Controversy follows Bryson DeChambeau everywhere he goes, and so do his fans and detractors
Bryson DeChambeau plays his shot from the seventh tee during the third round of the FedEx St. Jude Invitational.
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — At the WGC-FedEx St. Judge Invitational, the vertical signs held by the marshals to silence the crowds don't say "QUIET," the imperative norm at every other tour stop. This is the gentile south, so they opt to catch flies with honey ... hence their version: "HUSH, y'all." On Saturday afternoon, with the temperature kindly staying just below 90 degrees, with humidity enough for a good sweat, the entire course seemed to be broadcasting that same message. The whir of the cicadas, the drone of the Goodyear blimp and even the scattered fans lying in the grass with folded towels under their heads, catching a cat nap, all seemed designed to drain your energy as they conspired to whisper the same message: sleep.
Waiting for Bryson DeChambeau on the sixth green, it sounded like a good idea, albeit at least slightly unprofessional. Then he came marching down the fairway of the par 4, unmistakable even at a distance in blue puma gear and his trademark flat cap, and the sporadic crowds along the ropes suddenly gained density and depth as the 300 fans following him around like an army behind their general filled the spaces. DeChambeau, at 12 under and just a shot off the lead, found his ball beneath a tree off the left, and if the collective energy seemed to be recovering at the sight of him, it tipped over the edged when he launched his approach far over the green and shouted a single word emphatically down the fairway:
This, if you've been following closely the past week, is a loaded word for DeChambeau. On Friday, when video surfaced of him explicitly not saying the word after an errant drive, fellow pro Richard Bland called him out, and was joined by Edoardo Molinari. The fact that he yelled it this time sent the crowd into a near-rapture.
"He said it! He said it!" yelled a man behind me, overcome with glee. Similar responses ran up and down the gallery behind the green.
Typical DeChambeau, you might think, and you might be right. Over the past year, and especially over the past month, he seems unable to take a step without generating some sort of controversy. Any moderately aware golf fan can reel off the greatest hits: fore-gate, splitting from his caddie after an "intense relationship," the escalating feud with Brooks Koepka, insulting his own equipment company and then being lectured by said company in public, and not competing in the Olympics after testing positive for COVID-19, admitting he hadn't been vaccinated, then compounding the error with misinformation about the vaccine's availability. However you feel about any of this, you can't deny that it follows a pattern that arguably began with the remarkable transformation of his body and game over the pandemic hiatus. In essence, the guy makes news.
Which, on Saturday, roused the Memphians from their slumber and had them geared up for whatever was about to happen. After finding his ball behind a wooden fence, DeChambeau contemplated punching out before opting for something trickier—a high pitch over the small TV stand between him and the flag. His new caddie, Brian Zeigler, pointed to a fence post, said, "32 yards right here," and DeChambeau found the trajectory he needed, lofting the ball over the tower but just under the overhanging branches of the trees, and landing it in the fringe, where it haltingly found its way to the green and gave him a shot, at least, at saving par. (He made bogey.)
For a moment, it was delirium. One loud roar incited others, and around the green they cheered as he ducked under the fence and marched to the green. Several people began yelling the word "science!", laughter met the cheers, and if you didn't know what you didn't know, you might think for a second that DeChambeau was loved.
Bryson DeChambeau tosses a ball to fans during the second round of the FedEx St. Jude Invitational.
That's not quite true. You can read it on his face. Even after the shot from behind the fence, he never lost his perpetual look of frustration, or grimness, possibly going as far in the wrong moments as pained and forlorn. He does not look happy, and a certain segment of fans—the ones who might have been called frat bros 15 years ago—seem to identify in him something different, something a little bit uncool, and even when they cheer for him there's a sharp edge of irony, like the sharks are ready to circle at a moment's notice. He attracts people, and he attracts fascination, but not necessarily good will.
This is the origin of the cruel cries of "nice shot, Brooksy!" that were flung at him from the underachieving sadists on the front nine, a kind of taunt derived from his fight with Koepka that will probably never go away, along with various other heckles. Bryson responded once and once only, to a shout too faint to hear, and it sent the group into fits of laughter as he marched along. The rest he ignored, responding only to a boy who said "I'm a big fan" from outside the roped-off path leading to the ninth tee, which earned a "thanks buddy!" from DeChambeau, and a less sincere "we love you Bryson" from an adult man, to which, almost perplexed by how to read it, DeChambeau gave a perfunctory "thank you."
(Incidentally, there are 16 officers from the Germantown Police Department on site this week, assigned in groups of two to eight players designated by the tour. These players are obviously the ones most likely to attract the largest crowds, and for most, like Phil Mickelson, the presence of police seems superfluous, since the fans who follow him do so out of varying degrees of fandom. DeChambeau is the one guy on the course where you can't help but be glad the cops are there.)
He rescued par on 7 after another errant tee shot, made par on 8, launched a 3-wood as dragonflies swirled around his head on 9, missed a short birdie putt there, and finished the front nine two shots off the lead. Five holes and four birdies later, DeChambeau was tied for the lead Harris English and Abraham Ancer at 15 under.
Not once did it look like he took much pleasure from the performance, and it's tempting to wonder if the cloud of controversy has worn him down. If so, it hasn't hamstrung his game quite yet, at least in Memphis. He marched up the hill after his par on nine, hopped in the cart ready to drive him past the clubhouse to the 10th tee, and soldiered on among the ambivalent, passionate crowds, still with every chance to win again.