The PGA Tour returns this week to the birthplace of its most engaging tussle in recent memory, even if the most attentive fan would struggle to recall a single shot ever struck at Liberty National Golf Club.
On the morning of the final round of the Northern Trust two years ago—August 11, 2019 — I was standing by the practice putting green with Ricky Elliott and Claude Harmon III, respectively the caddie and (now former) coach of Brooks Koepka, when a clearly vexed Bryson DeChambeau approached and instructed Elliott to tell his boss to make any comments about slow play “to my face.”
The irony of directing such a request to an intermediary was lost on DeChambeau. Upon being told of the message, Koepka went over to speak with his flat-capped rival. After the round, both insisted that online onlookers should disperse.
“No issues,” Brooks said.
“He’s got respect for me, I have respect for him. So no issues,” Bryson echoed.
(“We’re going to be playing on a lot of teams together, I hope, so we go into these team competitions wanting to do our absolute best and not have anything else happen,” he added. Cue eye-roll from Steve Stricker.)
Asked recently about the ongoing feud, Koepka traced it to that day at Liberty National, claiming the two agreed not to chide each other publicly. Then DeChambeau made a sassy comment about Koepka’s abs (or lack thereof). Bets off, beef on. Thus we find ourselves in the midst of a bro brouhaha that is alternately amusing and unsettling.
Last week, Shane Ryan detailed in Golf Digest the abuse DeChambeau endured from the gallery while contending at the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational in Memphis. The ‘Brooksie’ gibes were obviously bothersome, though DeChambeau did deliver the most wounding retort of the entire feud when a chump inquired where ‘Brooksie’ was: “He finished about four or five hours ago.”
The scenes Ryan described made for uncomfortable reading, but they are not uncommon in sport, nor even in golf, no matter how much we’d like to pretend otherwise. And while it’s apparent that DeChambeau is the target of a harassment campaign by some spectators, it’s less obvious to what extent blame for that can be ascribed to Koepka.
When DeChambeau had hecklers ejected from the Memorial Tournament for calling him “Brooksie,” Koepka responded by offering them free beer as compensation for having their day cut short—a borderline unprofessional stunt that incentivized oafs to imitate the taunting. But chronology matters here: the heckling begat the overreaction which begat the beer stunt.
Some observers characterize Koepka’s actions toward DeChambeau as bullying, an accusation that has become so commonplace as to be cheapened. It’s a stretch claim. Koepka’s poking is nothing to applaud, but it falls somewhere between jock trash-talking and juvenile social media trolling. To whatever extent bullying is a concern, it owes to the behavior of those outside the ropes.
Unlike shooters on the free-throw line or pitchers on the mound, golfers don’t have a wall of white noise to help drown jeers. If a spectator wants to be heard at a golf tournament, they will be, and that fraternity — it’s always a frat — has been a tedious presence on Tour for decades. Jack Nicklaus’s dethroning of Arnold Palmer was met with ‘Fat Jack’ barbs until his winning silenced them. But loudmouthed fans can be corrosive. Colin Montgomerie couldn’t ignore them, which only inspired more, and that might explain why the best European of his generation never won a major or a PGA Tour event.
A spectator who gets his jollies needling DeChambeau is invariably the kind of swaggering blowhard whose gait after a couple of beers resembles a knackered mule attempting dressage on ice skates. But imbecility isn’t cause for ejection, unless their comments are deliberately timed to impact the execution of a shot. The PGA Tour can’t start removing spectators simply for calling one player by another’s nickname.
Players who actively seek to fire up the fans — as DeChambeau did earlier this year at Bay Hill, posing arms aloft as he bludgeoned a driver over the lake toward a distant green — need to accept those fired-up fans might not always be on their side, especially a player prone to public displays of petulance like DeChambeau. Yet being a sometimes unsympathetic figure doesn’t mean DeChambeau is undeserving of support against the confederacy of dunces hassling him.
This adolescent spat has far outlived its entertainment value, though probably not just yet for Europe’s Ryder Cup team. Three things should happen to defuse a situation that is growing increasingly ugly.
First: Koepka needs to stop jabbing and understand that hecklers use his antipathy to justify the unsporting harassment of a fellow professional. Second: DeChambeau has to quit the whiny overreactions in difficult situations and learn to ignore feeble taunts from the peanut gallery. Third: the PGA Tour must group them together Thursday and Friday, thereby lowering the temperature for the inevitable day when they play their way into a weekend pairing with considerably more at stake.
Two years after it began, three parties are contributing to this spectacle, none of whom are eager to acknowledge their responsibility. All three have a role in ending it.
Published at Golfweek.com, August 14, 2021.