In the leadup to this year’s Masters, a video of Bryson DeChambeau began making the rounds.
In it, DeChambeau is shown taking practice cuts on the driving range. It’s like watching a guy chop down a tree with a crowbar. The violence with which DeChambeau approaches the game – everything from the twitchy run up to the tee to the back-snapping swing – is mesmerizing.
So mesmerizing that former Masters champion Vijay Singh stands to one side staring, an unnerved smile on his face. In a sense, we are all Singh, watching golf change in real time.
Wait. Scratch that. Watching golf changing, but not exactly in real time. For the second time in six months, DeChambeau has come in hot and had trouble hitting the runway at Augusta National.
Take, for example, Friday’s 11th hole. It’s a par four that doglegs to the right. DeChambeau hit his drive 358 yards, skying the corner. That is a ridiculous golf shot. But you can’t drive every ball.
DeChambeau had an eight-foot putt for birdie. He checked on his first attempt, head shaking, feet jittery. As you knew to an absolute certainty he would, he shorted the putt.
Same story at the 12th, where he lipped a four-footer. Then he stood up and said, “Oh. My. God.”
As much as DeChambeau is playing Augusta National, Augusta National is playing him.
After a nice scramble at the end of his round, DeChambeau sits at a respectable one-under-par for the tournament, well off the pace. It’s not a bad performance. It’s also nowhere near what that video advertised.
So, yes, the revolution will be televised, but probably not this weekend. Maybe check back next year. Meanwhile, we can keep on arguing about it.
It is a commonplace in all sports that someone will eventually come along and flip the accepted way of playing on its head. This is almost always a good thing that is initially treated like a bad thing.
Right now, golf can’t quite figure out how it feels about DeChambeau. Everyone likes that his “Smartest Guy at Gold’s Gym” routine is driving interest. More interest means more opportunity for everyone.
But no one in golf likes the DeChambeau method. They don’t like it aesthetically. They certainly don’t like what it might mean for the rest of them professionally.
Most seismic changes in a sport are simple and elegant – think Bobby Orr figuring out that defencemen can join the rush. Orr watched the same regimented game as everyone else, but could turn his head just so and see its arrangement anew.
DeChambeau’s done the same thing. He sees golf differently than everyone else. He’s made the physical changes necessary to leverage that insight. The problem with his breakthrough is that while simple, it isn’t elegant.
No one wants to spend their weekend watching some big guy in a tam o’ shanter knocking balls into low orbit. It’s crude. Even the name for the tactic – “bomb and gouge” – sounds coarse and predatory.
However, there is no honest argument against it. You can talk all day about the beauty of the game, but the thing you’re talking about has nothing to do with professionals competing for money. There are no unwritten rules when there’s a couple of million bucks on the line.
This creates a philosophical tangle for golf. Various colleagues have tried to complain about DeChambeau without sounding like complainers, and failed.
That’s left it to the layer above – the sport’s gatekeepers and defenders of the flame – to attack DeChambeau indirectly.
Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley spoke earlier this week about “protecting the integrity” of the game. He said he fears the approach of major tournament courses more than 8,000 yards in cumulative length.
At that distance, even the best amateurs might spend days lost out there before succumbing to despair. These would be courses unfit for habitation by average humans.
If golf wants to put the brake on DeChambeau and his inevitable heirs, it’s not going to be done via pooh-poohing. The business will have to take a hit.
When Bobby Jones started the Masters, his conception of the game and its integrity did not include feather-light titanium and tungsten drivers created using more R&D resources than a fighter jet.
If bomb and gouge is a problem, don’t blame DeChambeau. Blame his equipment. Nobody wants to talk about that, though, because the golf business is built on constantly turning over your clubs.
Earlier this year, golfing authorities in the United States and Europe released the so-called Distance Insights Report. Its main takeaway: that the constantly increasing length of shots is an existential threat to the sport.
The report’s authors gingerly suggested small equipment changes, such as setting limits on the length of clubs.
But while little changes might be good for the game, they will most definitely be bad for the business. Nobody’s going to run out to buy that brand new, much worse driver everyone’s talking about. We could end up in a situation where the average weekend duffer has access to more high-tech equipment than the best in the world.
The alternate solution is the sort of mass course expansion Ridley mentioned. That’ll get Greta Thunberg on golf’s case quicker than you can say “watershed degradation,” and no one wants that.
At some point, golf will have to do something it hates – change. The timetable for that change is currently being set by DeChambeau.
He’s won a major, but he hasn’t put together the sort of run of form that makes him a star outside the sport. That may or not happen. When it does, the situation becomes critical.
The point of greatest risk is at golf’s greatest tournament, happening now. If DeChambeau were hitting par-five greens off the tee, Augusta National members would be out there trying to subdue him with a net and a dart gun.
Instead, he’s done them the favour of making the long-bomb approach seem neutered by a course of this magnificence. It’s a moment of reprieve for golf. But just a moment.
The giants are coming, and eventually will have to be dealt with. Even at Augusta.