With his single-length irons, scientifically circular golf balls and Hogan hat, Bryson DeChambeau was viewed through suspicious eyes. Was this idiosyncratic style over substance, they asked. Until he won. And then he won. And then he won again. Brian Wacker charts the rise of golf's most intriguing young superstar
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Bryson DeChambeau has always been different, and never been shy about expressing it. Even when taking on the celebrated theologian Sir Isaac Newton.
When DeChambeau was in the sixth grade presenting his first science project he offered up an interesting theory about gravity that ran against the grain of Newton's Law. In short, claimed the young student, gravity pushed outward as opposed to pulling inward.
"It actually got pretty high up there in the science fair," he says with a boyish smile. "It was pretty well explained. I had a couple of interesting theories about it, and I described it very, very well."
Newton's theory was right of course but DeChambeau remained undeterred, even as others were sometimes dismissive of him or his ways. A case in point. When DeChambeau took the unusual step of playing single-length irons entering his final year of high school, several of the universities that had been recruiting him suddenly stopped calling. Things worked out better than the science project.
He ended up at Southern Methodist University in Dallas [where he majored in physics, naturally] and three seasons in became the school's first player to win the NCAA individual championship and later that summer he added the US Amateur to become just the fifth player to capture both titles in the same year. The others to do so? Jack Nicklaus, Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods and Ryan Moore.
Now 25 years old, DeChambeau hasn't changed much since his formative years. He continued to push boundaries, even as others sometimes remained dismissive of him. After all, different in a sport that is steeped in tradition and one in which change most often moves at a snail's pace can be rather scary to the unimaginative or the conservative. There was also at least some fact the non-believers could lean on.
Before 2018, DeChambeau was a one-time winner [at the 2017 John Deere Classic - picture above] who was better known for those single-length irons, the Hogan cap he often wears and using words like spatial awareness, standard deviation and proprioception. And though he had finished fourth in his first start as a professional at the 2016 RBC Heritage the week after taking home low amateur honours at the Masters, he also soon endured a nasty streak of missed cuts – 23 of them in 53 starts over two years, including seven in a row at one point in 2017.
He burned through a couple of caddies and tussled with the USGA over side-saddle putting, at one point calling the governing body a "bad organisation" and accusing them of stunting the growth of the game, statements born more out of youth and frustration and ones he apologised for soon afterward.
But then came 2018, and things changed. Between June and September, Bryson DeChambeau won three times in 10 starts, beginning with a play-off victory in Nicklaus' Memorial tournament at Muirfield Village, then in back-to-back weeks during the PGA Tour's FedEx Cup Playoffs before being picked by Jim Furyk for the US Ryder Cup team.
Though beaten in three matches in Paris, DeChambeau recovered just fine, winning a month later in the Shriners Hospitals Open to climb to a career-high fifth in the Official World Golf Ranking. DeChambeau's four victories in that span were more than contemporaries Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler had in all of 2018 – combined.
All the while, DeChambeau continued looking at things a little differently to everyone else. Early in the week at the PGA Tour's season finale at East Lake in Atlanta, for example, he was practising one afternoon on the range under the watchful eye of not one launch monitor but two. Being the inquisitive sort, he routinely spritzed each new ball before hitting it with water to simulate the conditions of morning dew. Clearly the man's curiosity knows no bounds.
"I'm very fascinated with trying to figure out all the variables in the game of golf," DeChambeau said. "I've thought about it, and the only two factors that I will never understand to the fullest amount are wind and the conditions of the green at hand.
"You just can't control that. So it's always – it's a quest for me just to try and understand every single variable outside of those two, to try and help get my proximities closer to the hole. That's really all I'm trying to do. And it's a joy. That's what I thrive on. Growing up, I was always about how do I make my life better in every single way, whatever it was."
Since this piece was published, the now World No.5 DeChambeau claimed his first international title at the Dubai Desert Classic.
THE BOOK OF REVELATIONS
Bryson DeChambeau grew up in Clovis, California, a mid-sized working-class city of a hundred thousand residents a couple of hundred miles southeast of San Francisco, sat in the shadow of the Sierra foothills. At a young age he was a standout goalkeeper in football and a hard-nosed shooting guard in basketball, but at the age of eight he was beginning to focus seriously on golf.
Though he enjoyed team sports, he could never wrap his head around why every team-mate didn't go all out on every play, and it drove him mad. The one-man island that golf is was a far less frustrating pursuit. The game was also in his blood.
Bryson's father Jon briefly played on tour and was good enough to finish ninth at the 1982 Phoenix Open. His father remained in the golf business and that's how, through a friend of a friend, an 11-year-old Bryson found himself one day going through a fitting for a putter that had no top-line or markings on it, something that instinctively helped free his mind from getting wrapped up in the path of the putter head – an issue that had caused him to struggle with the flat stick early on. It blew young Bryson's mind that something technological could make such a significant difference. It wouldn't be the only time.
When DeChambeau was 15, his coach, Mike Schy, gave him a copy of The Golfing Machine, a dense tome of a teaching manual by Homer Kelley which enabled a player to construct a swing based on the scientific principles of 24 components and 144 variations. Published in 1971, the book was considered to be way ahead of its time.
DeChambeau and his beautiful mind were instantly hooked. The Golfing Machine went everywhere with DeChambeau and the chapter that focused on a zero shift swing with one plane angle being used without variation left him enraptured. Though Schy told him the idea was meant for chipping and putting, DeChambeau thought why not extrapolate it to the rest of his full swing, too.
The experiment didn't go well early on – exaggerating his grip with his hands hanging extremely low and bending the lofts on his irons to a massive 8 degrees flat, DeChambeau's back began to throb during one high school match.
At the behest of his coach, he canned the swing but continued to experiment with the one-plane theory before the light bulb finally came on. Why not make every iron the same length and weight, with the same shaft flex and lie angle in order to repeat the same swing plane? It took some trial and error but after various experimentations he and his coach settled on a 37½-inch shaft – the length of a traditional 7-iron – in a set of old Nike VR heads, using lead tape on the longer irons to get every club the same weight, 282 grams, and similarly modifying the wedges by drilling holes in the back of the heads and taking chunks of metal from the backline of the sole.
Then DeChambeau took them to the course. His first shot was with an 8-iron from 160 yards. He hit it pin high. Then he tried a 5-iron from 210. The shot soared and stuck to three feet. He had revolution. Or at least validation. DeChambeau was onto something, and it was a real difference-maker.
"I was never that special growing up in regards to the talent that I had," he says. "I always worked really hard. I was a good junior golfer, but I always felt like I wasn't the best growing up, and so I always had to find other ways to get a little bit better. I could practise for 10 hours and barely get better just by practising.
And so I was trying to always find a little edge on the competition in other ways, whether it was understanding elevation changes or whatever it was back in the day. And so I'd always kind of thought outside the box and tried to make my golf swing easier and simpler."
Still, not even Bryson's own dad was entirely convinced.
"He didn't think one-length clubs were a good idea," he laughs now. Like with all those college coaches who'd stopped calling, it'd take him a while to come around as well. Even he couldn't hold out forever, though, and just over a year ago caved and started playing single length irons.
"I love my dad to death, but we butted heads," DeChambeau says. "But obviously it works now. And we're in a great relationship. But I've had quite a bit of resistance. There's only been a few people that have really helped keep pushing me in the right direction, saying 'Hey, Bryson, you're doing the right thing, keep doing it, just keep figuring things out.'
"Mike, my coach, was a big part of that. And my mom was a big, huge part of that. My brother, Garrett, was a big part of that and a few of the friends that I'd go play golf with out there on Saturday afternoon, they always encouraged me, too. Even though they thought I was crazy, they'd still encourage me.
"There was a lot of resistance moving up through the ranks, but once I won a few events at the junior level and made it to the US Amateur, and US Open it started to progress in the right direction."
DeChambeau's genius wasn't limited to golf, either, even if by high school it had become his obsession. He re-wrote his physics book in high school; learned how to sign his name backwards with his left hand; mastered the art technique known as stippling – creating a pattern simulating varying degrees of shading by using small dots, which he used to create a drawing depicting Ben Hogan's famous 1-iron at Merion that hangs on the wall of his bedroom in his family's house.
He was also a member of the school's varsity volleyball team and in his spare time joined his buddies playing ping-pong, a useful skill for the Ryder Cup years later, it turns out. The latter took place competing not just against each other but against a machine. DeChambeau didn't build it like he had his golf clubs but it was the next best thing.
"We got a robot where this thing would shoot out the ball, different velocities, and different spin rates – that's what professionals practise with," he says. "We practised every lunch period for a couple of years. And I got pretty good, needless to say."
Evidently though, he was even better at golf.
THE STUBBORN SCIENTIST
At 16, DeChambeau won the 2010 California State Junior Championship. The following year, he finished second at the prestigious Callaway Junior World Championships at Torrey Pines, two strokes back of another rising star in Beau Hossler. Then, in 2013, following his freshman year in college, he reached the matchplay portion of the US Amateur at Cherry Hills.
During his second year at SMU, he continued to climb, beating future PGA Tour pro Trey Mullinax in the quarterfinals of the NCAA Championships and tying for ninth during the stroke-play section of the NCAA Championships. He also won his first collegiate tournament, doing so at the American Athletic Conference Championship, was a semifinalist for the Ben Hogan Award, given each year to the top college player in the country, earned a spot on the United States' Palmer Cup team, and cracked the top 10 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking.
In that summer of 2014, DeChambeau also helped lead the US to victory at the World Amateur Team Championships in Japan, racking up 11 birdies during a round that included a birdie on the final hole to clinch the title by a stroke. Other achievements included reaching the round of 16 at the US Amateur at Atlanta Athletic Club, the quarter-finals of match play at the US Amateur Public Links and the round of 16 at the Western Amateur after tying for second in the stroke play portion of the event. At the Palmer Cup at Walton Heath, he went 2-2, albeit in a losing effort for the Americans.
A more significant blow came the following school year, though, as DeChambeau was unable to defend his NCAA crown in 2016 after the SMU athletic department was handed a postseason ban by the NCAA. DeChambeau decided to skip his senior season and instead played in a number of events before turning pro. At the 2015 Australian Masters in November, he finished second. The following spring he was low amateur at the Masters, tying for 21st after getting to within a shot of the lead during the second round. The following week, he turned pro and finished fourth in Hilton Head and eventually earned his card through the Web.com Tour Finals.
"I thought, wow, this is easy," DeChambeau says looking back on his debut. "This is not difficult at all. And then, lo and behold, I struggled for the next year and-a-half.
"And it was eye-opening to me because even though I'd played well, I knew I could do it, but I didn't know all the stuff that I know now to help me be consistent. I had to go through that year-and-a-half-, two-year learning process to figure out all these external variables that affect how you play.
"One of the key things would be patience, realising it's a process and becoming more patient on the course and in life in general. Another big thing was having the right caddie on the bag. That was something that helped me become a better person and a better player as well."
It wasn't just the method or the belief, though. It was the work DeChambeau put in behind it that paid off. Even The Scientist, it turned out, at times found himself questioning the madness. In the spring of 2017, DeChambeau toyed with a longer backswing in order to hit the ball farther. By no means short – he averaged a hair under 295 yards off the tee in his first year on tour – a few more yards in today's bomb and gouge game, he theorised, could only be a good thing.
Then he missed seven straight cuts. So he scrapped that idea, went back to his old swing and his first career victory soon followed, backed up by a breakout season and full validation the following year.
"I had an idea and that idea stuck in my brain so deep," DeChambeau says. "That was actually the biggest thing.
"Once I saw that I was taking variables out of the golf swing, not having to move up and down, that was the single biggest variable that allowed me to say no matter what people say I'm still going to stick to this and try to figure out how to utilise this to my advantage. That idea of not changing posture, in a sense, allowed me to keep sticking with it. This is going to be way better for me over the course of time." Or, more simply put: "I'm very, very stubborn."
THE PURSUIT OF PERFECTION
A lot of players would have been happy with the trophies and the spoils that come with them – DeChambeau, after having crashed in the spare room of a former team-mate's townhouse early on in his career, did splurge on a swanky new pad in Dallas that has, among other accoutrements, a hightech built-in simulator.
But what stood out to DeChambeau wasn't so much the trophies he was accumulating but the execution of each shot on his way to the victories. The never-ending pursuit of the perfect shot, and doing it the way he knows best, is what drives him most.
"I'm playing golf at the highest level and winning at the highest level," he explains. "And I'm consistently performing at the highest level. So there has to be some validity to it. Is everybody going to do it? No. But it works for me, and I believe this is going to benefit me in the future, as well."
Yet still there were moments where some wondered if he is built to hold up over the long haul. Particularly after moments like at this past year's Open Championship at Carnoustie, where L'Artiste DeChambeau had L'Meltdown during a driving range session following an opening-round 75. He ended up tying for 51st in the tournament but bounced back the following week to hold the 36-hole lead at the Porsche European Open.
"I was still hitting the ball in the fairways, but it wasn't up to my standard," he reflected a couple of months later.
"And so I was trying to figure out why it wasn't up to my standard. I built something really, really consistent in the beginning of the year and I kind of lost it. Kind of got lucky finding it. And now I'm starting to understand why I was so good in the beginning of the year. And that's kind of a scary thought for me, at least, because it shows what I can do."
And where he's headed. The sky and its limitless boundaries truly does seem to be stretching out for DeChambeau. His mind also never stops working. When it was announced that a change in the Rules of Golf will allow players to putt with the flagstick in beginning in 2019, DeChambeau started experimenting with that, too. Because why wouldn't he?
"It depends on the COR – the coefficient of restitution of the flagstick," he says. "In US Opens, I'll take it out. And every other tour event, when it's fibreglass, I'll leave it in and bounce against the flagstick if I need to."
So the question is, after a season in which he won four times and rose up to fifth in the world, how much better can DeChambeau get?
"You can always get better," he says. "How much? I would say it depends on what I can do in the restrictions of my biomechanics. So it's all about error tolerances and being... less sensitive to error. So that when you do feel like you mess up, it's not going to be that big of a mess-up. I hope that makes sense."
For those less scientifically inclined, he puts it another way. "There is another level."
Bryson DeChambeau's 4 Game Changes
#1: Single Length Irons
In conjunction with his oneplane golf swing, Bryson DeChambeau also uses singlelength Cobra irons. Every iron in his bag is a 7-iron length. This all seems very logical. In theory, using a set of irons that are consistent in length and lie will enable him to stand to the ball exactly the same way each time – one posture and one ball position – and simply repeat the same swing.
Should you do it? Approach with caution, says Luther Blacklock.
"While singlelength irons work for Bryson, who is a supreme athlete with considerable strength, it's not necessarily a good solution for the average golfer. After all, there is a very good reason why, over the years, there has been very little variation in the length of golf clubs. Visit the golf museums at St Andrews or Troon and you'll see that drivers have always been longer than long irons, which have always been longer than wedges."
DeChambeau is a scientist with a good understanding of the role physics plays in golf.
"He knows he needs to generate significant clubhead speed with, say, a single-length 4-iron in order for it to fly as far as a regular-length 4-iron," says Blacklock. "Fortunately, he is a supreme athlete and physically capable of doing that. The average club golfer with a more sedate swing may struggle to generate the clubhead speed needed to get the ball airborne with the longer irons. Without a certain level of swing speed, every iron ends up flying the same distance. By all means give single-length irons and the single-plane swing a try – just remember that you need good strength to generate the clubhead speed you need to make them work."
#2: Floating Golf Balls
For his most Chambeauesque trick, Bryson floats each golf ball in Epsom Salts and water to test for balance. "It's literally just a guess," he says on the quantities involved.
"Throw in some salt until the ball starts to float, so the density's about equal to the ball. Then I wait to see where the ball floats – the heavier side of the ball floats to the bottom. It's very difficult because it's not a perfect sphere because of the dimples, and it's very difficult to get the centre of mass in the dead centre. If it's out of balance, it's essentially like having mud on the side of the ball and that affects how the ball flies in the air, how much a putt can break."
If out of balance, he puts 60mg of lead tape to see if the ball flips back over. Any more than 60mgs out of balance and he discards it.
Should you do it? "It's a fact that the majority of golf balls are unbalanced," says Nick Middleton of Zen Golf Mechanics."Using the Epsom Salts method is a quick and easy way to select those that will roll straight and true."
But be warned, perfection has a price: Bryson has been known to remove as many as four balls out of every dozen. Perfection for you will come at a price. zenoracle.com
#3: Parasympathetic Breathing
DeChambeau uses parasympathetic breathing to put his body into a state of calm and healing. "Breathing in the proper state calms your brainwaves down," he says. "That helps you get into a state of recovery."
Greg Roskopf has worked with Bryson for the last two years on a process called Muscle Activation Techniques (MAT), teaching his muscles to contract more efficiently.
"When there is stress, trauma or overuse on the body, the resultant inflammation will decrease the muscle's ability to contract efficiently," he explains. "So the body goes into a protective state and there is a correlating increase in tension throughout the body resulting in muscle tightness. This increased tension shows that the body's nervous system is out of balance, which in turn can negatively affect mental focus, impede recovery and impact performance levels."
Parasympathetic breathing exercises can help reduce tension and increase oxygen transport to the brain – which in turn improves focus and performance.
Should you do it?: "In the modern world, with so many stressors around us, every golfer can benefit from simple breathing exercises as they can help keep you calm, relaxed and more mentally focused, not only in your golf but in everyday life," says Roskopf.
To enter a parasympathetic state, sit tall and breathe in for two counts, pause for one count at the top of the inhale, then breathe out for four, pausing for one at the bottom of the exhale. Continue the process for five minutes, and repeat every day. muscleactivation.com
#4: Side Saddle Putting
A long-time advocate of Colonel H.A. Templeton's Vector Putting, a rather complicated process that required some 200 pages to explain, Bryson DeChambeau now uses AimPoint, a three-step method designed to get an accurate reading on every putt. In between the two, DeChambeau toyed with the sidesaddle method of putting that Sam Snead used to beat the yips and finish T3 at the 1974 PGA Championship, aged 62.
The technique involves a croquet-style approach, with the player's body facing the target and the putter and ball played at the side of the body. The idea is that side-saddle more closely emulates how a player would bowl a golf ball into the hole if they could use that as their technique on the green. The player uses a longer putter and creates a back-and-through, pendulum-style stroke that goes straight through to the target line.
Should you do it? DeChambeau dropped side-saddle putting when the USGA deemed it nonconforming, but your game could very well benefit, as long as you don't anchor the putter. "It could actually be the most natural way to putt," leading coach Stuart Dowsett tells GW. "Give a non-golfer a ball in hand, ask them to roll it towards a hole and they'd naturally assume a stance very much like a side-saddle putting stroke. If you asked them to use two hands to roll a ball they'd instinctively use a croquet style. So a side-saddle style putting stroke of sorts has much potential."