Two years ago, Bryson DeChambeau fell to his haunches, wrapped his hands around his face, and gazed over Carnoustie into what felt like oblivion. An opening round of 75 bled into an evening of traumatic practice, a ritual of eternal analysis and infinitesimal calculations, until his hands became calloused and sore. A US Amateur Champion and two-time PGA Tour winner with a maverick swing, he was already golf’s rising prodigy, but as he plodded despondently across the range, collecting his scattered clubs, it was hard to mark where genius blurred into madness - or, rather, if madness came before.
Now, DeChambeau sits atop the golfing world, and yet nobody truly knows the answer. He is 40lbs heavier, having undergone a dramatic transformation to gain distance, and has stretched - or in some eyes disfigured - the sport’s boundaries beyond recognition. At Winged Foot, infamous for its wretched rough, he hit just four of the last 21 fairways and still trampled the field by six shots to win the US Open. Since the emergence of Tiger Woods, there has not been such a defining victory in the sport - one where science so unequivocally corrupted artistry - simply for its ramifications on the future. DeChambeau is golf’s most polarising player, and rarely has the line between love and hate shrunk so thin.
No sooner had he walked off the course, winner’s medal draped over his linebacker’s physique, did DeChambeau begin pledging to continue - for “better or worse”, in the words of Rory McIlroy - reshaping golf’s foundations. “We’re going to be messing with some head designs and do some amazing things to make it feasible to hit these drives maybe 360, 370 [yards],” he said. “Maybe even farther.
“I am definitely changing the way people think about the game… Now, I’ve got an advantage with this length and that’s all she wrote.”
Xander Schauffele, who finished fifth - some 10 shots back - perhaps put it most bluntly. “Revolutionise? Maybe he's just exposing our game in terms of, if he keeps hitting it further and further, I don't see why he wouldn't be able to win many more US Opens.”
But, in reality, DeChambeau’s prowess is far more nuanced than musclebound gunslinging. It was Woods who spotted it early on. In 2016, DeChambeau, a distinguished US Amateur Champion who’d only recently turned professional, attended the Ryder Cup as a spectator. The pair found themselves sharing a buggy, and Woods came away fascinated by DeChambeau’s astonishing levels of calculation. “I’m very much a feel-oriented guy, and he’s very much a numbers guy,” Woods said two years later, prior to them partnering in the foursomes at Le Golf National. “But for some reason, we get along great and we work.”
By that time, DeChambeau had already begun rewriting the fabric of the game. After fastidiously studying Homer Kelley’s controversial manual, The Golfing Machine, he adapted a set of single-length irons, honing 144 variations of the swing in an attempt to reduce golf’s innate vagaries down to one single plane. His putting, too - which was spectacular at Winged Foot - follows a similar straight-armed, almost ruler-esque approach.
To some, these are the experimentations of lunacy. DeChambeau has been known to spritz water on his golf balls to calculate its minuscule effects. Only last week, he joked that using a stronger laser to line up his putts on the practice green would breach US federal law. A physics graduate, not a single molecule is left to chance. He is, in effect, stripping golf of its basic human error, its “feel” nature, and instilling the most detailed and robotic engineering possible. “I’m just trying to figure out this very complex, multivariable and multidimensional game,” he said, as he revealed his plans to test a new 48-inch driver shaft this week.
To see all this in action can be infuriating. Over 72 holes, DeChambeau rarely breaks rhythm in his 20 hours of internal monologue, a recipe of painstaking analysis and boundless mathematics. He is unapologetically slow and occasionally prone to eruptions of temper, and a confrontation with a cameraman later provoked him to claim: “If you actually meet me in person I’m not too bad of a dude.”
England’s Eddie Pepperell had previously called him an “unaffected single-minded twit” before admitting that Sunday’s victory was “phenomenal”. Ian Poulter claimed that while DeChambeau was “not his cup of tea”, he has “huge respect” for the American.
For all the intrigue, and certainly a level of admiration, not all are in thrall, and a vocal majority have bemoaned the game’s marked shift towards distance and called for limitations on equipment as a result. “It’s tough to rein in athleticism,” DeChambeau responded. “Tiger [Woods] inspired this whole generation to do this and we’re going to keep going after it. I don’t think it’s going to stop.”
And while DeChambeau remains utterly single-minded, that is the most ominous warning of all. He is the hardest working professional on tour, the most creative and complex. His approach will remain maddening and divisive, and vindication should continue to come in the form of accolades.
Back at Carnoustie, after his endless night of introspection, DeChambeau rose at the crack of dawn and defied all expectations to shoot one-under-par. He left Scotland then with the same mantra he lives by now. A smile on the 18th green at Winged Foot paid for by thousands of hours of practice. “I’m not going to stop,” he beamed.