MEMPHIS, Tenn. – The tournament slipping away, the frustration mounting, Bryson DeChambeau prepared to take out all his aggression on his tee ball.
His group was on the clock. He’d made a momentum-killing bogey on the 15th hole. And a CBS cameraman had just walked up to apologize for keeping his camera fixed on him a beat too long, prompting DeChambeau to give a sarcastic wave.
A single voice – a female fan – broke the dramatic tension.
“Let’s go, Brooksy!”
DeChambeau didn’t turn around. “Good one,” he shot back.
No one even bothered to nervously laugh.
There was a dour, dispiriting manner to DeChambeau last week at the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational. The gloominess has been building for months – the latest dark cloud because of his comments about COVID-19 that led him to stonewall reporters for a week – and he slogged around TPC Southwind with the unmistakable sense that he’s shouldering a considerable weight.
For the past year he’s been riding a tidal wave of controversy, and he has weathered those storms – the vaccine misinformation, the “fore!” calls, the equipment gripe, the caddie split, the rules disputes, the image protection – with varying degrees of success. At least they've all passed. But there is one topic that’s unabating, and unfortunately for him it’s the one largely out of his control: the Koepka Kerfuffle.
When the “Brooksy!” calls first began, at the PGA Championship and then the Memorial, DeChambeau laughed them off. Called them “flattering,” actually.
“They can keep calling me that all day if they want to,” he said on June 4. “I’ve got no issue with it.”
In hindsight, what other recourse did he have?
If he admitted publicly that it bothered him, fans would sense that weakness and exploit it.
It was a no-win situation.
Thinking that he was defusing the beef by playing along, DeChambeau unintentionally emboldened the hecklers. Encouraged them, even. There was little stopping them, especially after they received their marching orders from their fearless leader. After reports surfaced that fans had been thrown out by tournament security, Koepka logged on Twitter and offered 50 cases of beer to fans whose day was “cut short,” as a “thank-you for showing support.”
The move was widely panned for crossing a competitive line, but it served its intended purpose: Koepka had rallied his co-conspirators to antagonize an opponent. In the two months since, Koepka hasn’t expressed any regret; in fact, he doubled down, saying last month that he’ll continue to “take my shots.”
In a battle of sports vs. science, jock vs. nerd, it’s little surprise social media leans heavily toward Team Brooks. But even though DeChambeau is often savaged on Twitter (FYI: he does not run his own account), it’s a wildly different experience on-site at tournaments. He’s an immensely popular figure, drawing some of the largest and most enthusiastic galleries on Tour – larger than Koepka, larger than Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson, larger than Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth.
And for the most part, that support is reciprocated. In this writer’s experience, at least, there is perhaps no player on Tour who interacts with the crowd more than DeChambeau. Following his pro-am last week in Memphis, he signed flags and hats and balls, even as a volunteer urged people to stay away because of COVID restrictions. A pleaser, DeChambeau kept signing. Last one, he said. Then another. And another. The volunteer radioed for backup, and DeChambeau looked pained to leave a few folks hanging.
Finishing up his third-round 63 last weekend, all was good. In those moments, DeChambeau seemed not the most polarizing player in golf but actually one of the most beloved. The security guards inside the ropes were along for a leisurely weekend stroll, no trouble afoot. DeChambeau tossed balls to youngsters behind the 17th and 18th greens. He acknowledged the ladies lounging in the pool, and the kids bouncing on the trampoline, and the fellas nursing beers by the grill. On his way to the scoring area, he fist-bumped fans along the fence line. He posed for a selfie, smiling ear to ear. He answered a young boy’s question while he recorded on Snapchat.
“Brooksy went home a long time ago!” one man hollered from the clubhouse patio. “We ain’t worried about him!”
But just as there are certain Bryson-related topics that incite the mob on social media, the tournament crowd is triggered anytime he falters. And so once DeChambeau drowned his tee shot on the 11th hole Sunday, leading to a triple bogey, that was apparently the permission they needed to taunt and jeer, tease and heckle – mostly with cries of “Brooksy!”
That’s when DeChambeau starts fighting back: “He finished, like, four or five hours ago!”
That’s when the security guards’ awareness is heightened, their coverage plans formulated.
That’s when it begins to feel as though DeChambeau is not just battling the course but also an increasingly hostile gallery.
That’s a recent development – a byproduct of his tumultuous year and, no doubt, his rift with Koepka. DeChambeau thrived last year in the competitive quiet of a COVID summer. When thousands of fans were allowed back this spring, they flocked to DeChambeau, finally able to gawk at his brawny gains in-person. Likewise, he enjoyed the attention, relishing his role as entertainer; his euphoric celebration after clearing the pond on Bay Hill’s sixth hole is one of the year’s most indelible images. But as DeChambeau’s results and distance have flatlined, so too has the shock and awe. What’s left is a 27-year-old who is monstrously talented and intensely driven, but also flawed and sensitive and grappling with his own celebrity. Those lessons, at times, have proven to be messy.
Perhaps turned off by his perceived arrogance, or jealous of his attention, many Tour types have failed to publicly stand up for DeChambeau. That’s what made his playing partner’s defense so notable on Sunday.
“It’s not real fair for them to call him ‘Brooksy’ a lot,” Harris English said afterward. “It sucks and obviously he hears it. It affects him a little bit, and he doesn’t like it, and I think that causes them to do it more. It just sucks that that’s out here right now, that they’re trying to irk people like that. It’s just unfortunate.”
DeChambeau is far from the first player to endure his share of fan abuse – here’s looking at you, Monty – and he has heaped much of the negative attention on himself, but there doesn’t appear to be any short-term solution to his current woes. Barring a Tour intervention or a Koepka apology, it’s headed toward an ugly climax. More outbursts. More confrontations. More animosity.
The only way for DeChambeau to silence the taunts, if only temporarily, is to play better. And for the past five months, winning and peace have remained equally elusive.