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ATLANTA, Ga. — Bryson DeChambeau walked through the short tunnel next to the first tee at East Lake Golf Club. It was the first official hole he would play since the PGA Tour levied its “no-Brooksie” mandate specifically aimed at protecting DeChambeau.
How would the gallery around the first tee react? Would the chants of “Brooksie!” roll forth, damn the consequences? Would someone start a mocking “Bryyyyy-son” chant, or even loft a cup of beer in DeChambeau’s direction?
Of course not. This is golf, not the student section at Sanford Stadium. A few voices did shout “Bryson!”, which probably doesn’t warrant expulsion since they were calling DeChambeau by his own name. He raised a hand and mouthed “thank you,” his face appearing to communicate gratitude.
It had been a tough few days, after all, for DeChambeau. On Sunday, he lost a tense playoff in the BMW Championship to Patrick Cantlay, he lost his temper minutes later after hearing from one too many “Brooksie!” hecklers, and he lost face on Tuesday after the Tour basically came riding to his rescue like a helicopter mom telling bullies to leave her beautiful boy alone.
"The barometer that we are all using is the word 'respect,' and to me, when you hear 'Brooksie' yelled or you hear any expression yelled, the question is, is that respectful or disrespectful?" PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan said during a Tuesday news conference. "That has been going on for an extended period of time. To me, at this point, it's disrespectful, and that's the kind of behavior that we're not going to tolerate going forward."
So here DeChambeau was, at the season-ending Tour Championship, starting three strokes off Cantlay’s lead due the event’s “staggered start” format. He struggled with accuracy and touch early, bogeying the second and the third holes to drop into a tie with none other than … Brooks Koepka his own self.
Koepka, DeChambeau’s nemesis in what’s now a two-year-plus verbal kerfuffle — and yes, that is the correct word for it — has struggled more than DeChambeau over the past few months. Yet here he was, dead even for a moment at least, raising the possibility that the two could finally be paired through the soulless machinations of golf statistics.
It wasn’t to be; DeChambeau padded his lead and finished at -8, five strokes off Cantlay’s lead, while Koepka held steady at -5. Afterward, Koepka addressed the topic of the day in his characteristic sidling fashion, condemning unruly fan behavior but throwing a soft elbow at DeChambeau along the way.
“When you're out there, you can hear everything, so everybody's been told something or said something they didn't like and, I mean, that's sports,” Koepka said. “It's not a sport if you [haven’t] got people cheering for you and against you.”
He’s not wrong. DeChambeau is simply the latest in a long line of targets of the gallery’s wrath. Members of Arnie’s Army called Jack Nicklaus “Fat Boy.” Colin Montgomerie got tagged with the “Mrs. Doubtfire” handle, and Nick Faldo was called “Foldo” by tough crowds throughout his career. What makes DeChambeau different? Should he let a bit of the “Brooksy” business roll off his shoulders? Is this part and parcel of cashing big tournament checks, the blowback that comes with critics?
DeChambeau didn’t speak to the media after the round, but he has an eloquent defender in Rory McIlroy, who spoke at length earlier in the week.
“I certainly feel some sympathy for him because I don't think that you should be ostracized or criticized for being different, and I think we have all known from the start that Bryson is different and he is not going to conform to the way people want him to be,” McIlroy said. “He is his own person. He thinks his own thoughts and everyone has a right to do that.”
McIlroy continued with words that might — might — give a few of DeChambeau’s critics pause. Or ammunition. “There are certainly things that he has done in the past that have brought some of this stuff on himself,” McIlroy said. “I'm not saying that he's completely blameless in this. 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 because he, deep down, I think, is a nice person and all he wants to do is try to be the best golfer he can be. And it just seems like every week something else happens and I would say it's pretty tough to be Bryson DeChambeau right now.”
It’s clear DeChambeau wants to be loved, not feared. On the 18th tee, waiting for the group ahead to clear the fairway, DeChambeau said, “Stop icing the kicker.” A single chuckle bubbled up from the gallery, and DeChambeau turned toward the sound. “Somebody laughed,” he said with a smile.
By and large, the gallery at East Lake was respectful and appreciative. Granted, DeChambeau was playing early Thursday afternoon, not late Sunday. Beer doesn’t flow quite as freely during the work week. Even so, most of the shouts were of Bryson’s name, with an occasional “ATHLETE!” or “GET ‘EM BABY FACE!” thrown in. (Local law enforcement said they heard only one “Brooksie!”, and it did not result in an immediate expulsion.)
The DeChambeau situation has put the PGA Tour in a bind of its own making. The Tour wants to attract a younger, more lucrative demographic for the future health of the game. But if that demographic hasn’t been raised on the nuances of golf etiquette — more to the point, if that demographic is bringing some of the energy from other sports over to a golf course — well, it doesn’t go over well.
“Certain other sports’ culture has fed into our game and fed into the fan base,” McIlroy said. “People will make the argument that, well, it happens in every other sport. But I would say that we're not any other sport, and I think golf should hold itself to a higher standard. I mean, the players are certainly held to a higher standard than other sports, so why wouldn't our fan base be?”
“There comes a time, a place, I think where you can see fan behavior get a little excessive,” Koepka said Thursday. “You kind of see it in the NBA a little bit. Maybe out here as well.”
The challenge for the Tour: attract a younger fan base without suffocating it under the weight of 150 years of golf etiquette. The challenge for DeChambeau: appreciate the fans’ support without needing it. The challenge for Koepka: stop needling DeChambeau at every turn and inciting the golf equivalent of a mob —a visor-wearing mob that will show up to work on Monday with a sunburn and a headache, but still.
The PGA Tour is on the first holes of a new era, one where Tiger Woods won’t save ratings and juice sponsors. The Tour will need to figure a way to split the difference between drama and anarchy, and DeChambeau will be standing right at the midpoint.