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Nothing about the Bryson DeChambeau experience is easy these days

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Bryson DeChambeau was steaming.

He’d just missed a birdie putt that brought an end to one of the most memorable playoffs the PGA Tour has seen in recent years, and understandably, he wanted to get away. From everyone. The roars for Patrick Cantlay, the winner of the BMW Championship, were still ringing out as DeChambeau ducked into the tunnel that cuts beneath the 18th hole grandstands.

DeChambeau handed his hat to a gleeful adolescent fan standing at the rope line, then began a furious but silent walk up the steep hill that winds its way toward the Caves Valley clubhouse.

Halfway up the hill, something happened that made me feel like we’ve arrived at a miserable place in the never-ending circus that is DeChambeau. A patron waited until DeChambeau had walked by, but was not out of earshot, then sneered from over the rope line “Great job Brooksie!” DeChambeau spun around in a rage and began briefly walking in his direction.

“You know what? Get the f— out!” DeChambeau yelled. He had rage in his eyes.

I’m being dead serious when I say it could have gotten ugly really fast. Maybe not “Malice At The Palace” bad, but in that moment, nothing would’ve surprised me. A rope line is little more than a polite suggestion when it comes to security a golf tournament. DeChambeau had been hearing, and ignoring, that kind of taunt all week. But everyone has their breaking point.

Thankfully DeChambeau paused, angrily motioning for a police officer to handle the heckler, then continued his march up the hill. The entire exchange took less than 10 seconds. The PGA Tour declined comment when asked about the incident by ESPN. But we’ve been building to something like this all summer. And I don’t know what the end game is.

The feud between DeChambeau and Brooks Koepka felt playful when it started, a harmless distraction in a time when we needed one. Besides, shouldn’t golf try to be less stuffy? Athletes in other sports trade barbs all the time. Why should this be different? That’s how I viewed it. If DeChambeau couldn’t ignore the fans taking Koepka’s side, wasn’t that a sign of weakness? Shouldn’t he shut them up with his clubs?

It’s obvious who won, though, even if DeChambeau has won more money and more tournaments than Koepka this season. Koepka no longer even needs to participate to keep the feud going. (Koepka told me he agreed to pause it, at least for now, at the request of Ryder Cup captain Steve Stricker.) There is still an army of trolls eager to needle DeChambeau, and Koepka probably couldn’t call them off, even if he wanted to. It plays out almost like a Twitter harassment campaign with the trolls insisting they aren’t crossing any line, they’re just shouting “Brooksie!” because they want to support their favorite player — knowing full well it gets under DeChambeau’s skin.

Can you really boot someone from a professional sporting even for shouting a player’s name at a player who doesn’t like it? When does heckling cross a line and morph into bullying? And can you really bully a professional athlete who is built like a bull? It’s a surreal ethical dilemma.

If you’re not a golf fan, I suspect you find all this utterly perplexing, but golf is going to have to come up with an answer at some point because it’s not going away. The NBC broadcast team repeatedly implied the “Brooksie!” chants weren’t much of an issue throughout the weekend, that fans were mostly supportive of DeChambeau. But anyone who walked with DeChambeau at Caves Valley could tell you that was — to be generous — grossly misleading. I heard it dozens of times while walking with him and Cantlay during the six-hole playoff. DeChambeau had plenty of fans, sure, but he also had plenty of people openly rooting for him to hit the ball in the water. A huge contingent of the crowd was chanting “Patty! Pattt! Patty” for Cantaly, and roaring with glee when DeChambeau’s drive found the creek during the playoff.

I won’t tell anyone they should root for DeChambeau, or change their mind. He’s earned a lot of the criticism thrown his way. But I do think we’re losing the plot a bit, overlooking how compelling he is as a golfer, even if he can’t seem to resist saying foolish things. He isn’t as thoughtful behind the microphone as Rory McIlroy or Jon Rahm — few athletes are. He just shot the lowest score in PGA Tour history by someone who didn’t win a golf tournament, an absolute showcase for a city that hasn’t had a PGA Tour event in 60 years. And yet he seems on the verge of a meltdown because he can’t tune out the people who delight in mocking him. In an era where we are encouraging athletes to talk about their mental health, is it still OK to openly ridicule DeChambeau simply because he comes across as less likeable?

If certain aspects of golf have tried to mirror professional wrestling, with the PGA Tour awarding $40 million as part of its Player Impact Program that is based partially on fan engagement, then DeChambeau was never meant to play the heel. It’s not in his DNA. People who interact with him regularly have told me that, deep down, what he wants is to be loved. To be embraced. He can’t seem to grasp why he often isn’t, despite so much success.

Five years ago, when DeChambeau was about to turn professional, I sent him an email, inquiring whether he might be willing to sit down for an interview about his desire to be an agent of change in the often-stagnant world of golf. His outspoken aspiration, even as a college student, to evolve the way we view equipment and science and putting seemed like a great story.

He wrote back almost right way. His response, as I recall, was both polite and earnest. DeChambeau invited me to come to California and spend time with him and his family. He was an open book, excited to share his theories on where he saw the sport going. We couldn’t get our schedules aligned, and sadly never made it happen, but lately I’ve been thinking about the kid DeChambeau was back then, still mostly unknown, yet so hungry and eager to share his passion for the game.

A lot of that earnestness remains, but some of it has been chipped away, and his resentments have hardened. It would be fun if everyone — DeChambeau included — could push a reset button, because it’s fascinating to watch him play golf. Even the athletes who annoy us deserve a little empathy. Whether he deserves it or not, it would be nice to extend him some.

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