Sports

Big Swing, Big Head

The beefy, self-obsessed, Trump-loving Bryson DeChambeau is changing how golf is played.

Bryson DeChambeau pumps his fists while holding a putter in his left hand.
Bryson DeChambeau at the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill in Orlando, Florida, on March 7. Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

In March, in the third round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, Bryson DeChambeau tried something no golfer had ever pulled off in a PGA Tour round. The crowd gathering behind the sixth tee anticipated he might go for it, because he’d teased it in practice rounds earlier that week. “Let the big dog eat!” someone yelled. “He’s aiming that way,” another guy said to his friends. And when DeChambeau pulled the driver from his bag, the murmuring gallery roared.

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The sixth hole is a 555-yard par 5, with a hard dogleg around a lake about 280 yards out. Because even the best players in the world don’t hit drives much longer than 300 yards, the only option is to drive the ball straight to set up a long second shot––or to cut a corner over a relatively small sliver of the lake, which still leaves a titanic second shot to the green.

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Unless you are Bryson DeChambeau. He took two practice cuts, patted his clubhead on the grass a few times, and then torqued and unleashed a 370-yard bomb. He threw his hands up in celebration a split-second later, knowing he’d cleared the water just to the right of the green. The video is stunning, but this PGA Tour diagram does the best job illustrating the absurdity of the accomplishment, something previously reserved for World Long Drive champions:

An aerial view of the dogleg sixth hole with the trajectory of DeChambeau’s drive cutting across the wide part of the water.
Screenshot via PGA Tour TourCast
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DeChambeau made birdie from there, then did the same thing the next day in winning the tournament by a shot. When it was all over, Golf Channel’s Steve Sands asked DeChambeau about the final round.

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”First off, I gotta thank my sponsors: Bridgestone, Tour B X, Cobra RadSpeed, uh, HC Golf, and, uh, a bunch of other sponsors as well,” he said. “Rolex, OneStream Software. They’ve all been instrumental in helping me be here. But I will say it’s been quite a battle this whole entire time. I don’t even know what to say to win at Mr. Palmer’s event. It’s gonna make me cry.” If he did shed tears, it didn’t happen on camera.

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To follow DeChambeau’s career is to be subjected to golf in all of its extremes. You will witness a level of athletic dominance greater than any golfer not named Tiger Woods has recently produced, though even that caveat might not be necessary because Bryson smashes the ball further than Tiger did at his peak. He is a jolt to a sedate sport, a player who fires up the crowd more than anyone, again save Tiger. He also pushes every boundary that should be pushed, and some that nobody before him had even recognized as pushable. Watching and listening to him also means subjecting yourself to a level of self-involvement, corporate robo-speak, and rapaciousness that’s absurd even by the lofty standards of a sport that has never pretended to be for everyone. The simplest way to sum up the DeChambeau experience: When he swings a club, he propels golf forward. When he does anything else, he’s a reminder of all the ways golf has refused to move forward at all.

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DeChambeau morphed into his present form just in the past two years. He spent much of the 2019 season packing on muscle, then packed on more when the tour paused at the beginning of the pandemic. “I said, ‘You know what, I want to try and get stronger, because I know there’s an advantage to be gained,’” he told reporters. “If I could be like Happy Gilmore or [World Long Drive champ] Kyle Berkshire, hitting over 400 yards and hitting it straight? That is a massive, massive advantage.”

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The advantage is quantifiable via the “strokes gained” statistic, which measures how a player compares with the competition in each attribute of the game. Off the tee this season, DeChambeau gains 1.14 strokes per round on the rest of the field. The difference between him and No. 2 Sergio Garcia (a third of a stroke per round) is roughly equal to the difference between Garcia and No. 20 Jason Day. From tee to green, DeChambeau gains 2.1 strokes per round, nearly half a stroke better than No. 2 Jon Rahm. DeChambeau has a solid short game, but his driving distance—320.8 yards on average, tops on tour—and skill are why he leads the tour in scoring average and contends in seemingly every tournament. If you prefer art to math, just watch these moon balls:

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DeChambeau wears an old-timey looking hat with a short brim, but everything else he does on the course marks him as an emissary from an era that hasn’t even arrived yet. A Southern Methodist University alum with a degree in physics, he loves nothing more than tweaking his game and his body. Years ago, he took the highly unusual step of making all his irons the same length, realizing that varying shaft sizes caused inconsistent angles in his swing plane. DeChambeau’s approach to equipment, combined with his strength, has made him one of the world’s most potent players out of the rough, a skill he used to demolish the field at the 2020 U.S. Open at Winged Foot. Nicknamed “the Mad Scientist,” he talks often about specific metrics for launch angle (“When you start seeing people with a launch angle of six, they’re in trouble,” he says) and swing speed.

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He speaks about building speed in terms that sound at once scientific and religious. “There are points where, I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced a runner’s high or something like that, where you get these extra endorphins and that’s kind of what breaks your neurological CNS, I guess, is what breaks your nervous system down, which is a great thing,” he said earlier this year. A few moments before that, he’d told a reporter that he’d become so obsessed with swinging faster that he’d nearly caused himself to black out.

DeChambeau is, perhaps above all else, a weird dude. He’s worked with a dietician to measure his “chew rate” (reportedly the efficiency with which his body breaks down food). He wants to live to 130 or 140 and believes he could do it with the help of technological advances.

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It’s not clear, though, how far DeChambeau’s love of science extends beyond his own body. He’s closely aligned himself with the Trump family, apparently undeterred by their climate skepticism, COVID denial, and all manner of other anti-scientific beliefs and pursuits. He’s been a proud Trump Golf partner, plastering the organization’s logo on his bag until earlier this year and cutting videos for the organization’s YouTube channel. When the Capitol riot inspired the PGA of America to cancel its plans to hold the 2022 PGA Championship at Trump’s Bedminster course, DeChambeau sounded sullen. “It’s unfortunate and it is what it is and I understand it,” he said. “This is a very tough time in this world right now and I won’t make a comment on any relationships that I have on that.” He played with Trump in March.

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DeChambeau isn’t unique in his ties to Trumpworld—most of the biggest names in the sport have teed up with the former president, spoken of him with adulation, and/or taken his money. Just days after the riot, when Bill Belichick backed out of receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House, two sports figures who still showed up were golf legends Annika Sorenstam and Gary Player.

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But DeChambeau, in this and all things, is just louder and less subtle than most. After he won the U.S. Open, he partied maskless and indoors with, among many others, Eric Trump. At the Saudi International in 2019, a tournament put on by that country’s government as part of its ongoing soft-power effort to strengthen its ties with Western countries, most players demurred when asked about their decisions to take part. “’I’m not a politician. I play golf,” Dustin Johnson said. DeChambeau, three months after Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, got in front of a microphone and said, “I think it’s amazing what Saudi Arabia is doing.”

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Look: When Bryson DeChambeau swings, he swings for the fences.

So far at least, DeChambeau’s sidling up to authoritarian political figures at home and abroad has done nothing to hurt his standing in the golf world. Some of his fellow pros and some of the lords of the game don’t like DeChambeau for other, pettier reasons.

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In some of these instances, DeChambeau is the sympathetic figure, stymied by a golf establishment that appears threatened by his interest in (and ability to) play a different way. Consider what happened after that over-the-lake shot at Bay Hill—arguably the closest golf has come in years to a non-Tiger viral moment. The next week, before the Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass, DeChambeau mused publicly about hitting the ball across a lake and up an entirely different fairway while playing the challenging 18th hole. The PGA Tour responded by declaring that alternate route out of bounds, ostensibly “in the interest of safety.” Just as likely, the tour was laying down a marker, setting this as a boundary that DeChambeau should not push.

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In other cases, DeChambeau is a legitimate annoyance. At a tournament in July, he hit a shot out of bounds, where it settled just underneath a fence. He spent several minutes arguing with multiple rules officials before accepting a penalty, then went on to make a 10. At another event that month, DeChambeau’s ball settled between a couple of sticks, making it difficult to strike cleanly. He asked a rules official for a free drop on the basis that there were red ants in the area. “I don’t see fire ants,” the official told him. “There was one,” DeChambeau responded. DeChambeau hit his shot after several minutes of negotiation. Thankfully, fire ants did not attack him, and he proceeded up the hole safely.

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Then there are the moments when DeChambeau comes across less like the heavy-hitting populist Happy Gilmore and more like his snooty rival Shooter McGavin. He has reprimanded camera operators who have filmed him hitting bad shots and been caught on tape damaging bunkers and practice greens in apparent anger, acting the part of an entitled, rich, country club snob.

And paradoxically, even as DeChambeau makes the sport more thrilling, he also sometimes amplifies the critique that golf is a boring sport that lulls viewers to sleep. His biggest sin as far as his peers are concerned—and an area where they have a point—is that he can be a painfully slow player. Four-time major winner Brooks Koepka has called it “embarrassing.” Tour pro Eddie Pepperell watched a video of DeChambeau stalking a putt for two minutes and replied:

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DeChambeau has characterized comments on his slow play as “an attack” and urged Koepka, Pepperell, and anyone else criticizing him to “have some more balls to come up and speak to my face.” (DeChambeau and Koepka reportedly did speak.)

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DeChambeau’s fellow players may not all like him, but many feel compelled to emulate him, lest they get left behind. Rory McIlroy, maybe the most talented player since Woods came along, started his own quest to speed up his swing after watching DeChambeau’s overpowering performance at the U.S. Open. That effort caused mechanical issues that McIlroy is still trying to right.

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The Masters, where DeChambeau is a favorite this week, is the Bryson DeChambeau of tournaments: No event illuminates golf’s good and bad more clearly. Augusta might be the most gorgeous course in the world, and it’s certainly the sport’s most hallowed ground in the United States. The club has also been extremely racist, not to mention misogynist, and it embodies the sport’s longtime hostility to anyone who isn’t a white man (and a rich one, at that).

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When DeChambeau tees off on Thursday, he told reporters, he’ll be carrying “something in the bag … that’s very special,” that “has been a few years in the making,” and that has “some tremendous benefits.” As we wait to see whether this unidentified item is some kind of food-chewing robot or ant-repelling hologram, this week’s central conflict is already clear: The world’s most powerful player will try to conquer a course that regularly embarrasses some of the game’s best. But no matter what happens at the 2021 Masters, the sport’s mad scientist will keep puttering along, offending the right and the wrong people and being too into himself to know the difference.

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