Bryson DeChambeau makes science out of a sport people believe should be art

You couldn’t miss Bryson DeChambeau at the Masters in 2016. He was 22 and just out of college. He should, in fact, have been midway through the senior year but he’d quit to take what he called a “six-month apprenticeship” on tour. So here he was, strutting around Augusta National in his flat cap and bright red shirt, clean cut, square-shouldered and riding high up the leaderboard. After 35 holes he was one shot off the lead, then he made a triple bogey on the 18th. DeChambeau finished tied for 21st, the best performance by an amateur in more than a decade.

The previous year DeChambeau had won both the US Amateur Championship and the NCAA Division I Championship. He was only the fifth man to do it, and three of the previous four were Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Jack Nicklaus. He was always going to attract attention and that was before he opened his mouth. He spoke about his physics major, explained he had a “one-plane swing” he’d learned from a manual written in the 1960s, The Golfing Machine by Homer Kelley, that he played with clubs cut to the very same length and he had a putting method evolved from another obscure book, Vector Putting: the Art and Science of Reading Greens, by HA Templeton.

It made him seem like an oddball, a kook, and he knew it. “People said: ‘This dude is crazy. He’s a nut job. He’s got no chance,’” DeChambeau said about the time he first unveiled his swing.

DeChambeau is not the first player to take an interest in science. One of the least known details about Woods’s car crash in 2009 was that a well-thumbed paperback of John Gribbin’s Get A Grip on Physics was found at the scene. And DeChambeau wasn’t the first Kelley disciple to play on tour, either. That was Bobby Clampett, who finished third in the 1982 US Open. But DeChambeau went so much further with it. He took one of the tenets of Kelley’s book and turned it into a personal creed: “Don’t turn away because the truth looks too complex,” Kelley wrote. “Stay with it a while and you’ll soon find it all very helpful and comfortable. After all, complexity is far more acceptable and workable than mystery is.”

“They say I’m the smart scientist,” DeChambeau said in 2016. “I don’t know if I’m truly that. I’m more of a good experimenter.” He’s spent the years since restlessly tinkering, digging into those complexities. He’s experimented with side-saddle putting, for which he was ridiculed, and with using a compass on his yardage charts, which was banned by the PGA on the grounds it was “unusual equipment”. He’s fitted outsize grips on to his clubs, wired an electroencephalogram sensor to his brain to test his stress responses to the movies he’s watching and, eventually, he’s taken up diet and gym regimen that’s helped him put on 20lbs of muscle in only the last few months.

Often it all seemed to backfire. Before the Ryder Cup at Le Golf National in 2018 he said he hoped he would “intimidate” the Europeans – and then ended up losing all three matches he played. Back then he seemed like the circuit’s Professor Frink. And then he started winning.

DeChambeau’s startling victory at Winged Foot last weekend, six shots clear, the only player under par, has split opinion. All of a sudden, the game is alive with talk about what it all means, whether the authorities need to tighten the equipment regulations or will have to redesign the courses. Which fits. DeChambeau is a radical and his way of doing things is a challenge to the way they have always been done, which is one reason why people have taken against him. There are others, too. He plays slow, like plenty of others, and can sometimes seem a little smug, which rubs up people the wrong way.

And, of course, he’s a slugger – again, just like plenty of others. DeChambeau has got a better short game than he sometimes gets credit for but he’s still adopted a brute force style that offends traditional sensibilities.

He’s not the first to do it but he’s unusual because he made a calculated decision to pursue it. He decided with the help of his statistician that he had to be able to hit it further than everyone else and to hell with whether he found the fairway or not. He approached the problem of winning a major like it was an equation on a blackboard. He made a science out of a sport people believe should be an art.

Go back to that Kelley quote: “Complexity is far more acceptable and workable than mystery is.” The trouble with that is it’s the “mystery” that makes the game so endearing. As John Updike wrote: “Golf is of games the most mystical, the least earthbound, the one wherein the walls between us and the supernatural are rubbed thinnest.” Well, Updike won two Pulitzer Prizes for literature, but had a 19 handicap (“it would be higher if I turned in all my scores”), so you choose who to believe. But if you see the game that way, then DeChambeau’s algorithmical approach is going to leave you cold.

The US journalist Brett Cyrgalis has just written a good book about all this, Golf’s Holy War: the Battle for the Soul of the Game in an Age of Science. But it’s a debate that is being played across all sports in recent years – you can hear it in the scepticism of the old pros towards the new analysts, hear it in the pundits’ repeated insistence the numbers can’t tell you everything. DeChambeau would disagree.