Let’s put aside all moral and ethical concerns, just for a second, and judge the feud between Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau like we’d judge a boxing match. Do that, and it’s a unanimous decision: Koepka won. Definitively, emphatically and completely, Koepka won.
The condensed story of what happened here is that the two golfers disliked each other from the start, DeChambeau pissed Koepka off after they reached an uneasy truce, and Koepka unleashed the dogs of war. Once he did, it was never a fair fight. The end result is that even as DeChambeau continues to find success on the course – which is pretty impressive under the circumstances, by the way – he’s being ritually bullied to the point of frustration and rage. In fact, if this were a real boxing match, you wouldn’t even need judges; there’s no need to deliberate over a TKO.
There’s a popular meme taken from “The Simpsons,” and it depicts a horrified boy pointing a finger at an unseen spectacle (it’s Homer Simpson dressed as Krusty the Clown beating up a hamburglar, but that’s not important right now) and shouting “Stop! Stop! He’s already dead!” That’s where we are with the Koepka-DeChambeau feud; Koepka made his point, and he made it unmistakably. It’s incumbent on him now to realise that he can stop the fight without losing face, and to realise that every moment he remains silent and allows the abuse of DeChambeau to continue without even an attempt at intervention is a moment that is unnecessarily cruel.
I want to be abundantly clear on one point, which is that I’m not sure we can blame Koepka for reacting the way he did initially. Repeat: Initially. (For a recap of the complicated feud, go here.) There’s no law that says he has to like DeChambeau, and let’s be honest, from where Brooks and others sit, there’s a lot about Bryson not to like – how he blames his equipment; his, ahem, controversial opinions on public health matters; his recent refusal to talk to the press; and on and on. With Koepka, part of what makes him such a great competitor is that it’s not in his nature to take an insult on the chin. Until this past June, he was more or less just holding his ground.
Then came Koepka’s post promoting Michelob Ultra in which he implicitly encouraged fans to heckle DeChambeau, and the whole episode crossed a competitive line. It emboldened and enabled the worst people in a golf gallery, and made every round for Bryson DeChambeau a battle with far more than the golf course.
Like everything else Koepka has attempted in this feud, it worked. I noticed the sadistic nature of the attacks from the gallery for the first time in Memphis, and Memphis is also when I first realised that the “Brooksy!” routine wasn’t trivial or good-natured. It can certainly read that way in print, which is why it’s so difficult to explain to those who haven’t seen it in person how ugly it feels out on the course. That’s part of the problem with this whole feud – the natural reaction to hearing all this is to wonder why calling someone “Brooksy” matters. On the surface, it’s not profane, it’s not personal, and it’s not even an insult. But when you see the mob in the flesh, and when you hear the cascading shouts for hours on end, the intent becomes clear, and the intent is to harass and humiliate. They’re yelling “Brooksy” because they don’t like him. More importantly, they want him to know they don’t like him. The word itself is just a messenger, but the message it carries is potent. With dozens of fans peppering him on every hole, it’s a brutal spectacle.
It’s also effective. DeChambeau was visibly upset during his final round in Memphis, staring daggers at fans and finally yelling back at a woman who joined the fray. He swore angrily to his manager in the aftermath, ostensibly about the unlucky breaks of his round, but the origins of his rage were abundantly clear. At The Northern Trust in New Jersey, undercover cops roamed the crowds, by turns lecturing and booting fans who shouted abuse, but it made no difference. There was silence on the far reaches of the course, where the gallery was too sparse to shout at him anonymously, but in the thick crowds nearer the entrance, entire sections of fans in the stadiums abused him en masse. And Sunday at Caves Valley, the rancour of the fans and the constant heckling broke him down to the extent that ESPN’s Kevin Van Valkenburg witnessed him confront a fan in an encounter that seemed to be on the verge of real physical aggression.
On Tuesday at a press conference ahead of the Tour Championship, PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan addressed the matter, stating that the tour would be updating its fan code-of-conduct policy so that anyone engaging in “unsafe, disruptive or harassing behaviour” could be removed from a tournament. Asked specifically if shouting “Brooksy” was such behaviour, Monahan said yes it was.
“And the reason I say yes is that what we are all using is the word ‘respect,’ and to me, when you hear ‘Brooksy’ yelled or you hear any expression yelled, the question is, is that respectful or disrespectful?” Monahan said. “That has been going on for an extended period of time. To me, at this point, it’s disrespectful, and that’s the kind of behaviour that we’re not going to tolerate going forward.”
We need to be realistic and admit that it’s gotten so bad that the tour, or Koepka himself, might not be able to change anything at this point. Even if Koepka came out tomorrow and released a video asking all his fans to ease up on DeChambeau, who’s to say they’d listen? I think it would make a positive difference, but there’s an obvious glee on the part of the hecklers that goes beyond the control of one person. We should also note, in the interest of fairness, that Koepka is not solely to blame for the subset of fans who don’t like DeChambeau. To walk with DeChambeau on the 18th hole at Caves Valley (the first time) this past Sunday was to see an atmosphere that was heavily pro-Cantlay. It didn’t reach Ryder Cup levels of partisanship, but it was strangely one-sided for a “neutral” PGA Tour clash between two Americans, particularly when the favoured American isn’t really known as a beloved figure. The fans were delighted at every Cantlay highlight, including a bogey putt at 17 that earned a louder cheer than any bogey putt I can remember, and they were almost equally delighted at DeChambeau’s failures. There is something about DeChambeau that rubs galleries the wrong way. It transcends Koepka, and there’s no use denying it.
But it doesn’t have to be this bad. Koepka could step up, make a public statement, and attempt to put an end to a sad episode in professional golf. He could step up because no matter how much you may dislike a fellow competitor, and no matter how good your reasons are, it’s wrong to allow him to be psychologically abused by galleries. Nobody is lining up to canonise Bryson DeChambeau, and in fact Koepka may not suffer very much if he remains silent. Still, he has an opportunity to do the right thing. It may go against his competitive instincts, it may be hard, and it may not resonate with the attack dogs, but it will be noticed and appreciated in the right places. He’s already won the fight; now it’s time to extend a hand and lift his rival off the canvas.