MEMPHIS – He watched the TPC Southwind putting green, where Bryson DeChambeau was the only golfer to use a ruler to warm up. He followed DeChambeau to the chipping area and then to the driving range, where the crowd gasped every time DeChambeau whipped his driver violently and struck the ball into the distance, maybe even over the fence that no one else can reach.
And he was there when the gallery around DeChambeau swelled at 12:30 p.m. on Saturday during the third round of the World Golf Championships-FedEx St. Jude Invitational at 12:30 p.m.
Heath McGee, 26, wasn’t planning on driving three hours from his Cabot, Arkansas home to Memphis this week until DeChambeau made a last-minute commitment. He’s only here to follow the most polarizing golfer on the PGA Tour, and he’s not alone. Nobody in Memphis draws a large crowd now than him.
“The media says everyone hates him,” said McGee. “It doesn’t look like that out here.”
This is a professional wrestling city after all, and maybe this is just the latest example of Memphis showing its appreciation for good sales. But DeChambeau, 27, is driving the conversation in golf overall, which is just as important as the 350-yard drives that made him a spectacle last year.
With Tiger Woods out of action for an indefinite period, he is currently the most important figure on the PGA Tour.
Be it his ignorance of the COVID-19 vaccine or other golf pros punishing him on social media for not saying “Fore!” on his mistaken rides, or his television feud with Brooks Koepka, or all of the gadgets and fancy technological words he brings to the class, he’s a magnet for attention.
Photos: World Golf Championships-FedEx St. Jude Invitational at TPC Southwind
So should golf purists and his fellow campaigners and even his own sponsors really give him so much trouble? It’s the only story in golf that consistently breaks through to mainstream, and that’s always been a PGA Tour topic when Woods isn’t playing.
And maybe because he’s been branded the bad guy by some, that actually adds to his popularity, however divisive he may be.
But it’s bizarre that some golf fans want to exterminate him, almost like a fan of an indie rock band who doesn’t want that group to make it big. Not every athlete should be a role model.
DeChambeau is keeping his sport relevant as the success of former “next big things” like Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy wanes, and Koepka battles his way through an injured knee that shattered some of his momentum on the track. When did that stop being enough?
In a way, DeChambeau has become Gulf what Donald Trump originally was to politics. He approaches the game so differently and puts his foot in his mouth too often that there is no middle ground. But there are plenty of people who support him who don’t care what he says about vaccines and who are encouraged by what other players say about him.
We just hear more often from those who can’t stand him.
“It’s crazy how he can be the most popular and the most hated at the same time,” said Greg Keown, who came to Memphis from Bowling Green, Kentucky to watch DeChambeau play. “Even the people who don’t like him want to see him.”
“I think the tour needs him,” said Heather Huffman, a WGC-FedEx St. Jude volunteer at TPC Southwind’s No. 3.
“You have to have a villain or an antihero,” added Terry Nemec, who followed DeChambeau with his 16-year-old son Gerrit, a junior on the Brighton High School golf team.
Gerrit was one of several young viewers on Saturday who wore a version of DeChambeau’s old-school driver’s hat that evokes memories of Payne Stewart, but also gives DeChambeau a signature look.
Adult men also wore them, including friends Jordan Volner and John Ross. They followed Koepka Saturday morning before DeChambeau tee off in hopes that DeChambeau’s archenemy would notice them.
“We’re here to intimidate Koepka,” said Ross, who explained in layman terms why they choose DeChambeau over any other golfer on the tour. “He knocks the (manure) out of the ball. That can be assigned.”
He is also among the top 10 golfers in the world, a major championship winner and will again fight for victory in the finals of the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational on Sunday.
And McGee will be with him again, mostly because of the fandom, but also because of what happened Thursday when the fuss over DeChambeau’s vaccine comments simmered and he dodged reporters.
While following DeChambeau, McGee’s wife met the owner of the house near TPC Southwind where DeChambeau is staying this week. McGee said they were at DeChambeau for two hours, just a few strangers / fans hanging out with golf’s biggest draw. Then he took out his cell phone and showed a picture of the two of them.
But when he started discussing what they had discussed, he looked up. DeChambeau had hit another booming tee and the gallery, which dwarfed all other galleries this week, was starting to move.
“I have to go,” said McGee. “I’m falling behind.”
You can email Commercial Appeal Columnist Mark Giannotto at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: @mgiannotto