Every sport needs a Tom Brady, an Alex Rodriguez, a Kevin Garnett—athletes whose accomplishments win the admiration of some but whose acts and attitudes earn the loathing of many.
Hate figures supply one of the main arteries in sports fandom, permitting us to really savor those moments when karma kicks them in the teeth. It’s not a noble sentiment worthy of the Olympic Creed, but disasters inflicted on antagonists bring almost as much joy as the triumphs of heroes.
Social media has fueled the rip current of hatred in sport (and society), as folks once limited to braying from the bleachers have found both a wider platform and a community of the like-minded. The objects of their derision share one trait, of course: all excel in their sport. Bench-warmers don’t vex anyone. But in a pandemic when most other sports are mothballed, it’s increasingly apparent how uneasily golf co-exists with this new reality.
The PGA Tour resolutely refuses to lean into the idea of villains being good for fan engagement.
While its marketing slogan may have changed to “Live Under Par,” the Tour’s governing message remains the old “These Guys Are Good,” without an asterisk and small print cautioning, “But Some Can Be Jerks.” There are players who stray from the ordained conventions. Patrick Reed has embraced the antihero role, though admittedly that’s like a hamster embracing the wheel in its cage. There’s no alternative. Brooks Koepka too has shown an enviable aptitude for Twitter trash talking, which surely discomfits the Tour moreso than his opponents.
But golf’s unease is most readily apparent in a player who unwittingly finds himself becoming a focus of fan hostility, and who can’t seem to help himself.
There is much to admire about Bryson DeChambeau. I’ve seen him be exceedingly respectful to people at tournaments and he exhibits a single-mindedness about his craft that more talented peers are just too lazy to emulate. He works tirelessly and deserves his success. But he is also at times the walking embodiment of an observation by the old Giants designated hitter Chili Davis, who said that growing old is mandatory but growing up is optional.
This was yet another week in which we witnessed awe at DeChambeau’s performance and gasps at his immaturity. The former was inspired by his blistered tee shots on Thursday at the Memorial Tournament. The latter came Friday afternoon during his plaintive exchanges with a rules official on the 15th hole as he bludgeoned and blundered his way to a 10 and an early flight home.
There was no sin in DeChambeau pleading his case to an official in search of relief that even the most casual of rulebook Clintonistas would know he’s not entitled to. Less defensible was his churlish response when he didn’t hear the answer he wanted. “I don’t believe it. Can I get a second ruling?” he said snippily.
Retail workers must have empathized with the unfortunate rules official suddenly confronted by another ‘Karen’ demanding to see the manager.
When a second opinion confirmed the first—that his ball was out of bounds—DeChambeau sullenly picked up it up and walked away. He was later recorded bemoaning a “garbage ruling.”
As an upset DeChambeau left the next tee, his caddie appeared to deliberately obstruct a camera operator from filming.
Apparently Bryson’s concern for how his brand image appears on TV does not extend to the conduct of his oafish bagman. It was all enough to make one wonder if there’s a single person in his inner circle who has the gumption to tell him to grow up.
DeChambeau won’t be the last player to embarrass himself with on-course rudeness, and he’s not the first to think that the Tour exists to line his pockets and venerate his image. But his occasional petulance gives license to fans who relish watching the pseudoscientist short circuit when his data input does not generate the expected result.
Being brusque with rules officials and camera operators are not exactly war crimes, and as villains go DeChambeau is awfully vanilla. The most ardent hater would still struggle to summon the sentiment for a guy in a jaunty wee ascot cap. But the sports fan commentariat doesn’t have much else to occupy it these days, and that means DeChambeau is perilously close to finding himself branded a self-absorbed crybaby. Even when other sports have resumed and casual fans have moved on, that would be a terribly difficult reputation to shake.