In the eternal debate over how far the ball travels in golf, Rory McIlroy is unequivocal: ‘Whatever happens, the artist will always win in the end.’
Emerging from his lockdown experiments that have been the talk of the game since the restart, golf’s Mad Scientist Bryson DeChambeau heads to San Francisco for the season’s first major this week and thinks: we will see about that.
If you do not have an opinion by now on DeChambeau and his uniquely modern approach to an ancient game, you might be the only one.
Bryson DeChambeau has earned a reputation as golf’s mad scientists for his modern approach
The American player has bulked-up ahead of the 2020 season’s first major in San Francisco
Rory McIlroy is a believer in skill over power while DeChambeau is riling-up traditionalists
For every traditionalist who would happily house him in Alcatraz starting Thursday, there is a free thinker laying a hosanna in his path.
For every player like Brooks Koepka making clear his disdain, there is another such as Lee Westwood lauding his refreshing approach.
You might have to go back to Seve Ballesteros to find the last player so willing to pick a fight with a rules official. On Thursday, at the WGC-FedEx International in Memphis, DeChambeau argued for a free drop because fire ants were within the vicinity of his ball. It certainly set fire to his reputation once more on social media.
If you want to know how different the physics graduate is as a person, let’s travel back half his life to when he was 13 and when his parents asked him to clean his untidy bedroom. We all know how that goes most of the time.
His dad Jon takes up the story. ‘Bryson grabbed the mop, the broom brush and the vacuum cleaner,’ he told the Bleacher Report. ‘He got hold of the Pledge to polish the doors and the 409 [a cleaning agent]. Three hours it took him. When he finished, it was crazy spotless.’
Now he is scrubbing hard at all the old way of thinking in golf, until only a shiny new way of playing remains. ‘Golf is all about feel,’ Tiger Woods once said. DeChambeau does not do feel.
‘Feel is the enemy,’ says his coach Mike Schy. ‘You get to the tee and there’s a water hazard to the left of you and thousands of spectators on the right. How do you feel now? That was why he bought into the process. It gets him out of that moment on the course where you’re supposed to feel something.’
Brooks Koepka is one of the players who have made clear they are against DeChambeau
DeChambeau has earned Tiger’s attention. ‘I definitely respect what he says, because of the fact he does so much research,’ says Woods. ‘He’s very into what he’s doing.’
That much was obvious during lockdown, as DeChambeau posted videos of his daily gym sessions, his 2,000-calorie breakfasts and eye-opening ball speeds. He had put on 20lbs of largely muscle before lockdown and had added another 20lbs by the resumption.
Justin Rose played with the Californian at the first tournament back and could not believe his eyes. ‘I’d seen a few of the videos but nothing prepared me for standing next to him,’ said the Englishman. ‘I’m a big guy but he’s just massive. And the yardage he has put on as well! I hit it longer than most but he was flying the ball past me.’
DeChambeau, a physics graduate, is earning success with his anti-traditional approach
What has always stopped golfers from bulking up in the past is they lose touch around the greens. Not DeChambeau, with his iron shafts all the same length and his stiff-wristed approach.
‘His body transformation is incredible but to retain his short game and putting while piling on the pounds is the thing that impresses me, it’s phenomenal,’ says Westwood.
In his first four tournaments following the restart, DeChambeau posted as many top-10 finishes, including one victory at the Rocket Mortgage Classic in Detroit, where he smashed Woods’s PGA Tour record for longest average driving distance achieved by a winner, set in 2005, by nine yards.
That sent the traditionalists into overdrive. ‘DeChambeau is breaking the game,’ was the headline verdict in New York. What really sets his detractors off is the fact there is no finesse to his game.
There is nothing to remind them of a classicist like McIlroy or Louis Oosthuizen. Even on the greens he looks like he is holding a sledgehammer rather than a putter.
DeChambeau’s bulkier physique has not impacted his close-range game, wowing competitiors
‘I want to make the old courses obsolete,’ says DeChambeau, as he takes lines off the tees the course architect never even considered.
Take the classic dog-leg par five 13th at Augusta National. ‘My idea is going to be to drive the ball on to the 14th fairway and play from there,’ says DeChambeau.
His reasoning is that it would allow him to play from a flat lie, rather than from the severely sloping 13th fairway. What he did not mention is that to reach the spot he has in mind involves an arrow-straight drive of 390 yards.
DeChambeau believes he still has plenty of distance to add. It is all about ball speed. Every 1mph increase means close to another two yards. Right now he can get up to about 190mph. The tour average is 167mph but, as he works out two hours every day to strengthen his body, he sees regular speeds of more than 200mph as achievable.
He manages it with acceptable accuracy as well. Averaging between nine and 10 fairways out of 14 every round, while carrying the ball 350 yards in the air is a deal that any pro would take.
DeChambeau will jet to to San Francisco aiming to finally address his weakness in majors
One glaring weakness we have seen so far with DeChambeau is at the majors. This week’s USPGA Championship is his 16th appearance and his best finish is a modest tied 15th in the US Open more than four years ago.
As McIlroy contends, art can clearly still put up a winning argument for now in the events that matter most, but give DeChambeau time.
In an interview with GQ magazine released last week, he talked about his philosophy on life. ‘It’s not just golf, I’m always trying to add more value to my life in general,’ he said. ‘My goal is to live until I am 130 or 140 and I think that’s possible with today’s technology.’
Love or hate him, it seems we are going to be hearing from the fascinating Bryson DeChambeau for many years to come.