Bryson DeChambeau has hit on something that has eluded golf's powers that be: It’s about the fans, stupid.

PINEHURST, N.C. — There was a moment on the 18th green on Sunday, with the grandstands packed and the rope lines six deep, when Bryson DeChambeau did something uncharacteristic: He quieted the cheers.

DeChambeau had just punched the save of his life out of the sand, nestling the ball up inside the shadow of the flagstick, needing only a three-foot putt to clinch the U.S. Open. The massive gallery was firmly behind him, shouting his name and chanting “U-S-A!” as he sized up his life-changing putt.

But then DeChambeau stepped away and, like a quarterback motioning for the home crowd to quiet down, made a settle-down motion asking them — just for a second — to stay quiet. Fifteen seconds later, he drained the putt, kicking off a raucous celebration that lasted long into the night. DeChambeau unleashed a primal scream, and later took the trophy on a tour around the green, allowing anyone within arm’s reach to touch its gleaming sides.

Consciously or not — probably a bit of both — DeChambeau has hit on something that has eluded literally every other player and tour official in this time of golf chaos: It’s the fans, stupid. After two-plus years of getting ignored, dismissed or served crumbs as millionaires figure out how to divide billions, fans — those that are still watching, anyway — just want to be acknowledged.

When DeChambeau tips his cap or talks to the gallery before unleashing one of his monster drives, he creates more brand loyalty than any sponsor activation. When he fires up his YouTube channel to try to break 50 from the front tees, or takes a set of off-the-rack clubs for a spin, he does more to grow the game than any tour-led, consultant-sanctioned outreach initiative.

Most players, whether by personal preference or the efforts of overbearing agents and brand-management teams, exist in a perpetual bubble, walled off from the very galleries that are supposed to fuel the engine that pays them millions. They’ll sign a couple autographs if they have time, but more often than not, they’re jumping in their courtesy luxury cars as fast as they can.

But DeChambeau has figured out what the PGA Tour and LIV Golf are desperate to learn: Treat the fans like they matter, like they’re a part of this entire ecosystem, and they’ll be loyal and they’ll return, again and again.

Yes, there’s something a little artificial about DeChambeau, a little too mannered and stage-managed. You get the feeling he’s practiced these celebrations in the mirror, that he seeks out opportunities to be Golf’s Good Guy — by signing autographs mid-round, for instance, or plunging right into a mass of delirious fans to share in their joy.

Counterpoint: Who cares? DeChambeau is connecting with fans like no one since Phil Mickelson — but even Mickelson always carried himself with a smartest-guy-in-the-room demeanor that let you know there was a definite pecking order in his mind, and you weren’t at the top. DeChambeau, on the other hand, comes off as One of Us, a little goofy, a little weird, a little too eager to be liked, but fundamentally genial.

“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 [Stewart], the way he did. Numerous others that have inspired generations that are now here have allowed that to be unique and cool,” DeChambeau said after Sunday’s victory. “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.”

PINEHURST, NORTH CAROLINA - JUNE 16: Bryson DeChambeau reacts at the 18th hole during the final round of 124th U.S. Open Championship at Pinehurst No. 2 at Pinehurst Resort on June 16, 2024 in Pinehurst, North Carolina. (Photo by Tracy Wilcox/PGA TOUR via Getty Images)
Bryson DeChambeau reacts after holing a putt to win the 124th U.S. Open Championship. (Tracy Wilcox/PGA TOUR via Getty Images)

It’s all a sharp departure from DeChambeau’s pre-2024 persona — cranky, petulant, arrogant bordering on condescending. He did, after all, leave the PGA Tour and file suit against his old colleagues. And his demonstrative gesticulations whenever a shot or a rule didn’t go his way — and there were many such times — didn’t endear him to fans, fellow players or the golf establishment.

But somewhere along the line, something changed. “I've grown, I've realized that there's a lot more to life than just golf,” he said. “Treating others, yourself first and foremost, respecting yourself, is super important to being able to treat others with respect, as well.”

DeChambeau has decided to embrace positivity. Maybe he’s happier out from under the cool-kids cafeteria of the PGA Tour. Maybe he’s found his people on YouTube. Whatever the reason, he seems more at peace with himself, and his game has flourished as a result.

“My mission is to continue to expand the game, grow the game globally, domestically,” he said. “YouTube has really helped me accomplish some of that. Consequently I think people have seen who I am on YouTube, which has been fantastic, 'cause then I get to play off of it. It just feeds itself out here.”

It’s worth noting that DeChambeau does indeed give off that Mickelson vibe, and we’ve seen lately how quickly the shine can come off a reputation with some public missteps. Plus, it’s impossible to separate DeChambeau the player from DeChambeau the employee of a foreign government. If LIV Golf gives you pause for political or moral reasons, all the cute YouTube videos and hat tips in the world aren’t going to change that.

Still, we’re in a new era in golf, on many fronts. DeChambeau stands as golf’s spotlight player right now. What does he do with that? It’s entirely up to him, but making fans feel more a part of the sport is a good start. He’s got a three-shot lead on the popularity leaderboard; let’s see what he does with that.