Best that I can tell, the online community lovingly referred to as #GolfTwitter has devolved into something indistinguishable from the rest of social media. What was once a thriving, welcoming collection of people that enjoyed discussing and sharing their golf thoughts and experiences has broken down. It’s been replaced by the same tribal, snarky cesspool of smug condescension and ad hominem attacks that constitutes the general bulk of Twitter and Facebook writ large.
And it makes me sad, because it doesn’t have to be this way, but it seems this result was inevitable.
This isn’t new. I actually started writing this column nearly a year ago. During the recent October 6, 2019 episode of The Good-Good Golf Podcast, the hosts recounted the vile onslaughts of Twitter-mob justice suffered by Derek Duncan (@feedtheball) resulting from his interview with Rob Collins of King-Collins Golf Course Design. Derek’s crime? He dared express less than complete fidelity and infatuation with Sweetens Cove Golf Club, a sin unforgivable by some at the time of a golf critic or enthusiast worthy of being listened to at all.
My thought at the time was a realization that people will not tolerate any criticism of anything or anyone they hold dear or believe in, allowing passion to overcome courtesy and respect. Never mind the growing legion of trolls that wade into the social market shallow end for the express purpose of riling people up and causing trouble for sport.
In the intervening 10 months since I scribbled an outline of this rant, the atmosphere within #GolfTwitter has only gotten worse, moving in lockstep with the wider breakdown in civility that transcends online hubs.
Dear God, just look at our politics, the way we treat each other. The malice that used to drip from behind anonymous keypads has transitioned to real life and the way we interact with fellow humans in the middle of an honest-to-goodness medical crisis, just as the malignancy has oozed from rest of social media into #GolfTwitter.
Discussions of facts and questions of “why” or “what-if” get decried as invalid opinions. Criticisms that dare assign value judgments or editorialize erupt into ugly back-and-forth episodes that often result in mutual cancellation by opposing voices. Choosing favorites or becoming a fan of something or someone is no longer a private matter, but rather becomes an invitation for ridicule and charges of bias in any future discussion, as if rage-typing on different sides of an issue of the day makes any difference beyond the five seconds it took to put a thought together.
The metaphorical torches and pitchforks mobs are not limited to the throngs of golf course architecture enthusiasts within the online golf community who periodically come for the Derek Duncans of the world. The disdain for diversity of opinion extends to any subject in golf for which someone dare exercise a second thought or opinion. For example, a (slightly) less vile but similarly comical reaction lies around the corner from every opinion on the need, or lack thereof, to roll back modern and future golf equipment, in order to keep older golf courses relevant in the face of new generations of golfers that continue to hit the ball further and higher.
The common thread across #GolfTwitter has become to critique the critic at the earliest opportunity any time there is any controversy in professional golf, golf equipment, or golf architecture. It’s ugly, and it’s here to stay.
As I mentioned above, this isn’t new. So why cry over spilled milk now?
This week, one of my oldest Twitter friends, one of the first people to expose me to the larger online and real-life golf communities beyond my then-meager experiences, one of the first people to open my eyes and ears to the world of golf course architecture, one of the first #GolfTwitter friends and kindred spirits that converted into a real-life acquaintance and would-be life-long buddy, hit the “Unfollow” button on my account on Twitter after 18 months of silence, presumably foreclosing any intention to reconcile the conversation we never finished 18 months earlier.
I write all of this because this week a personal circuit of this kind of unpleasantness finally closed for me. A regrettable chapter of my #GolfTwitter experience has ended, the final denouement stirring up all the old feelings and moments that led to this resolution. It brings up the inescapable regret that accompanies the whole affair, too.
I’m not immune from the fury and fervor of screaming into the abyss 280 characters at a time, just to show everyone how smart or how right or how clever I am. I relish that endorphin rush of being “right” as much as anyone that has a trace of petty or vengeance or smugness coursing through their veins.
In this particular instance, think back to the LPGA backstopping controversy in 2019. Instead of following my instincts and avoiding the whole kerfuffle, I chose to dive in, not so much to give my opinion on the matter, but, as I am often want to do, unfortunately, to correct someone else’s assessment or opinion. Yep, I chose to be the, “Well, actually…” guy, and I did it with a fervor and sharpness that was only ever going to lead to one place for my friend, whose only offense was to come down on the other side of that debate.
Once engaged in the discussion, I quickly realized that it wasn’t going to resolve anything. I was, in fact, just screaming into the abyss. I tried to walk away. Literally. I turned the phone off and to the driving range to rage-hit a bucket of balls in hope of clearing my head. It didn’t work.
As I walked to the car afterwards, I checked my phone. I read a text message from my friend with thoughts not on the merits of the backstopping controversy, but on my style of arguing or willingness to continue engaging in the discussion, none of it complimentary. It was a personal attack, though in hindsight, perhaps more playful than I initially gave it credit.
My head exploded with anger. I responded in the way I had in all of my 40 years, following my instincts to lash out, this time with such vitriol and forceful words that I’ve never heard from that person again. That was it. For the price of my hurt feelings and need to be right, I had bought this friend out of my life for good.
Despite a well-spring of justified indignity fueling a renewed rage in me, I instantly regretted the outcome. I cooled off and sent an apology via text about half an hour later, but the damage was already done. There was no reply, no reconciliation, not even a scolding. Just silence.
The entire affair is a reminder of how little the merits matter in most of my social media interactions. Civility, or lack thereof, and tone will survive whatever silly point I was trying to make. It’s unfortunate that it put a wedge between myself and a kindred golf spirit, but perhaps the lesson wouldn’t be as valuable and stay as front-of-mind for me if it were some anonymous parody account that I couldn’t be bothered to care about.
This column isn’t some cathartic airing-of-the-grievances vanity exercise. I’ve never spoken of this episode. I do so now not for pity or attention, but instead so that just maybe the lessons of this episode that I’ve learned the hard way might serve as a reminder of what you already know as a member of the online golf community. It’s me begging you to do as I say, not as I have done.
Don’t chase that shot of adrenaline to drag someone down just to make yourself feel better. Instead, think better of it. Be better. Decide to be kind.
If starting or jumping into Twitter or Facebook discussions happens to be your thing, here’s a pro tip for success if you value your friends and colleagues: eliminate the word “you” from your vocabulary. There’s no faster way to look like a jackass than to start attacking the person rather than the argument.
Let me put it another way. A Major League Baseball umpire lived in my hometown as a teenager. He was friendly with all of us kids, even letting my friends and I fish the lake from his back deck. We asked him once what the magic words were that would get a player or manager ejected, assuming he’d list every tongue-contorting swear or filthy phrase that Earl Weaver or Billy Martin had ever spouted at him. Instead, he said that there was only one verboten word: you.
As a result of this sad, slow motion falling out, and a lot of others, I engage on social media less. I haven’t completely abandoned Golf Twitter banter in favor of a parachute social-media philosophy, but I’m close. Sometimes I have a pithy reply all typed out and ready to go, only to remember (hopefully) that publishing that particular thought probably isn’t worth it.
I wish #GolfTwitter hadn’t become just like everything else online, so polarized, self-sorted into silos of conformity within and division between. I wish I didn’t know what I know now. I’m certain there’s no going back, but I’m also certain that #GolfTwitter can be a slightly better place, a more welcoming community with less sarcasm and fewer shibboleths.
I hope you will help.