The Last Word: The Brooks Koepka—Bryson DeChambeau spat highlights future ramifications involving social media & legalised betting in golf

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September 05, 2021 6:00 AM

I have to admit—given the extraordinary circumstances of his spat with Brooks Koepka—DeChambeau, once again, deserves a collective doffing of hats for the way he’s handled himself in the face of constant heckling by fans.

Bryson DeChambeau was mercilessly heckled during the PGA TOur's BMW ChampionshipBryson DeChambeau was mercilessly heckled during the PGA TOur's BMW Championship

Okay. I get it. There is something off-putting about Bryson DeChambeau’s demeanour. If, like me, you’ve felt the same stirrings watching DeChambeau—with his Johnny Bravo-esque gait and cockiness—smash the ball into oblivion, then I would humbly submit that we need to re-examine our prejudice. With me, it’s not that hard to put a finger on what I find distasteful, and which, I admit, DeChambeau has certainly done nothing to deserve. I recognise my deep-rooted ‘traditional’ ideas about the game, and the way it’s played—with grace, finesse, and long-flowing motions. Naturally what follows is that I’m no fan of ‘bomb-and-gouge,’ and love the beauty of the golf swing. Given that slant, I recognise why I have a subliminal reaction to Chambeau.

However, cringe as much as I may—watching the man demolish course strategy predictions, with his prodigious length—that does not colour what I think about the man, and his abilities. DeChambeau’s astonishing body- and swing-transformation forced respect out of golf fans, including those who gave it grudgingly. And you can’t have anything but admiration for the US Open Champions’ penchant for doing things his own way, and making a go of it. Now, I have to admit—given the extraordinary circumstances of his spat with Brooks Koepka—DeChambeau, once again, deserves a collective doffing of hats for the way he’s handled himself in the face of constant heckling by fans, and even more, for the quality of game he’s managed to play in the face of consistent on-course harassment.

I wrote about the ongoing tussle between Koepka and DeChambeau in this column a few weeks back—I won’t get into the history again. Suffice to say that the latest salvo—when Koepka, in his infinitesimal non-golfing wisdom, exhorted fans on social media to heckle DeChambeau—tipped the scales. At the BMW Championship, which he lost after an epic six-hole playoff to Patrick Cantlay, DeChambeau was incessantly ribbed by Koepka’s fans calling him ‘Brooksie,’ including one who waylaid DeChambeau minutes after the playoff loss. The ensuing player-fan confrontation led to the PGA Tour announcing a string of updates to the spectators’ ‘Code of Conduct’. In the future, Jay Monahan, Commissioner, PGA Tour, said, “…comments or gestures that undermine the inclusive and welcoming nature of the game will not be tolerated, nor will any harassment of players, caddies, volunteers, officials, staff, or other spectators. Those found to be in breach of those regulations will be subject to expulsion.” Even though Monahan insisted that the announcement was unrelated to recent incidents, it was clear that finally, the line had been crossed. If you ask me, it had been crossed a long time back, but this time it was ugly enough for the Tour to decide to do something about it.

What hasn’t got enough attention in this very public slugfest, is in fact, the Tour’s role in the matter. First off, players being heckled is nothing new: just ask Colin Montgomerie who very nearly stopped playing in the United States because of the incessant verbal barrage he faced from fans in that country. What’s made things worse this time has to do with the amplification of the situation on social media. Twitter, in particular, has become much more relevant with the Tour’s own ‘Player Impact Program’ in which players are paid serious bucks if they demonstrate initiative in interacting with fans on social media. Even more pertinent is the PGA Tour’s incorporation of live betting at tournaments and venues that was announced early last year. The nature of the sport, or the beast as it were, when it comes to betting, means spectators transform from mere fans to people with direct stakes in the outcome of events and the way players perform. Ergo, strong reactions are to be expected and that makes spectator behaviour at venues a slippery slope for the Tour to try and regulate. It can be done though: the gallery at The Masters Tournament being a case in point.

Another valid viewpoint, echoed by none other than Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee is that to ‘grow the game,’ the PGA Tour needs to reach out and attract sports-oriented fans from other sports. And vocal support as well as ‘booing’ are very much part-and-parcel of other sports arenas. Chamblee surmises, accurately, that new people will bring that sensibility into golf whether traditionalists like it or not. And while golf has traditions of decorum and respect, some of the new converts to the game may not subscribe to those notions. The game will change, if it has to grow, and that’s something we all might have to accept.

Koepka, very much a part of this neo-tradition, is unfazed by all the brouhaha surrounding the whiplash his fans have faced for going after DeChambeau. After his first round at the ongoing Tour Championship, Koepka was asked about ‘unruly fan’ behaviour, and this is what he had to say. “Everybody has been called something they didn’t like. That’s sports. You see it in the NBA, and you see it here (on the golf course). You’ve got people cheering for you and against you. That’s why it’s called a sport isn’t it?” Fans’ behaviour, he added, “…can improve…but at the same time, it’s fine.”

A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game

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