golf ball onto the moon. This is all fine. But as a member of the rabble, here’s free advice for the pros: Don’t engage with us directly. It will never go well, for the simple fact that there are too many swine out here, and they have a kind of magnetic power.
There are notorious examples of bad Twitter by athletes, such as Kevin Durant running burner accounts to defend himself against legions of nobodies. Clearly, this only served to make him look insecure and pathetic. Golf hasn’t been quite as bad, but it’s almost never good. Not long after his controversial sand-raking episode in the Bahamas, whoever runs Patrick Reed’s account posted a picture of his son with a “happy birthday!” message. It might have been total coincidental timing, or it might have been some weird attempt to garner sympathy or scold the bad people of Twitter for being mean to a family man. Either way, the result was the same: complete savagery. To his or his team’s credit, he at least figured out not to engage further … until the next PR crisis at the Presidents Cup, when he did the same thing and the vultures circled again.
Others are much quicker learners. In 2014, I spoke with Jordan Spieth at the pro-am during the PGA Tour’s stop at Congressional Country Club. I asked him about his ability to filter out criticism and other unhelpful noise, and he brought up social media on his own. Keep in mind, he was still 20 years old at this point:
“I’ve had to change the way I look at social media. I can’t read any comments. I mean, people just say stuff with no backing to it, no experience whatever, and it’s just people just saying stuff to say stuff because they feel like they need to barge in on something. And typically I would get bothered by that. But I’ve learned … I’m learning to block it out and not think too much of it.”
If you look at his Twitter feed today, you see the results of that early realization—in all of 2019, he posted 25 tweets, which is about as many as I fire off in five minutes if I’m particularly angry at a Duke basketball game. He engaged in exactly zero conversations, and almost every post he made was promotional. In other words, Jordan Spieth has learned the valuable lesson.
Then there are cases such as John Peterson, a star college golfer who struggled as a tour pro and was an absolute disaster of a Twitter presence. As far back as 2014, he was getting lectured by PGA Tour officials for his Twitter use, and was finally convinced by his agents to quit … only to succumb to the temptation and re-join. Five years later, Peterson was still fighting and generating controversy on Twitter, even after his early retirement from golf, and you have to wonder if his inability to resist the siren song of the world’s best worst website contributed, at least in part, to his struggles as a pro.
Hell, even when an idea for engagement seems fun, good-spirited and participatory, it often manages to backfire on somebody. Ask Max Homa, who recently offered to roast the swing of anyone brave enough to post a video. It was a fun, goofy stunt, before it escalated into a big fight. Not that Homa particularly cared, but the point is that there are no victimless engagements.
I needed an expert opinion to back me up, so I called up David Winkle, president of Hambric Sports and agent to Dustin Johnson. Winkle knows the benefits of a well-managed Twitter feed but has seen first-hand how it can be a double-edged sword.
“It’s a wonderful way for athletes to engage and present a more personal side of themselves,” Winkle said, “but you can say 999 very positive things, and if you have one slip of the tongue, all that good is undone.”
Unsurprisingly, he advocates for carefully managing a social-media feed and gives all his clients the same piece of advice: Don’t read the comments. Which is another way of saying, “Don’t engage.”
“If Mother Teresa had an Instagram,” Winkle said, “even she would be abused by a sick few. No one is immune to creepy social-media trolls who just can’t wait to pounce, and have their own issues and axes to grind. There’s so much toxicity out there, based in jealousy or wrongful perception, and they can’t wait to tear you down.”
My thoughts exactly. As a journalist, it’s far more interesting for me when Twitter drama is a regular part of the professional golf experience, but if I were in Winkle’s position, I’d be singing the same tune. He wouldn’t use these exact words, but Twitter at its worst is a loathsome cesspool, and when you play with the pigs, you’re going to get muddy.