Date: May 23, 2017
Author: Mark Hayes

COMMENT: We just want to get to know you

If you’d asked me whether or not Lou Richards and Billy Horschel would ever have intersected in my life, I’d have given you pretty long odds.

But with the recent passing of “Louie the Lip”, I was naturally reflecting on the impact he’d had on not only my life, but millions of others.

He was a very good player – captain of Collingwood’s 1953 premiership team – though most who saw him said not in the “champion” mould.

But where he was undoubtedly a champion was in the media after he hung up the boots.

Not only did Richards and his peers build stellar personal careers, the bigger picture was they took football to the masses.

Think Paul Vautin or Karl Langdon or Neil Kerley, depending on where you’re reading this.

My point is that they were really good players without being fully fledged superstars (perhaps an apology to Mr Kerley), but went on to have an even greater impact after their last game.

Not only did their efforts enhance their bank balances, they gave their sports and leagues a real shot in the publicity arm.

Richards was instrumental in making footballers household names – people knew that Joe Bloggs, the Richmond winger, ran a pub and his wife was a budding actress. They knew that Carlton ruckman Jimmy Wingnut's mum held three jobs to help pay for his law degree between every training session.

Through Richards, these players came to life. They weren’t just No.17 in that team, they became personalities.

This is the very essence of modern media.

Think through what makes you take an interest in some sports and not others, especially when they’re not your passion. I’d be prepared to bet that mostly you’ll take an interest in those sports and athletes you know more about.

For example, have you ever thought about why you know more about Giaan Rooney than you do about Karrie Webb? Or maybe Craig Lowndes as opposed to Jason Day? That despite both golfers having topped the world.

Whether or not swimming is your cup of tea, or you’ve got petrol running through your veins, these sports – and athletes – do a great job of allowing sufficient access into their lives to generate a knowledge of their codes.

It’s safe to say that AFL and NRL have stolen an almost unassailable march on almost all other sports in Australia. Netball is fighting hard, as are tennis, soccer, cricket and golf.

But the latter pair will help get my point across. Before the Big Bash League and innovative media by Channel 10, you’d battle to have told me who was batting first drop for Queensland. For that matter, half the current Test team could walk through your office and you wouldn’t bat an eyelid.

Compare that to yesteryear when everyone in Australia knew everything about Dennis Lillee, David Hookes and, more recently, Shane Warne. That was when cricket was everything.

In golf, that meant Greg Norman and, to a lesser extent, Jack Newton and Bob Shearer.

They were out there, all of them. Giving to media, allowing a sneak peek into their personal lives and letting Joe Public know that, “I won this tournament (or made that century) to help my cousin Edna who’s fighting cancer”.

That stuff tugs at people’s hearts. It lets them know the athletes are real, not clones, that they are not that different to them – within reason!

Which brings me to Mr Horschel.

Here’s a clearly solid golfer on the world stage – you don’t won the FedEx Cup as a chopper.

But not long after his 2014 US PGA Tour Championship-winning heroics, Horschel effectively fell off the golfing radar with just one second and one third place in 2.5 years for a bloke who finished 2014 ranked No.13 in the world.

That, as you’ve probably seen, came to an end on Monday (Australian time) when the Floridian beat Day in a playoff to win the Byron Nelson Championship.

As regularly happens when Aussies fare well in big events around the world, I fielded interviews from radio stations about the wash-up. And while most questions were naturally around the Queenslander, there was one about Horschel that I answered to the best of my ability without, as I’d soon learn, the full details.

The American was quite emotional after his victory – and yes, I know there are some things that need to remain personal – but without any real explanation for a man who’s now a four-time US PGA Tour event winner.

"Life gets in the way sometimes," a tearful Horschel said. "I'm not able to talk about it right now. But it's just a lot of stuff happened in the last year and this is just – this is nice."

The explanation came hours later when his wife, Brittany, came clean about her battle with alcoholism with a moving post on social media.

It brought to light, immediately, the reasons that are clearly – at least partially – responsible for Billy’s on-course struggles.

If you take the time to read her post, you might even be amazed that Billy has even played the past year or two.

I didn’t know these facts when I was on radio – and I suspect in some ways, Billy Horschel would probably have liked his world kept a little more in-house so that my response was common.

But I’m also prepared to guess that, with shackles removed, Horschel’s game flourishes again.

Take as read, also, that the world will be sympathetic, interest from mass media will rise and maybe, just maybe, potential sponsors will look favourably as all these things combine.

In the soon-to-be post-Tiger Woods era and in a world now minus the inimitable Arnold Palmer, golf is screaming out for personalities, characters and reasons to command media interest.

Day, and his irregular playing visits home, polarises the Australian golfing community. But his emotional outpouring at his mother Dening’s fight with cancer a couple of months back gave a lot more people an insight into the realities of his life, aside from his golfing “battles”.

The examples are stark, but my point remains the same.

If we give more collectively as a sport, the stories are there and the interest can be generated.

I have utmost confidence in the next generation of budding Australian stars that they’ll be primed to share a bit with the world; to pick up a phone and stay in touch with fans through a trusted journo; or even just to engage in social media the same way Ian Poulter does.

Golf might never consistently knock football off the back page, but wouldn’t it be good if that was a legitimate alternative?

We don’t need life-and-death battles, but how about some Lou Richards-style “I’ll jump off St Kilda Pier” pre-tournament theatrics? Or maybe just a “ring-a-ding-ding” back-nine shootout with a couple of players talking to galleries and TV cameras throughout?

Remember, as the theme song to “The Footy Show” – a TV institution that never would have been without Richards’ involvement – goes, golf, too, should be way “more than a game”.