Sports

Don’t Shed a Tear for Bryson DeChambeau

Sympathy for the taunts he’s received amount to a courtesy he wouldn’t grant to anyone else.

DeChambeau in clipper hat and polo shirt watches his shot with his club behind his head from his backswing
DeChambeau from the third tee during the final round of the Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club on Sunday, in Atlanta. Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

In the NFL, relentless fans boo Tom Brady in every visiting stadium he enters. In the NBA, the boos rain down in endless volume upon LeBron James, and sometimes people standing close enough to touch him get verbally abusive. In the NHL, Sidney Crosby hears endless chants of “Crosby sucks!” in road rivalry games—or at least in Philadelphia. At college football and basketball games, a liquored-up student section might chant “fuck you” at a player. LSU fans might make a more general plea to opposing teams.

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The sports world’s governing bodies don’t always like those things, and the outer limits of their tolerance vary. But for the most part, organized sport has taken the stance that fans can wild out to their hearts’ content inside game venues, so long as they refrain from drawing from the roster of racial, sexual, and gendered epithets that almost everyone knows they can’t say. The PGA Tour, on the other hand, last week banned fans from yelling the name “Brooksy.” The tour made the move in service of one professional golfer who has demonstrated over the summer that he needs a prohibition on this new obscenity in order to keep himself from unraveling.

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Bryson DeChambeau, a great golfer and massively self-obsessed person, has had a busy year. An early development was his golfing buddy and sponsor, the president of the United States, having to leave office after a failed attempt to negate the results of last November’s election, which meant DeChambeau had to face (and swat away) questions about his association with both Donald Trump and his golf brand. Then, lots of people got mad (or stayed mad) at DeChambeau about lots of little things. His peers say he doesn’t yell “fore” when he sprays tee shots into crowds of pedestrians. (He denies it.) His peers have long said he plays too slow. (He denies it.) His caddie was apparently so tired of being his caddie that he quit the day before the start of a tournament—a tournament sponsored by one of DeChambeau’s biggest sponsors, no less. After playing badly at the Open Championship, he blamed his problems in part on his driver, which was enough for a representative of his own equipment sponsor to tell a reporter that DeChambeau was like “an 8-year-old” who might “fly off the handle.” (DeChambeau had to apologize.) Not one to take a vaccine, he got COVID-19 and missed the Olympics.

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But the event that has most defined the recent life and times of Bryson DeChambeau is something else: a public feud (if you can call something so one-sided against DeChambeau a “feud”) with Brooks Koepka, the four-time major winner who has a similar physical profile to DeChambeau (both could be linebackers) but is a bit more reserved and less overtly annoying. Their mutual disdain, which has tended to be a little stronger coming from Koepka, has been a full-on thing for a few years, but it gained steam after leaked footage at May’s PGA Championship showed how disgusted Koepka was when DeChambeau walked in his general vicinity during a post-round interview with the Golf Channel. Either the network, the tour, or the PGA of America has tried to scrub the video from the internet, but here’s a link that currently works.

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In June, fans at the Memorial, Jack Nicklaus’ tournament in Ohio, started shouting “Brooksy” at DeChambeau in a nod to Koepka. A few of them got kicked out of the tournament, maybe or maybe not at DeChambeau’s behest, though he tried to sell that he was unbothered. “Oh, they weren’t taunts at all,” he told reporters with a reasonably straight face. “It was flattering. I think it’s absolutely flattering what they’re doing.” For his part, Koepka enjoyed it and egged on more of it, while hawking moderately above average dorm room beer at the same time:

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Koepka has needled DeChambeau pretty much every chance he’s had, including over the latter’s driver complaints and his parting with his caddie. The Brooksies kept coming from fans all summer, and eventually DeChambeau had to drop the pretense that he wasn’t bothered. On Aug. 29, he lost in a playoff to Patrick Cantlay at the BMW Championship near Baltimore, on a Sunday when the crowd seemed very much in the tank for Cantlay. As DeChambeau walked away from the last green, someone Brooksied him, ESPN’s Kevin Van Valkenburg reported. The big golfer started moving toward the heckler, then yelled back, “You know what? Get the fuck out!” Van Valkenburg reported DeChambeau had “rage in his eyes” before moving along, and that he motioned for a police officer to go and “handle the heckler.” Even the whiff of a player-versus-fan confrontation was enough for Jay Monahan, the tour commissioner, to announce a ban on disrespectful behavior, and to make clear that included the Brooksies. At the following weekend’s Tour Championship in Atlanta, the Brooksies were gone, because most people would rather not get ejected from an event they paid to attend.

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It’s an odd situation. DeChambeau is the target of what amounts to a long-term emotional abuse campaign carried out by people who are mainly doing it because it’s funny and because Koepka, who’s cool in the ’90s-movie high school jock sense of the word, told them to do it. As Golf Digest’s Shane Ryan pointed out in early August—after Bryson melted down in the final round of a tournament amid heckles and rules officials telling him to speed it up—it’s not great in a vacuum to watch a crowd make fun of someone so much that he falls apart in public view. Cantlay, a regular playing partner of DeChambeau’s at the BMW, said, “Naturally, of course there is some sympathy” because “if you imagine yourself as that person, it wouldn’t feel good.” He pointed to social media as a driving factor and called the taunts “attention-seeking maneuvers.” Rory McIlroy acknowledged Bryson had “brought some of this stuff on himself,” but said he felt sympathy because DeChambeau had been “ostracized or criticized for being different.” On the whole, there isn’t a whole lot of good in anything about the situation.

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On another hand, DeChambeau is advantaged in just about every way a person can have advantages, and the fact that “Brooksy” constitutes a cutting taunt in his case speaks to his own ability to dish things out (as he’s done with Koepka before) but not take them coming back.

DeChambeau is the least sympathetic victim imaginable. He is unpleasant in ways people of all ideological persuasions can agree upon. Watching him play is kind of exciting—he hits the chocolate out of the ball—but exhausting, because of the slow pace, constant dramas, and regular habit of getting into televised negotiations with rules officials. (A recent highlight was when he stepped off a shot to ask Cantlay, who was nowhere near him, to stop walking.) DeChambeau has also publicly hitched himself to an insurrectionist former president, whom he golfs with and still advertises as one of his sponsors. He is at best a tacit supporter of a worldview built on a foundation of much worse cruelty than any golf course taunt could ever wreak on him. One thing, though not the last, that made his self-cultivated mad scientist persona ring hollow was when he partied indoors and maskless with Eric Trump in the aftermath of his 2020 U.S. Open win. (Well, the “mad” part of mad scientist might fit just fine.)

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It’s unlikely DeChambeau’s Trump connections are what moved Koepka to spearhead the anti-Bryson movement. Much of the golf world is entwined with the former president. But Koepka is not the kind of Trump guy that DeChambeau is. Koepka has played with Trump himself, though he framed it as a respect-for-the-office thing, rather than gushing, as DeChambeau once did, about the ex-president’s metaphoric ability to “come back strong on the back nine.” At any rate, Koepka dislikes DeChambeau for reasons less serious than his support of a proto-authoritarian president. Slow play seems to be a big one, and the PGA Tour’s new $40 million program that rewards players for generating headlines may be another factor driving Koepka’s escalations. Your assessment of those motivations’ legitimacy may affect your view of whether DeChambeau had any of this coming.

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Maybe these are reasons not to join a harassment campaign against DeChambeau. Maybe you believe in extending grace even to hypocrites with every possible advantage in life. Van Valkenburg called it a “surreal ethical dilemma” to consider whether the Brooksies are full-on bullying and whether it’s even possible to bully DeChambeau. It’s a question worth asking. I’ve batted around myself whether punching up at someone like DeChambeau—an extremely well-paid, straight white dude with ugly political associations and access to every elite circle he could want—could amount to bullying. I’ve gone back and forth.

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But it ultimately dawned on me that there’s a problem with pausing for long to wrestle with the morality of dogging DeChambeau. The trouble for me is that I doubt DeChambeau would ever in a million years extend another person the courtesy of thoughtfully weighing how his actions hurt a stranger. DeChambeau is, as golf writer Will Bardwell recently called him, depthless. There is no indication he has ever contemplated a single issue in his life as thoughtfully as anyone who has weighed the negative consequences of the Brooksy barrage against him. So while there may be ample reasons not to join this kind of bullying effort (if you want to call it that) against DeChambeau, there are fewer reasons to waste time defending him.

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Harping on DeChambeau’s politics might feel like pummeling a dead horse, given that a huge swath of golf pros share his views even if they’re quieter about them. But two recent DeChambeau moments show how little thought he is willing to put into anyone else, or anything more important than how to generate more swing speed or how to get a little more loft out of his six iron.

The first was right after Jan. 6, when DeChambeau took the Trump Golf logo off his bag, while keeping his sponsor relationship with Trump’s company intact. Someone asked DeChambeau about the PGA of America’s decision to move the 2022 PGA Championship away from one of Trump’s courses. DeChambeau had a chance to be introspective, and to indicate he’d done any kind of rethinking of his public ties to a guy who tried to overthrow the government. He did not take it. “I know there’s a lot of stuff going on today, and I won’t really talk too much about relationships or anything like that,” he said then. If he can’t stop and reflect on that, then I don’t feel a strong pull to reflect on whether people yelling Koepka’s name at him is a bridge too far.

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The second was when his positive COVID test in late July knocked him out of the Olympics. Fortunately, DeChambeau healed up, though he said he lost some swing speed. Reporters asked DeChambeau if he regretted not getting the vaccine. He said he did not, and that he’d “tried to take all the necessary precautions” not to catch the virus (except, you know, for the most important one). But DeChambeau—who, it bears repeating, very much likes to fashion himself as a science guy and a deep thinker—had more to say. In one of the most embarrassing bits of vaccine misdirection anyone in sports had attempted all year, he tried to cast his decision as a move to keep vulnerable people safe. He explained that the vaccine needed to be preserved for those in worse health than himself. (By that time, the government had a surplus of doses.) “I don’t need it,” he said. “I’m a healthy, young individual that will continue to work on my health. I don’t think taking the vaccine away from someone who needs it is a good thing.”

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That bit should’ve ended anyone’s idea that DeChambeau is especially committed to science. But it mostly revealed his lack of interest in thinking seriously about anything. The audacity of framing not getting vaccinated as a way to help vulnerable people, rather than something that could literally kill them, makes him something between a fraud and the absolute thickest person in sports. Not getting vaccinated is a worse thing to subject other people to than anything anyone has ever hollered at him from along a fairway. There are people who command honest conversations about whether they deserve the grief they get. This isn’t one.

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The complicated thing about the cursed summer of Bryson DeChambeau is that the people who made his on-course life miserable were not, as a group, focused on any of these things. They were making themselves part of an in-group and getting the easiest laughs they’d get all day. Maybe you don’t feel like being in league with them, or would prefer golf to keep a tradition of fans being more reserved than their peers at other sporting events. In this context, trying to make DeChambeau upset is not some kind of righteous act. But neither is wasting a single ounce of emotional labor defending a vapid man who hasn’t earned anyone’s defense.

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