[PHOTO: David Cannon]

They were yelling his name as Bryson DeChambeau inspected the 55 yards of sand and green and brown and fate between him and redemption. All day, all week, DeChambeau had turned to the direction of the shout to nod or tip his cap, embracing and reciprocating the attention he has forever craved, but even for golf’s premier showman this was no time for stagecraft. What he would do over these 55 yards, needing to get his ball from a greenside bunker to a back pin in two shots or less, would be the theatre. The man who has been the greatest show in golf delivered a finale befitting his reputation, his shot from the soil soaring out of the Carolina sandscape, plopping onto the green and skidding towards the pin, stopping four feet from the flag featuring his childhood idol, Payne Stewart. There was no revolution wrought like his triumph at 2020 Winged Foot. This championship was not made to bow before his prodigious length, as the driver consistently put him in spots Donald Ross didn’t know were on the map. For the better part of five hours it wasn’t smooth and it was far from easy. It was simply the performance of stubborn will and conviction that comes from the countless hours of work and dreams and disappointment, a cost that can never be measured and a price only he knows he paid.

That’s why, when the cloud of sand produced by his swing billowed and dissipated, DeChambeau emerged with both arms pumping towards the ground, and when his ball disappeared for the final time moments later those arms fiercely pierced the sky as he unleashed a primal scream. DeChambeau signalled to anyone that had a pulse that while Pinehurst did its best to knock him down he had refused to yield, capping a resurgence whose improbability is bested by the fact that the game’s former divisive figure has become one of its most beloved.

In a masterclass of fortitude, DeChambeau stayed steady as the rest of the field wilted, and for his efforts he is the 2024 United States Open champion.

“I’m so happy I got that shot up-and-down on 18,” DeChambeau said through laughter after this one-over 71 on the final day nipped Rory McIlroy by a stroke. “Oh, man, I didn’t want to finish second again. PGA really stung. Xander [Schauffele] played magnificent. I wanted to get this one done, especially at such a special place that means so much to me, SMU (Southern Methodist University), my dad, what Payne meant to him, 1,000th USGA championship. Stack them on top.”

Photo: Sean M. Haffey

He’s not the DeChambeau you remember, not quite. The Hogan cap is gone, his once-beefy profile now slimmed to a sinewy figure. His hat and shirt and bag are adorned with a skull and crossbones. Yet those are merely aesthetics, and what was seen and felt this week has nothing to do with appearance. Because the DeChambeau of old was a character golf did not want in its script. At last year’s PGA Championship, DeChambeau was loudly booed on Oak Hill’s first tee in his Saturday pairing with Brooks Koepka. When he feuded with Koepka in mid-2021 fans mostly took Koepka’s side. Crowds at the Open Championship the past two Julys, when the fans are more in tune with the havoc golf’s civil war has wrought and only give forgiveness when it has been requested, have treated him with aggressive indifference. The patrons of the Masters do not have an appetite for the brashness of one who calls Augusta National a par 67. LIV Golf fans… well, three seasons into the schism it remains unclear if LIV has fans in America. DeChambeau has desperately craved popularity since his arrival and, for the most part, his celebrity has not been of warmth but curiosity.

Yet what was seen at Valhalla and cemented at Pinehurst testify that reality is in the past.

Wherever he walked this week, DeChambeau was greeted with claps and cheers and a soundtrack that played the cry of “Let’s go, Bryson!” on repeat. And whatever was said, DeChambeau acknowledged their efforts with an effort of his own, often saying “thank you” or grabbing the bill of his cap, which only turned up the volume on those claps and cheers and cries. It should be a lesson to all professional golfers that those outside the ropes don’t expect much; they just want your acknowledgement that they exist.

“They just say things that make me interact and engage,” DeChambeau explained. “I’m just able to play off of that. It’s direct conversations to people that truly engage with what I’m doing. It’s such an awesome, awesome platform for me to show who I truly am. Those fans out there really helped push me out there today. Even when stuff wasn’t going well, I’m just looking on the screen back there, I have nothing there, no business even trying to go for that. But you know me; I don’t play boring golf. Again, even though I hit it in the bunker, the fans are still chanting my name.”

US Open 2024: Bryson DeChambeau called it ‘the bunker shot of my life’. Here’s the stat that proves it

However, golf tournaments are not awarded on sentiment, especially US Opens at Pinehurst. This championship is known as the brute of majors, the one that is prone to breaking scorecards and bullying players, sometimes in ways that can seem artificial. It tests every facet of a player’s game and mind and heart. DeChambeau found that out early, his three-shot 54-hole lead over Rory McIlroy whittled to two before he teed off and down to one after a bogey at the fourth hole. The one-shot advantage eventually turned into a two-shot deficit after McIlroy birdied four times in a five-hole stretch, with DeChambeau answering with a birdie of his own at the driveable par-4 13th, setting up a matchplay-style finishing stretch.

When things are going well for DeChambeau, his length begets an aggressive mindset that makes every hole a birdie opportunity. It may not be nuanced or enlightened golf yet that muscle is a magnetic pull for a significant portion of the golf populace. But minutes before his round DeChambeau had to substitute a new driver head and it was clear he never calibrated the tool properly, hitting just five fairways for the day. Playing often out of Pinehurst’s native areas, DeChambeau was forced to play smart, looking away from the pin just to get his ball safely on the green. The thing is, DeChambeau is more than muscle. This week he displayed a short game that was impervious to nerves and full of creativity, keeping the big numbers at bay and keeping him in the ballgame.

Ahead, McIlroy started having the damnedest time with his putter. The Ulsterman failed to get up-and-down at the par-3 15th and missed a two-and-a-half-footer for par at the 16th. DeChambeau’s three-jack at the 15th and birdie misses at the 16th and 17th meant the two were tied going into the final hole. A poor drive from McIlroy left a pitch short to the green, his third finishing a few feet from the pin. As McIlroy was facing his par attempt heads in the gallery could be seen tilting their heads towards the approaching sandstorm. There were so many fans following DeChambeau that as they trampled through the pinestraw the soil underneath jumped to form a roaming, ominous cloud. What McIlroy was thinking, we do not know; he missed the four-footer, disappeared into the locker room and jetted off the property.

The issue remained in doubt thanks to another wayward drive from DeChambeau, his ball coming to rest under a tree next to a root. He tried in vain to get relief from the grandstands but was denied, leaving him to punch out into the bunker. His ensuing bunker shot was hit with a confidence you’re not supposed to have over such a distance, from such a spot, in such a moment.

That bunker shot was the shot of my life,” DeChambeau said. “I’ll forever be thankful that I’ve got longer wedges so I can hit it farther, get it up there next to the hole.”

Photo: Ross Kinnaird

So what do we make of DeChambeau? Two US Open wins by age 30, just the fourth man with multiple Opens and a US Amateur title. Pinehurst was no fluke, posting a T-6 at the Masters along with his runner-up at the PGA. The type of tour de force display that begs questions of who DeChambeau is as a player, what he can be and where he’ll ultimately go. Conversely, DeChambeau the player is secondary to the change in his perception. There’s no doubt he is now a gallery darling, although that’s not a byproduct of LIV. The boos he received at Oak Hill 13 months ago proved as much. Make no mistake, there will forever be corners of the golf world that will not forget he took hundreds of millions of dollars from an oppressive regime for the sake of improving that regime’s image, then proceeded to sue his former employer for reasons that remain unclear. Correlating his newfound popularity to a persona transformation is also tenuous. Frankly, a lot of his love probably has to due with the fact DeChambeau may be hard to take in large quantities, but now that he’s only seen a few weeks a year, fans appreciate what they didn’t before. That, and sports fans by nature are frontrunners, and when a player’s game is soaring, people will follow.

And yet, DeChambeau the person does seem different. He’s experienced life, the good and bad, including the PR hit from joining LIV and losing his dad in late 2022. He’s more at peace with himself and the recognition he commands. For years it seemed DeChambeau did whatever he could to gain adulation. He’s now got it, not by pandering but being himself. Some of that comes with age, and part of that maturation has come from his LIV Golf teammates, the lone wolf now part of a pack. Perhaps DeChambeau needed to get lost in LIV to find himself.

“I would say first and foremost I respect and understand people’s opinions,” DeChambeau said. “I mean, I was knocked pretty hard down in 2022 for numerous reasons, numerous scenarios, numerous things. I had some great friends and great people around me tell me, ‘Keep going, keep pushing.’ So I dug myself out of a pretty deep hole. Golf swing wasn’t doing well. Ball-striking was terrible. Putting wasn’t great. I had Paul, who’s on the Crushers, Paul Casey, Anirban Lahiri and Charles Howell continuing to push me in the right direction. That was actually a massive help to help get me in the right mind frame from such a low point in my life.

“So how I’ve grown, I’ve realised that there’s a lot more to life than just golf. Treating others, yourself first and foremost, respecting yourself, is super important to being able to treat others with respect, as well. That’s one of the big things that I’ve learned. I’m not perfect. I’m human. Everyone’s human. Certainly those low moments have helped establish a new mind frame of who I am, what’s expected, what I can do and what I want to do in my life. To answer your question quite frankly, what have I learned? Having the right people around you.”

Yes, some of the oddities remain. He’s now playing 3D-printed clubs because of course he is. After the third round he discussed salting his golf balls. His normal actions continue to be meme-able, and look no further than DeChambeau picking up a Masters crosswalk sign this April and carrying it like a knapsack. He reacts to made putts like a frat pro draining a shot in beer pong. In that same breath, no matter what you think of DeChambeau, there’s no doubt he’s colourful, a showman out of the Mickelson mould, and this sport could use some of that in its sea of vanilla. Fans want their athletes to care like they care, and DeChambeau seems to care a hell of a lot.

“No, that’s my passion,” DeChambeau said. “I mean, Tiger was an idol of mine, is an idol of mine. He’s my hero still, the way he reacted on the golf course. Payne, the way he did. Numerous others that have inspired generations that are now here have allowed that to be unique and cool.

“From my perspective, I’m just passionate. I really care about doing well out here and showing the fans a side of me that was locked up for so long.”

It’s fitting, then, that one of the final scenes of the night took place after the closing ceremony. DeChambeau did the requisite photo-ops, interviews, exchanging hugs with family and friends and those who just wanted to get close to greatness. But DeChambeau noticed the fans, many of whom endured the heat and humidity all week to let him know they were by his side, were still lining the 18th fairway. So DeChambeau took off, with trophy in tow, to personally thank them for carrying him home. And as he took more photos and dished out fist bumps and high-fives, his smile growing as he made his way down the ropes, it was clear that he is not just the US Open victor. Bryson DeChambeau is the new people’s champion.