Why we love to hate sport’s anti-heroes
When it comes to listing the most popular winners over the 120 years of the US Open, it is unlikely Bryson DeChambeau would make anyone’s top 20. In truth, he would struggle to find a place in the top 120.
The reports from the weekend tournament, as the American brutalised the Winged Foot course with his muscleman drives and his hack-and-thrash clearances from the rough, brought new definition to the term “grudging respect”. Sure, he won handsomely. But this is not a man whose success is enjoyed much beyond the confines of his own front room. When he comes out on top, the bunting remains in its box in the attic.
The reasons for such widespread disdain are many. His play is dismissed as slow and selfish. He is reckoned to linger on shots deliberately to disturb opponents. He berates cameramen who film him on the greens. Eddie Pepperell summed up his reputation in the locker room by describing him as “a single-minded twit” who “doesn’t much care for others”.
But here is the irony of DeChambeau: far more of us are aware of who won this year’s US Open than if one of golf ’s many bland Mr Nice Guys had managed to outsmart his rocket-propelled tee shots to take the title. Because, in sport, nothing garners attention like notoriety.
The history of our games is littered with those we love to hate; anti-heroes who provide us fans with ready justification for supporting their rivals.
For all its self-policing codes of decency, golf has never been short of such figures. DeChambeau himself has only recently claimed the title of Most Disliked Man in the Clubhouse from his compatriot Patrick Reed, a Texan almost as loud, brash and distasteful as John Daly’s trousers.
Since the days of John McEnroe, tennis, too, has provided a steady stream of players who have the crowd loudly cheering for their opponent. Nick Kyrgios, with his wheedling, whining and whingeing, is but the latest. Though to be fair to the Australian,
This is not a man whose success is enjoyed much beyond the confines of his own front room
at least his pronouncements during the pandemic suggest he is more in tune with the need to be aware of the safety of others than the Covid-denying anti-vaxxer Novak Djokovic, a man whose followers can somehow manage to characterise an injury he inflicted on a line judge by his carelessness as part of a wider conspiracy to do him down.
Boxing also has long provided its followers with plenty of antiheroes to make its heroes look good. Floyd Mayweather may have been one of the most accomplished champions of all time, but he was hardly popular. With his selfdetermined nickname of “Money”, his ugly disparagement of opponents, his lack of the basic respect for others engaged in his brutal craft, he borrowed heavily from WWE in his self-projection. This was a pantomime villain shameless in his opprobrium.
But even he found a nemesis in the ludicrous posturing of Conor McGregor, the mixed martial arts champion. Their manufactured meeting in 2017 provided a new twist on the old nice-versus-nasty narrative by giving us a contest in which the overwhelming wish was that, so unpleasant were they, both contestants lost.
And, in the process, the pair made a fortune.
In team sports, however, the dynamic is different. In rugby, football and cricket, we embrace the idea of the anti-hero, as long as he is our anti-hero. Sure, we love hating opponents’ bad guys, but the idea of having someone in our team whom rivals loathe reinforces the us-against-them dynamic that informs so much of the ritual of football support.
The more Roy Keane, Vinnie Jones, John Terry and their ilk wound up opponents, the more their own fans loved them. Though right now, in these days of socially aware activist good guys, football’s stock of anti-heroes is dwindling rapidly. A couple of youthful England players whose worst crime is dating Icelandic models during lockdown is hardly in the Luis “Cannibal” Suarez class when it comes to love/hate relationships.
Maybe there is a future for Bryson DeChambeau. Once he has run out of fairways to bypass, maybe he should turn his enormous frame to football. Let us be honest, who among us would not relish having a selfish, nasty bully that everybody else absolutely loathes lining up in our team. Especially one who routinely wins.