Golf is a staid, tradition-laden game, with a heritage reaching back to the 15th century.
The golf term “links” comes from the Old English word hlinc meaning “rising ground or ridge” and refers to the sandy area along the coast. That heritage, however, is more honored in the breach, since most golfers will say things like, “I had a bad day today on the links.” But unless they were playing on a seaside course that was laid out as God created it, that bad day did not take place on “the links.” Purists do indeed delight in correcting such blasphemies.
Golf is a genteel game. The term “polite golf applause” refers to the muted clapping by which fans express appreciation for a golfer’s shot without disturbing players elsewhere on the course. The game is so genteel, in fact, that at America’s cathedral of tournament golf — the Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters — “fans” are instead known as “patrons.” Members of the media who invoke that particular f-word do so at grave risk to their press passes.
Golf has a quaint reliance on players’ respect for its rules, too. Take, for example, the case of Kate Wynja. In 2018, Wynja had seemingly won the South Dakota high-school championship — until she realized that she had accidentally signed her scorecard with a 4 where she had made a 5. Upon noticing the error, she alerted tournament officials, knowing full well that it would mean disqualification.
* * *
But this staid, tradition-laden game is today under siege by a 28-year-old graduate of Southern Methodist University with a degree in physics and a golf swing that, although an aesthetic abomination, is bludgeoning golf courses into submission. His name is Bryson DeChambeau.
DeChambeau first caught the public’s eye by using irons all having the same length. For non-golfers: In a traditional set, the clubs are of varying lengths to correspond to different distances. The six-iron, for example, will have a shaft that is shorter than the three-iron’s but longer than the pitching wedge’s. Along with this unusual set of clubs, DeChambeau also has an unusual way about him, seasoning his comments to the press with such technical terms as standard deviation, moment of inertia, and coefficient of restitution. As a result, he has come to be known as “the Scientist,” a moniker he embraces as part of his “brand.” More on this below.
But idiosyncratic clubs and vocabulary aside, DeChambeau is a very accomplished golfer, having won the NCAA Championship, the USGA Amateur Championship, and five PGA events before his 26th birthday. As of this writing, he is the seventh-ranked player in the world.
COVID-19 shut down the PGA Tour for several months in early 2020 — a temporary stoppage that could permanently change game. How? Unbeknownst to most of us, DeChambeau had been ingesting thousands of extra calories each day and hitting the weight room with a vengeance. Within a matter of months, he had gone from being a reasonably long hitter by PGA standards to the longest hitter the game has ever seen.
The Scientist is, fittingly, playing the percentages. He accepts the fact that by hitting the ball so far he will miss a lot of fairways. But he’s also likely to wind up within nine-iron-or-less distance of the green. And he’s gotten so strong that he’ll be able to gouge the ball out of even the thickest of rough and still hit it close enough to the hole to make enough birdies to win golf tournaments.
This approach had its crowning validation in September 2020, when DeChambeau won the U.S. Open Championship by six shots at Winged Foot, one of the most challenging golf courses in the world. During his runaway win, DeChambeau missed nearly 60 percent of the fairways but hit 64 percent of the greens in regulation (i.e., hitting the ball onto the green in the number of strokes after which holing out in two putts will result in a par or better) — a figure bested by only four other players in the field.
Yet staid, tradition-laden games don’t like change, and the world of golf is pushing back.
Golf courses are fixed assets, representing 150 or so acres of bespoke cultivation. DeChambeau’s muscular approach raises serious concerns that classic and revered courses like Winged Foot and Augusta National may be rendered seriously diminished, if not obsolete.
To be sure, these concerns did not begin with DeChambeau. The alarm bells first began to sound when Tiger Woods won the Masters by a record twelve strokes in 1997. The distances Tiger was hitting the ball were, at the time, unimaginable. Yet DeChambeau has since pushed Woods’s example to the limit, rebuilding his swing, his clubs, and his body in search of ever more distance.
The renewed alarm has emanated from the chief worldwide arbiters of the game — the United States Golf Association and the R&A (a spin-off from The Royal and Ancient Club of St. Andrews) — which are considering mandating new standards for clubs and balls to limit the distances DeChambeau and other long-hitters will be able to achieve. One approach being discussed is the creation of “bifurcated” standards: one set for touring professionals like DeChambeau and another for recreational players like you and me.
But as sensible as that might sound, it, too, is generating strong institutional pushback. The makers of those balls and clubs aren’t pleased, since bifurcation would double their required product offerings and add more variability and cost to manufacturing. It would also negate their marketing pitch that “you can play with the same equipment as your favorite PGA touring pro!”
One set of stakeholders that has an interest in putting its finger on the scale in DeChambeau’s favor are the television networks and streaming platforms that collectively pay some $700 million a year to the PGA to beam its events to our screens. This is partly because, as the saying goes, “chicks dig the long ball.” More significantly, though, it’s because DeChambeau’s lack of self-awareness regularly lands him in controversies — some petty, some not — which makes for more eyeballs on those screens.
DeChambeau’s controversies emerge from his almost thermonuclear proclivity for violating golf’s behavioral norms. Consider just a few examples.
- After DeChambeau had outdriven the other player in his twosome, Patrick Cantlay, on the 14th hole of the final round of the recent BMW Championship, Cantlay hit his second shot and then began his walk toward the green. As DeChambeau was preparing to hit his second shot, Cantlay appeared in his peripheral vision. The television commentators observed that Bryson would have been wise to simply back off and restart his pre-shot routine. Instead, he called across the fairway: “Patrick, can you stop walking?” This sort of thing is simply not done, which may seem a nit, but part of the appeal of the fusty old game is that it’s chockablock with such nits.
- After hitting a poor bunker shot during a 2020 tournament, DeChambeau angrily slashed his club through the sand. He then took exception to what he felt was a television cameraman’s lingering for too long on the scene. Following his round, he said, “As much as we’re out here performing, I think it’s necessary that we have our times of privacy as well when things aren’t going our way.” “For that to damage our brand like that,” he added, “that’s not cool.” But given that DeChambeau is playing for multimillion-dollar purses — much of which comes from that $700 million in broadcast revenues, and that those broadcasts require the presence of cameras — his plea for “times of privacy” did not sit well with the golfing public. And if he’s concerned about damage to his brand, he should . . . stop talking about his brand. (Think George H. W. Bush and “Message: I care.”)
- Following a poor first round at this year’s Open Championship — what is typically, and incorrectly, referred to in the U.S. as the “British Open” — DeChambeau said that his driver “sucked.” The tour operations manager of Cobra, the company that makes DeChambeau’s driver and pays him a lot of money to use it, returned fire, calling the comment “stupid” and adding that Bryson had behaved “like an eight-year-old.” (Granted, DeChambeau issued a profuse apology the next day, but he really ought to take better care of his brand.)
- Probably the pettiest — and most viral — dust-up has been his rivalry with golf’s previously most-bulked-up player, Brooks Koepka. After Koepka posed for ESPN’s 2019 Body Issue, DeChambeau poked at him on Twitter by pointing out what he took to be the lack of definition in Koepka’s abs. Koepka tweeted back with a photo of his four major-championship trophies and the caption: “You were right @b_dechambeau. I am 2 short of a 6 pack.” Since then, the two have sniped back and forth, but with one important difference: Whereas Koepka seems to smirk at the innate silliness of the rivalry, DeChambeau seems to take it seriously. As a result, some of the more well-lubricated spectators at recent PGA events have taken to serenading Bryson with sing-songy cries of “Brook-sie!”
Ironically, the “Brook-sie!” backlash against DeChambeau has resulted in a bit of institutional support for him. Rory McIlroy, one of the most highly decorated and respected players in the game has issued a qualified defense:
I think we have known from the start that Bryson is different, and he is not going to conform to the way people want him to be. . . . I’m not saying he is completely blameless in this. But at the same time, I think he has been getting a pretty rough go of it of late and it’s actually pretty sad to see because he, deep down, I think, is a nice person and all he wants to do is try to be the best golfer he can be.
McIlroy’s comments were prompted by this from PGA commissioner Jay Monahan: “When you hear ‘Brooksie!’ yelled . . . the question is: Is that respectful or disrespectful? . . . To me, at this point, it’s disrespectful, and that’s the kind of behavior that we’re not going to tolerate going forward.”
So, we have a familiar dynamic. An outlier is disruptive to a well-entrenched institution. Unsurprisingly, there is pushback from key institutional stakeholders. The outlier’s penchant for violating behavioral norms causes even greater pushback — which in turn has led respected institutional figures to come to his defense in an attempt to help the system settle back into a less edgy, more comforting steady-state.
Golf should hope that DeChambeau can sand off his behavioral rough edges while continuing to pursue what is an idiosyncratic, aesthetically horrifying, paradigm-busting, extraordinarily effective, ridiculously remunerative, and just plain compelling approach to the game.
Because a bit more quirkiness might not be all bad for this staid, tradition-laden, and wonderfully fusty old game.