Maginnes on Tap: A sign of the times

Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy said the weather didn't suit his game at the British Open.


Former PGA Tour professional John Maginnes is an on-course commentator for XM Radio and is a contributor on Golf Channel. Known for his knowledge of the game as well as his candor and wit, he will be writing a weekly column on Golfweek.com that appears Mondays. Check out his Web site: Maginnesontap.com.

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It’s been going on in other sports for a while now, but golfers have always been a little bit more prudent and a little more private than other athletes. Last week Rory McIlroy shot back at commentator Jay Townsend on Twitter after Jay criticized McIlroy and his caddie, JP Fitzgerald, at the Irish Open.

After watching McIlroy play, Townsend sent the following tweet: “McIlroy’s course management was shocking. Some of the worst course management I have seen beyond the under-10 boys’ golf competition.”

This was more than a linebacker taking a shot at his coach or a point guard calling out his teammates. It was more because it always has been completely out of character for a professional golfer to break decorum. Somehow golfers seemed a little more dignified than that. Disputes and arguments have always been hashed out behind closed doors – not on the clubhouse steps. Those days are over.

McIlroy would fire back at Townsend on Twitter: “Shut up! You are a commentator and a failed golfer. Your opinion means nothing.”

For a host of reasons, the game is getting younger. Players today are reaching the top of the game long before their 25th birthday. This makes for an exciting brand of golf, unlike anything we have ever seen before. But the backlash is that kids will be kids. Couple that with so many of today’s players taking to Twitter and Facebook to get their message out and public relations disasters are inevitable. The Townsend-McIlroy situation may appear to be an isolated incident but it is more likely to be the wave of the future.

Many professional golfers have taken to Twitter as a way to get closer to their fans. Following the Irish Open, Rory took questions for 30 minutes from his fans. One fan asked Rory why he was so sensitive at the Irish Open. Rory said succinctly it was because he wasn’t playing well . . . although he used slightly different verbiage. That is the same Twitter account from which McIlroy very publicly told Townsend to “shut up.”

Before the Townsend/McIlroy situation had a chance to balloon into something more than a player fighting back at a commentator, Tiger Woods announced that he would be playing in the Bridgestone Invitational. Previous announcements from Tiger have been posted on his web site first before anyone else could break the story. However, in this particular case Tiger took to Twitter, which immediately sent tweeps and members of the media in a different direction – leaving Rory and Jay as yesterday’s news. But Rory couldn’t leave well enough alone. After the second round he declared to a sports writer from the United Kingdom that he had “no respect” for Townsend. The writer, of course, immediately posted the story and a link on Twitter.

Virtually every would-be superstar has had some growing pains where the media in concerned. That is why we get so little from the veteran players these days. Tiger Woods has always been a master of circling the media back to his golf when they try to pry into his life off the course. The biggest stories concerning Tiger over the last few years have been about anything but his golf, but Tiger has done little to feed those stories. Tiger will address the media at Bridgestone Tuesday morning and they will try to get some insight into what Tiger has been doing for the last three months, but Tiger won’t give any more than he wants. By contrast, Rory McIlroy will undoubtedly answer whatever questions come his way on seemingly any topic, and he won’t pull any punches.

The same player that handled the heartbreak at Augusta with poise and grace told the waiting media after the British Open that links golf in the wind and rain didn’t “suit his game.” Head-scratching for a kid from Northern Ireland who opted out of PGA Tour membership this year to stay home? Yes, but entertaining none-the-less. We can only hope that McIlroy doesn’t change his mindset or his approach, because he says what other players wouldn’t dare say. You can call out the others for their lack of candor if you like. But the truth is that every time a professional golfer stakes a claim that must be defended, he is inviting distractions. When McIlroy arrives in Akron, Ohio, for the Bridgestone or in Atlanta for the PGA Championship, a large portion of the questions in his media sessions are going to focus on something other than his golf game.

The result of this may be that McIlroy opts for 3-wood off the tee when it comes to the media rather than airing out the driver, but I doubt it. Part of the reason is that even just a few years ago players lived in fear of being taken “out of context.” With so many direct avenues to their fans through social media, players today have the ability to control both the text and the context, and that is both liberating for the player and game-changing for those of us who make a living talking and writing about them.

Players always have paid more attention to the media and what is written or said about them than they care to let us know. It is human nature to care what others are saying about you. Now the players have the ability to take back the informational power if they so choose. This isn’t to suggest that writers and commentators are going to be obsolete any time soon. But an atmosphere has been created where debate and discourse can become public fodder. It won’t always be pretty – but it should be a lot of fun to watch.

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