Geoff Shackelford is the Daniel Boone of golf bloggers, the pioneer who blazed a trail into the dot.com wilderness. This was not a task for a timid soul, but GS was not lacking in initiative, ingenuity, and chutzpah. Just as important, since his survival would depend on his skill in wielding the pen — excuse me, stroking the keyboard — GS had a knack for turning phrases that stung and, sometimes, drew blood.
When he launched Geoff Shackelford.com in 2003, GS was in the vanguard of individual bloggers but he was going up against much bigger corporate and institutional websites. For years it had been clear that the heyday of print journalism was over; people wanted their information in a hurry, and they wanted it online. Obviously, the future of journalism was on the Internet, but it wasn’t so obvious how a freelance blogger could get any traction. To hold on to their market share, the big golf magazines had extended their operations into cyberspace; they had the advantage of established brands, huge databases, big bankrolls, and a staff of writers, editors, designers, and photographers. Major organizations like the PGA TOUR and the Golf Channel were also building an Internet presence, and they too had plenty of resources to bring to bear. In such an environment, GeoffShackelford.com looked like small boutique attempting to set up shop among the Wal-Marts.
And that, of course, GS used to his own advantage. The institutional sites tended to be . . . institutional. They often came across as unimaginative and seemed staid, stodgy, and dated the moment they appeared. The generation that had reached the top in the golf organizations and the print media just didn’t have much feel for the Internet. The magazine sites were loaded with content, but it was usually little more than an online version of the print edition, crowded into a clumsy graphic design and cluttered with ads. The corporate overlords naturally viewed the websites as profit centers, and the “reading” experience” on these sites consisted of trying to ignore or fend off the relentless hawking of goods and services.
By contrast, GeoffShackelford.com was welcoming, both visually and verbally. The logo, with the site name displayed against green hills, was a spoof of the famous Hollywood sign, and suggested at once that the site was hip and irreverent, edgy and iconoclastic. The graphics were basic but clean, and the content unspooled at an accelerated pace. GeoffShackelford.com didn’t have as much stuff as the larger sites, but everything was selected with a purpose, often an ironic purpose. GS was an aggregator, but — like the boutique owner — he was discriminating. Everything he posted had his stamp all over it. He liked to many different sources, and he had his own version of the newspaper formula “mass and class.” For mass appeal, he served up regular offerings of one-offs (there’s a recent post about a 500 million floating golf course) and gossipy, personal stories (John Daly giving Tiger Woods advice). The “class” came in the form of posts about in posts about golf design, the business and politics of golf, and broader cultural issues affecting golf.
A typical post began with a catchy headline, followed by a few crisp sentences and a juicy excerpt from a linked article, then concluded with a remark or question inviting comments from readers. Even though GS’s own books were displayed, along with other books that he thought worthy of note (Disclosure 1: a book of mine was listed for a time), the site came across as distinctly, almost defiantly non-commercial. The proprietor of this space was someone who knew his own mind, wasn’t afraid to to express it, and didn’t really give a damn if you agreed with him. He was independent, and it made seem trustworthy.
Another feature of the site was the daily quote, usually an observation or opinion uttered by one of the golf architects of the Golden Age. The author of ten books, a respected historian, and a practicing architect himself, GS was on home turf when he talked about matters relating to course design, maintenance, and set up. He was particularly interested in the architects who shaped the game in California, figures like George Thomas, Robert Hunter, and Alister MacKenzie. The passages he quotes are substantive, thought-provoking, and , perhaps inadvertently, a reminder of the thinness of much contemporary writing (about which more later). They also point to one of the site’s serious missions: To spread the word about the virtues of Golden Age architecture. A number of other themes run through the site, and GS hammers away at them with wit and gusto. A short guide to GS’s core concerns might look something like this:
1. The designers of the Golden Age were geniuses whose wisdom, like that of the Founding Fathers, will never be reproduced.
2. The best golf hole ever designed, by far, is No. 10 at Riviera.
3. Tiger Woods is to golf as Sarah Palin is to politics, a source of endless fascination; no word or deed, no gesture or expression, should go unreported.
4. The PGA Tour is run by suits with small minds, all of whom communicate — or rather, fail to communicate — in an obscure language called M. B. A. Speak.
5. To set up a course for a major championship is at least as complcated as rocket science or brain surgery.
6. The most prolific and sought-after contemporary designers — Tom Fazio, Jack Nicklaus, and Rees Jones — have yet to design a respectable golf course.
7. The failure of golf’s governing bodies to rein in manufactures and set limits on the flight of the golf ball is an ongoing disaster.
8. The FedEx Cup is the most lame-brained, ginned-up competition in sports.
9. TV coverage of golf is dull enough to put Zombies to sleep.
10. Somebody needs to take the current business model of golf out behind the barn and kill it with an axe.
OK, I’m exaggerating, but not by much. And GS himself likes to exaggerate; hyperbole is a major part of his schtick on his web site. No amount of exaggeration, however, can disguise his frustration, and no reader of his site can fail to notice that the above list of themes is in fact a bill of complaints. In the broadest sense, the mission of GeoffShackelford.com is to point out the general wrong-headedness of the powers-that-be in golf, from the governing bodies to the designers to the corporations. He believes that they are leading the game down the wrong road, and he is not going to sit by quietly. He holds them accountable. He doesn’t want to see golf lose its place in this hierarchy of American sport.
It may be style that first attracts people to GeoffShackelford.com, but it’s substance that keeps them coming back. That’s true for me, at any rate; I happen to agree with most of GS’s overall assessment of the game. And it seems to be true for the many readers of the site who regularly post comments. The occasional visitor to the comment boards might easily think that he has blundered into a revival meeting where the true believers sit together in the Amen Corner and eagerly shout out their approval of the teachings of Brother Geoff. And, on occasion, GS does seem to encourage this by posting tidbits about Tim Finchem or Donald Trump — he has to know that the faithful “Shackelfordians” will pile on enthusiastically. At other times, one has the sinking sensation of eavesdropping on a clique-y conversation, especially when someone with a screen name like “shanksalot” starts talking directly to “BunkerBoy.” (Disclosure 2: Years ago I posted a couple of comments using a screen name and felt so queasy afterwards that I resolved never to do it again. Call me an old coot, but I think there’s something dodgy about using a screen name. If you have an opinion, why not stand up and be counted?)
However, on many issues the Shacklefordians provide informed, reasoned, insightful comments. They don’t always agree with GS, either, and sometimes provide serious pushback. In a recent post, for instance, GS declared that Harbour Town was not a “shotmaker’s course,” and he stirred up a hornet’s nest of disagreement. GS, the gadfly, has brought together like-minded folks — turns out some of them are gadflies, too.
Regarding his habit of exaggeration: For GS, like many writers of his generation, exaggeration comes naturally. They learned the craft from the great Dan Jenkins, a master of the outrageous metaphor (“the greens were as slick as Sam Snead’s head”). Jenkins made hyperbole his stock-in-trade, but handled it with originality, flair, and Texas deadpan. For the current generation, hyperbole has become almost a relfex, and it’s used so habitually that it loses a lot of its effect. What is gained by writing, for example, that a golfer is enduring “a nuclear winter” instead of, simply, “he’s in a slump”? Is “all Irish eyes are weeping” an imaginative way to talk about Rory McIlroy’s collapse at the Masters? Do writers feel, in this speeded-up age, that they have to have to maintain a steady stream of over-the-top phrases to hang on to the readers’ attention?
GS didn’t write the above phrases, but he did write recently that “I’d rather have a colonoscopy than . . . ” rather than saying, “I wasn’t looking forward to . . . ” The remark just seemed formulaic, an example of the run-of-the-mill, one-of-the guys exaggeration that sometimes creeps into GS’s prose. IMHO, he doesn’t do himself — or his readers — any favors with that kind of prose. He can be funny when he takes exaggeration out to the edge of absurdity, as when he wonders whether Tiger’s “protective boot” will prevent him from busting a move at Tiger Jam 2011, or imagines a “specially composed remix of ‘Taps’ by Yanni” to accompany a dirge-like telecast. That same post on the Heritage Classic included another favorite GS ploy, the fake self-censorship where he pretends to catch himself before making a withering remark: “2000 Heritage Classic Death Wat . . Err . . . Final Round Open Comment Thread.” And he’s at his best when he decides to commit fully, quoting at length from a press interview or an article, interrupting with deft remarks that expose the lack of logic, deflate the hype, mock the pretension. That’s the GS that this reader looks for — intellectually engaged, hackles up, a writer zeroing in on a meaty subject.
I’m not keeping track, but it seems to me that he’s done less of this lately, and I don’t want to think that it’s because he recently joined forces with Golf Digest. His logo now sports, beneath his own name, a banner for “Golf Digest.com,” and lest we have missed it, the border of the logo reminds us: “IN PARTNERSHIP WITH GOLFDIGEST.COM.” The look of the site is still clean and uncluttered, but the right-hand column is headed with the words, “Latest From Golf Digest.com,” under which appear several linked articles.
For those who have followed GeoffShackelford.com for a while, it’s just plain odd to see the iconoclast join forces with the icon. Much as I admire GS for building a site that Golf Digest couldn’t ignore, I have to wonder about the obvious question: Will success spoil GS? Is it my imagination, or was his Masters coverage this year more mellow than in the past? Is GS linking to more fluff than before? Is he playing it safer? Sometimes I think so –but then he takes a swipe at a familiar target or posts articles that I wouldn’t come across elsewhere, like the recent pieces on the head of golf at Nike, a newspaper feature on the plight of the golf industry in Florida, and an account of club-hopping in Ohio as golfers take advantage of special offers. And I hear the familiar, full-throated scorn when he posts a headline like this one: “PGA TOUR Algorithm writers Turn Their Attention to Making Fall Finish As Confusing As the FedEx Cup.”
GS has been called the “Herbert Warren Wind of golf bloggers,” a compliment that, I assume, was made with tongue in cheek. Not that GS isn’t good at what he does, but what he does — even though it is writing — is utterly different from what Wind did. As a writer, Wind wrote long (and eschewed exaggeration), with the aim of taking the reader into his subject in depth and detail. His features on major events often ran weeks after the event itself, and they were filled with careful reflection, context, and judicious interpretation. Reading a Wind article was like siting down with a companion for a long, leisurely conversation.
Reading GeoffShackelford.com (or just about any sports blog) is more like being in a noisy bar, where the opinions come thick and fast. GS has obviously decided, along with most of the rest of the world, that a web site isn’t the place for long form journalism. Though he regularly publishes articles and mentions them on his site, but he maintains a distinction between the two. To publish carefully considered, nuanced articles that attempt to deal with the kind of complications — well, that would be like putting in speed bumps.
Even so, GeoffSchackelford.com has succeeded in advancing a serious agenda — and that, I believe, is the site’s real achievement. GS certainly isn’t the only one who has tried to resuscitate an awareness of the merits of classic design, or who has crusaded for regulation of equipment. But he’s made his web site an essential hub for those who care about such issues, and he’s managed to entertain his readers while educating them. The leap of faith GS took when he started his site was that were many others out there who shared his point of view. He was right, as it turned out. There were many others, and now even the-powers-that-be know they’re out there. GS has been indispensable in making them a force to be reckoned with.