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If there was ever a quote that encapsulated Bryson DeChambeau, he delivered it with a smile on Wednesday morning. After a media omerta, prompted by a series of high-profile blunders, he “broke his silence” when asked about the incessant heckling he’s endured in recent weeks. “No matter what, if you’re a little different – whether it’s Elon Musk, whether it’s Jeff Bezos, whoever it is – there’s always going to be heat and I recognise that and I respect that,” he said with, it must be pointed out, the utmost sincerity.
On the surface, it is an insight into how DeChambeau perceives himself: a disruptive genius, a relentless obsessive, an outsider in a world of conformists and, at his core, the hardest worker with superior knowledge. They might sound like the machinations of an egomaniac but, in some senses, it is not such an extraordinary claim. There can be little denying that golf has orbited around the American, with fascination and derision, for the best part of 18 months. With his hulking physique and Frankenstein science, he has broken boundaries, set upon tradition with anarchic tendency and, in doing so, drawn suspicion and scorn at every turn.
To some, it has been a breath of fresh air in a sport going stale. DeChambeau has hardly been branded as a saviour, in large part thanks to his reliably oblivious remarks and reactions, but what he brings to golf as an innovator has triumphed over his punctuating moments of idiocy. To others, there is no grey area. DeChambeau represents a sort of sacrilege, pilfering golf’s art with a robotic character born of too many irredeemable qualities.
That fault line has been a constant theme of his career, from a temperamental amateur in California to a dominant US Open champion, but it’s been bubbling towards a flashpoint point all summer. The inevitable eruption came last weekend at Caves Valley Golf Club when DeChambeau was said to have confronted a fan who taunted him in the wake of his gut-wrenching six-hole playoff defeat by Patrick Cantlay. In truth, it should come as no surprise.
The majority of jibes might have been made in good humour, but there is no use pretending there hasn’t also been a more fundamental shift in tone towards DeChambeau in recent months. What started as a playful role as golf’s heel and a lucrative social media feud with Brooks Koepka has descended into him becoming a target and has now reached the point where the taunts are audible and unremitting at almost every event.
Yes, on many levels, DeChambeau’s status has been self-inflicted. He has refused to speak to the written press since his explanation for not taking the Covid vaccine provoked a furore last month. That comment succeeded his tantrum at The Open, where the 27-year-old derided his own club manufacturer, which later responded by comparing its biggest star to an overgrown child. There is rarely polite peace in his chaotic combustible world, but he shouldn't be reduced to a punching bag for inconsiderate or inebriated spectators either. It should be possible to acknowledge his flaws while accepting that the current scenario has become unhealthy and corrosive both for him and the sport.
The PGA Tour understood that and felt it necessary to step in earlier this week, pledging to ban fans who shout “disrespectful” jibes at DeChambeau. Some players scoffed at the security blanket, but few can claim to have experienced such an intense and critical spotlight. Even Koepka, despite making little attempt to dissuade his supporters from jeering DeChambeau, did admit through gritted teeth that certain fan behaviour had bordered on excessive.
DeChambeau insists he can “take the heat” because he’s done so his entire life. To him, it is the burden of being different, a cursed inheritance that comes with a maverick approach. His golf has not always suffered as a result – his performance at the BMW Championship paying homage to that – but that should hardly be used as a reason to justify blurring the line between banter and bullying.
It’s not to suggest there should be a great wave of sympathy either. After all, DeChambeau is a successful professional earning vast sums of money who’s offered ample ammunition to his critics. But there comes a point when a player deserves a degree of protection from a situation that’s sprawled beyond their control – even if they would never dare to admit it. His actions warrant valid criticism, but the person should be put before the pantomime, too. Perhaps, Rory McIlroy said it best when he offered his verdict on Tuesday. “I’m not saying he’s completely blameless. But at the same time, I think he has been getting a pretty rough go of it of late and it’s actually pretty sad to see.”