Heckling is not what anyone should consider ideal social behavior, which is why it is not condoned at, say, the cubicle farm where you forfeit too many of the precious hours of your one life. A normal person does not heckle garbage collectors, or letter carriers, or landscapers, even though it’s perfectly possible, without a lot of pain-in-the-ass technical knowledge, to evaluate the quality of their professional performance. It would be rude and cruel, and it’s easy to imagine the fabric of a community breaking down quickly and violently if people started chanting “you suck” at visiting electricians and cable repair persons. Anyway I will not be the person to test this theory, as I do not like the idea of having my ass kicked by a righteously pissed-off plumber, right there in my own kitchen.
Athletes, on the other hand, are subjected to heckling, and not even just professional ones. College athletes get it pretty bad. Years ago my stepdad and his extended family and in particular his rowdy brothers would heckle each other and pretty much anyone else during their Friday night bowling league contests. You can become famous—or at least paid attention to—in your own right by heckling athletes cleverly enough.
What makes sports different is not that the athletes are famous or well-compensated. Sports have always been treated as a safe area for lots of behaviors that would be considered inappropriate or even psychotic in other contexts. Normal people do not gang tackle pizza delivery people, or do dramatic pen flips after closing tough negotiations, or force their bedraggled subordinates to run wind sprints up steep grassy hills when their blogs include too many em-dashes. Probably this is part of the social value of sports: isolating and cathartically allowing a lot of primitive impulses that would otherwise break down the various formal and informal agreements that form a community. Who knows. Nevertheless I must urge you to not do an obscene gyration after scoring a primo parking spot at the supermarket, for that is quite unpleasant to look at.
Bryson DeChambeau—golf’s version of the guy at work who conspicuously shoehorns the word “orthogonal” into too many break-room conversations in order to demonstrate his superior intellect, but pronounces it ORTH-oh-GO-nl, causing everyone else to flee the break room like mice from a burning wood shed—is the target of some very specific, very committed heckling. I do not know if those heckling DeChambeau are working out angst from their day-to-day lives, or if heckling DeChambeau is how they stop themselves from doing crimes, but they for sure seem to take a significant shit-hearted thrill from any signal that they might be disrupting his professional performance. The evidence of said disruption is unclear at best—DeChambeau shot a historic 27-under at Maryland’s Caves Valley Golf Club over the weekend—but whether it’s fucking up his golf or not, it is indisputably getting under his skin.
It seems impossible to say of a guy who spent most of his final round so far ahead of so much of the field that it was essentially match play with playing partner and eventual winner Patrick Cantlay, but DeChambeau once again had a very crummy Sunday. For four days he’d brutalized Caves Valley’s soft conditions with titanic drives; even spraying the ball wildly off the tee during an eventful third round, DeChambeau’s length simply put him an advantage unavailable to mere mortals. Cantlay improbably did what many Chicken Little–ass golf knowers have lately made out to be all but impossible: He played conventionally against DeChambeau’s outrageous, course-breaking bomb-and-gouge onslaught, relied on precision to match his opponent’s freakish distance, and benefited from just enough DeChambeau’s boners to sneak off with a victory after six playoff holes.
After he’d finally lost, DeChambeau was heckled one final time as he made his way back to the clubhouse. According to Kevin Van Valkenburg of ESPN, a spectator shouted “Great job, Brooksy!” as DeChambeau passed by, a reference to rival Brooks Koepka, who has in the past encouraged just this sort of heckling from his supporters.
DeChambeau spun around in a rage and began briefly walking in his direction.
“You know what? Get the fuck 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 at a golf tournament. DeChambeau had been hearing, and ignoring, that kind of taunt all week. But everyone has their breaking point.ESPN
Van Valkenburg’s article belongs in a category with that of Shane Ryan of Golf Digest, who earlier in August described this heckling of DeChambeau as “outrageous and unforgivable” and called it “bullying.” Van Valkenburg stops short of outright condemnation, but does describe the situation as “a surreal ethical dilemma,” and asks whether it’s acceptable to “openly ridicule DeChambeau simply because he comes across as less likable” during an era when “we are encouraging athletes to talk about their mental health.” I don’t know about all this “[w]hen does heckling cross a line and morph into bullying” business, but Van Valkenburg is right about a perceptible shift in fan attitudes about the mental health struggles of prominent athletes. Or, even if he isn’t, a shift in fan attitudes is due, or overdue. It should not be part of this gig or any other gig to have your basic humanity rejected; that there are people who would willingly sacrifice recognition of their humanity for the salary of, say, a professional basketball player does not excuse the kind of shitheel who would pay money for the opportunity to treat a stranger that way.
What’s less clear to me is where those lines should be drawn. Obviously you should not throw food at athletes or hurl slurs or cross certain thresholds of personal attack, but beyond that I have to admit I really don’t know. Booing and whistling and thundersticks all seem acceptable, to me. “Brooksy” is more personal than any of that, I guess, or at least more personalized, but only marginally. Functionally these fans are reminding DeChambeau of the existence of someone he doesn’t like too much, which on its own doesn’t strike me as particularly cruel. I assume DeChambeau wouldn’t be too hurt if a person asked him about Brooks Koepka, or showed him an image of his foe, so what makes this heckling and not perfectly benign is that it is intended to annoy him, and that it persists despite him preferring for it to stop. But those are the characteristics of booing and whistling and thundersticks, too. What I’m saying is to me “Brooksy” is not meaningfully different from booing, and I feel reasonably confident Van Valkenburg has never written handwringingly about the “surreal ethical dilemma” posed by booing.
There’s a scene in the great “Homer at the Bat” episode of The Simpsons where Bart and Lisa heckle Darryl Strawberry by chanting “Dar-ryl” at him as he stands in right field. Lisa comforts a disturbed Marge by explaining that professional athletes are “used to this sort of thing,” and that it “rolls right off their backs.” The punchline of this sequence comes when we are shown Strawberry slumping and frowning at his station, with a single tear rolling down his cheek. He’s devastated! The reason it’s a joke is because of course Lisa is correct: Darryl Strawberry heard a lot of things a lot worse from both home and away fans. The chant that inspired the Simpsons bit started at Fenway in 1986 and followed Strawberry for most of the rest of his career, and to hear Strawberry tell it, he loved it. There’s a type and a range of heckling that is maybe even part of the healthy environment of competitive sports.
Part of what makes this situation different is that DeChambeau doesn’t love it, and those doing it know he doesn’t love it, and that’s part of why they continue to do it. But that’s not the only difference: DeChambeau’s sport is golf, which has always granted itself a spectacularly unearned status of hallowed gentility. The myth has it that golf is played by and in front of a class of people that would never stoop to anything as barbaric as heckling, when in fact it is the preferred pastime of world-historically vile grifters and is both in the exclusivity of its venues and its hostility to the natural world the closest thing sports has to an outright declaration of class hostility. Golfers have not been subjected to heckling because for most of its existence fans have been participating in a fable that golf has told about itself, as a refuge of civility in an uncivil world. It seems fine and even good to me that this ridiculous fiction should be disrupted by behavior that is considered normal and harmless across all other sports.
A similar cultural dynamic is part of what makes DeChambeau such a difficult character to form a Heckling Is Bad argument around. Mental health isn’t the only overdue reckoning for American professional sports; more than ever it seems like there’s an important conversation to be had about how sports have become safe spaces and incubators for insanely, defiantly bad and wrong worldviews, and DeChambeau is in many ways a poster child for that development. He is, by most indicators, a dickweed. On the course he’s a rude and inconsiderate and often belligerent presence; off the course he’s a disingenuous red-pilled anti-vax moron. In a sport that does not lack for unapologetically reactionary participants, DeChambeau stands out as the rooting favorite of America’s army of indistinguishable Matt Gaetzes and Clay Travii. He is profoundly easy to root against.
All of which is to say, I no longer know exactly what to make of the heckling of Bryson DeChambeau, or where to place it in what I think would be a perfectly healthy discourse about how and whether it is acceptable to heckle professional athletes. I do not mind that DeChambeau is having a bad time, because he is a fucker who sucks shit, and so my first impulse is to roll my eyes at any and all handwringing about the deployment of the taunt “Brooksy” during his rounds. It feels culture war-y and more than a little cynical to hold that position when it forgives the specific heckling of someone whose politics and whole deal offend my worldview, but then the heckling in question isn’t even remotely at the rowdy end of fan behavior. If it’s time to talk seriously about whether even this level of heckling is bad and wrong, fine, good, let’s do that. But it would be nice if we had a different poster boy for this discussion, and not the smooth-brained dingus melting down over the gentlest of ribbing while dominating the world’s most obnoxious sport.