It all started innocently enough. I called my parents on my lunch break.
“Hey, I’m going to be coming over for the night after work. I’m planning on playing the Shattuck (Golf Club) in the morning.”
My folks are always thrilled to see me, and the golf course is just 7 minutes down the road from their house in the small, classically New England village of Jaffrey, New Hampshire.
I’ve played The Shattuck Golf Club a few times over the years, most recently in 2017. It’s not a course that suits my eye, or really any of my golf senses. Narrow fairways surrounded by dense woods, swampland and boulders makes for a frustrating round, even for a good golfer. Miss those fairways by even a little, and you’re likely taking a drop. The course’s conditions have not helped its cause either. The word "patchy" comes to mind when describing the fairways and greens. You get what I’m saying.
It would seem curious, if not utterly nonsensical, for me to choose a course I readily admit I do not like (or think highly of) to visit, and then write a story on it. I never intended for this round to be worthy of storytelling. Rather, I’m on a personal quest this year to have fun playing every round of golf no matter the course, conditions, weather or company. I thought (based on prior experiences), “What better place is there to test that quest?”
Already this year my quest has been well-tested. I’ve played in heavy rain and whipping wind. I’ve played on freshly aerated greens, and I’ve been paired up with heavy smokers, incessant talkers and golfers who make Patrick Cantlay’s pre-shot routine look like an afterthought. In the past, these things would have derailed my fun train. Not this year. I was still on track. I called in an early morning tee time. Full steam ahead.
You may wonder how I could play a course whose design makes my blood boil -- on my own -- and still enjoy myself. Masochistic as it may have been, I was looking forward to this new adversity. It wasn’t just the lure of a cathartic experience. In the few years since my last round here I’ve learned a lot from friends, course architects, and course owners about what goes into managing a golf course and what it takes to maintain it. I wanted to know if my animosity had been unreasonable, if maybe I had been missing something.
Before my round the next morning I called my cousin, James.
“I think I might live-tweet the round,” I tell him. “Might help me enjoy it more if it goes poorly.”
I figured I could at least share my suffering with the handful of my followers who pay attention to my live-tweeting sessions. Little did I know this idea would launch a nearly two-day roller coaster ride of social media virality and, in the end, an unforgettable learning experience. What follows is more-or-less an exact recreation of events, presented as a cautionary tale to other wannabe social media influencers, with a few names changed to protect their innocent involvement.
Wednesday, April 14th: “A SIGN of Things to Come”
8:36 a.m. - I’m on the first tee and see a peculiar makeshift sign saying “NO PRACTICE SWINGS ON TEES.” What the heck does that mean? People love odd signs on golf courses, so I figure I might as well take a photo of it to launch the live-tweeting. I add a snarky caption to get people’s attention. “Already in a bad mood,” I say in my tweet. In the back of my mind I think this might be a bit much but I’m hopeful the six people who follow my live-tweets will know I’m kidding.
9:47 a.m. - I share an exaggerated score and holes played tally because I’ve genuinely lost track of both. The tweet makes me smile, hopefully others following along do, too. I feel like I’ve been out here two hours already. My strategy has shifted from trying to enjoy the course to just not losing any more balls on the front nine. In the brief moments between holes 5 and 6 (or, was it 8 and 9?) I glance at my phone, and see that (oddly) more than a few people on Twitter have seen my posts and are responding to them. This is New Hampshire. People only pay attention to this state every four years. The attention makes my smile grow a bit wider.
11:18 a.m. - After Bryson-like calculations from just off the 10th fairway, I pull a 4-hybrid with the intent of shaping the ball around some trees to the right, cutting it back towards the green. I flush it dead straight into the woods left of the green. I hate golf.
11:19 a.m. - I reload from the same spot and hit exactly the shot I intended. The ball rests 8 feet behind the pin. Check that, I love golf!
11:55 a.m. - I make a fateful error trying to upload a 30-second video onto Twitter of an amusing moment I captured on the course. The status bar is moving slower than Windows 98 doing a full 4GB disk defragmentation. While this is happening, unbeknownst to me, Twitter is exploding.
11:57 a.m. – Almost 3.5 hours after teeing off, my buddy Michael texts me to say Club Pro Guy -- leader of 200,000 rabid golf Twitter followers -- has retweeted my live-tweet headliner. Michael tells me this is the pinnacle of my nearly 4-year, 21,000-tweet “Twitter career.” (Please... please, hold your applause ‘til the end.)
12:17 p.m. - My 30-second video is still uploading. I can feel the momentum of my live-tweets slipping away. People are asking what happened. What’s happened is I’ve moved into a Swiss cheese cellular wasteland. I could have communicated better with an Etch-a-Sketch. I put my phone away and try to focus on the golf.
12:25 p.m. - I birdie the 13th, first and only such victory of the day. My phone dings. Something from Instagram about “Golf_com mentioned you…” flashes on the screen. I’m confused. Only thing I’ve posted to IG is a few “story” videos. “Whatever,” I think. I’ll check it out later.
12:37 p.m. - After going full Tin Cup and losing four more balls on the par-3 14th I’m down to just one ball left in the bag. My phone dings again. I’m down to 20% battery. I abandon the video upload that 1971 NASA computers would have finished by now and invest all remaining hope in finishing my round before I lose my last ball and my last ounce of phone juice.
1:21 p.m. - I par the 18th to finish with a 97, the second-highest score of the year. The ball I finished with is one I dredged out of a pond on No. 15. My phone’s battery ticks down to 2%. I hop in the car and race back to my parents’ house to recharge, still mostly unaware of the avalanche my lightly-lobbed snowball had set off that morning.
2:46 p.m. It’s really starting to hit me now. My original tweet with the photo of the silly sign has blown up -- over 200,000 views on Twitter, twenty times more than any other tweet of mine, ever. I’m surprised and a little confused to learn Golf.com has snagged that goofy sign photo and posted it to their Instagram with the caption: “What do we think of this unique policy?” It already has over 200 comments in under 3 hours. I’ve gained 50 new followers in 5 hours, more than I typically get in a month. “I guess your live-tweets were successful then?” Cousin James asks. “Better than most,” I reply with a nervous smile.
6:35 p.m. - I’m on a gone-viral high. This is great! So many people have reached out thanking me for the Twitter thread, sharing their mutual frustration of the course. I appreciate that I’m nowhere near alone in some of my complaints. In the buzz of excitement I’m forgetting the signs of improvement I had seen during my round, courtesy of the new course operators of The Shattuck. My mind is moving on. I’m suddenly eager to do it all again. Which suspect course should I break down next?
9:01 p.m. - As I wind down for the night, I’m noticing a developing trend in the comments I’m reading and it’s making me concerned; they’re almost all extremely negative towards the course. I start to wonder if a member has seen all this, or worse, someone who runs the course. I read about the course’s new management and their plans for improving the course. I remember now the improvements I had seen. Perhaps I should have put more emphasis on those in my thread? I tell myself Twitter will have moved on from all this by morning.
Thursday, April 15th
7:15 a.m. - Nope. Twitter has most definitely not moved on. My tweet has continued to rack up more views, comments and retweets and a breathtaking pace. The Golf.com’s IG post has 500 comments now. I’m definitely worried about the course now. Sure, I have my gripes with the design, but there’s far more to a golf experience than that, and the staff and members made me feel so welcome yesterday. Yesterday was all in the pursuit of fun but today the fun is over. This had gotten out of hand. I post a tweet trying to be congenial without being overly apologetic. I genuinely feel bad, but I never intended for my frustration to get beyond 5 to 10 people, and those people all know my peeves and sense of humor. I’m really ready now for the attention to shift elsewhere.
11:25 a.m. - Oh no! I see a tweet from Hannah, the general manager of the Shattuck. She’s included her thoughts on the matter, and she’s clearly not amused. Her measured response takes up two full-screen captures. All remaining “celebrity euphoria” vaporizes in an instant. I’m crushed. I read over her statement as best I can, but it’s hard to do. I can feel her merited pain in my chest. I attempt to reread my entire thread with the fresh eyes of someone who doesn’t know me. I sound like a total jerk. I call a friend of mine Derek in Minnesota to convince me otherwise. He knows I’m not a total jerk. “Ben,” he says. “You sound like a total jerk.” I’m devastated. This isn’t what I meant at all.
12:20 p.m. - I continue to thumb through Twitter. I’ve sent a reply to Hannah inviting her to DM me so I can add some clarification, maybe even apologize. It’s clear from her post that the brunt of the damage was done by the 500-plus comments on Instagram. None of that was my doing—not directly anyway. I didn’t give anyone permission to use the photo for their own amusement and thoughtless mockery. She’s sent me no response. I’m stressing out.
12:40 p.m. - I tee off at Hidden Creek Country Club with my boss. This should be a momentous occasion. It’s the first time we’ve played together and, well, he’s my boss. He deserves my full attention. But I can’t concentrate. All I can think about is how dumb social media is. Why didn’t I quit Twitter last year like I had planned? Why is this happening? I take pause from self-pity to analyze the current state of my golf game. How did my ball get this far into the woods?
3:30 p.m. - I text Cousin James back and give him an update and then give Derek (who’s in the golf industry and has interacted with countless golf course owners) a formal call as well. I’m hoping they will calm my nerves. They don’t. They allude to terms like “slander,” “litigation” and phrases like “under no circumstances.” I start to search my phone contacts for any friends who might happen to also be moonlighting as lawyers. I mean, I don’t really need a lawyer, right? I didn’t mean for any of this to happen. I’m in full panic mode.
7:05 p.m. - Against counsel’s advice, I start typing up an email to Hannah, giving her my side of the story. With no response from her on Twitter and knowing the hellish day she’s likely had, I don’t have much confidence I’ll get a reply. But it’s worth a shot.
8:31 p.m. - My phone dings; Hannah has responded! I open the email to find a perfectly stated and generously conciliatory reply. She reiterates how the comments she read impacted her and her team but also acknowledges she doesn’t think I intended for things to unfold the way they did. I take a deep breath. It’s going to be OK. I quickly send back my thanks and tell her I look forward to playing her course again once the improvements they are working on have been completed. I put my phone down and let out a long sigh of relief. I think to myself, going viral ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.
What I learned
This experience has taught me some invaluable lessons. The first is that going viral, even within the friendly confines of “golf Twitter,” doesn’t happen the way you plan or (often ever) the way you want. Social media likes a good, positive story, but it can love a bad, negative story as much or more. And no one else has to (or likely will) apologize for interacting in something you started.
With so many new golfers filling up tee sheets once again this year, as part of the continuing “COVID boom,” it’s important to take a step back and acknowledge two truths that aren’t always easy to accept:
1. Courses are run by people who put their heart and soul into making the course as good as can be, and
2. Even the worst course you’ve played still has the potential to create great memories for you and others under the right circumstances.
Objectively, the Shattuck is not the worst course I’ve played. Of the 165 courses I’ve rated, it ranks in the middle third. With the improvements Hannah and her crew have undertaken, it has the potential to rise even higher. It’s clear that’s their goal and I’m genuinely excited to go back and play there again.
Of course, bad publicity isn’t all bad. Several people on Twitter including a few friends have voiced their interest in playing this course that has built such a reputation as a sort of twisted, devil’s playground. Certainly, there’s an insatiable curiosity of “how hard can it be?” that will draw many a sucker to this humble rural town and its now famously difficult course.
I look forward to playing the Shattuck again this year. I look forward to meeting Hannah and her team, having a beer at the course’s Dublin Road Tavern, and showing off that impossible par-5 sixth hole to a few friends. Most of all, I look forward to engaging more with course operators and less with Twitter trolls after a frustrating round. In the end, finding solace in shared misery on Twitter -- no matter how popular it makes you -- isn’t as satisfying as helping to create positive change in public golf; change that benefits every golfer and every swing.