Whether fad or the future, PGA Tour player Bryson DeChambeau has changed the way golf can be played since its return seven weeks ago from a season suspended three months because of the coronavirus pandemic.
He came back with a modified body, game and perhaps purpose on his way to four top-eight finishes — including victory at the Rocket Mortgage Classic in Detroit — until the world’s seventh-ranked player missed the cut at last week’s Memorial Tournament.
He came back the tour’s most impressive long driver who statistically leads the tour by 2 yards in distance-driving average. Stylistically, he has wowed with tee shots that travel 375 yards or more and redefined golf’s “bomb and gouge” era, enough so that 17th-ranked Tony Finau has been convinced to follow the quest for ball speed and distance.
Runner-up to winner Matthew Wolff last year in Blaine, DeChambeau isn’t at the 3M Open that begins Thursday, but Finau and other long hitters Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson, Bubba Watson and Wolff himself will play on a TPC Twin Cities course susceptible to big drivers.
Is the scientific approach of DeChambeau an aberration or a glimpse of the future to which even the game’s other long hitters must adapt or be left behind?
“I don’t need to keep up with anybody,” said Koepka, winner of four majors. “I’m good.”
Calling himself “inspired” by both DeChambeau’s length and accuracy, Finau last week experimented with a longer, harder swing in select situations at the Memorial Tournament, where he finished eighth after he started with a 66 and ended with a 78.
“Seeing how straight he was hitting it and how hard, I decided to crank it up and work on hitting a really hard fade,” Finau told reporters after Friday’s 69. “I’m still figuring it out. I don’t know the exact balance. But the good thing is I’ve got that extra in the tank when I need it on certain holes. But it definitely is a balance.”
Johnson is tied with fellow U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland for 26th in driving distance during a reconfigured season in which he has won a tournament — June’s Travelers Championship — for the 13th consecutive season.
“I feel like I hit it far enough to keep up,” Johnson said. “Until I feel like I can’t beat these guys when I’m playing my best, then I’ll try to change something. I feel like right now, if I’m playing really good golf, I can beat them. So until then, that’s when I’ll have to go back and review.”
DeChambeau gained some 20 pounds during the pandemic pause because of speed training, weight-room work and a diet that includes as many as seven protein shakes a day. Wolff calls it “chasing distance,” this quest by DeChambeau to surpass a mind-boggling 200-mph ball speed.
“I’m sure there will be people trying to do it,” DeChambeau said in a Memorial Tournament videoconference last week. “I’m going to keep pushing limits. I’m going to see how far, how fast I can get and how straight I can hit it. As a result of what I’ve done, I think it’ll affect some people. I still think at the end of the day, people will be like, ‘I just want to play my own game, do my own thing and do my best with it.’ ”
For as far as DeChambeau hits it, world 12th-ranked Tommy Fleetwood calls DeChambeau’s putting and short game greatly overlooked. He said it was only “a matter of time” before a “long-drive guy” with an all-around game came on the scene. That guy is DeChambeau, who is transforming himself into it.
“Bryson’s set out to do something and he’s done it,” Fleetwood said. “He’s hitting it a long, long way. Will golf go that way? Maybe, if guys want to keep up, especially kids now. There are a lot of people out on tour, but it’s very, very hard to do that and hard to sustain. It has been very impressive what Bryson has done, how far he’s hitting it.”
A long hitter himself, Wolff said there remains a place on tour for those who neither hit it short nor long, but score and win because they do so many other things so well.
“The most important thing is stick to what you do best and don’t try to change your game based on other people,” Wolff said. “To be so precise with your irons, still such a good putter and hit the ball as far as he does, it is very impressive. But I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone. Instead of me going 110 percent at everything, I can go 90 percent and feel like I honestly still hit the ball just as far. But I’m a little more controlled.”
DeChambeau predicts “100 percent” that the game will evolve and “10, 20 years down the road, there’s going to be a lot of people hitting it close to 400 yards. There’s no doubt.”
The Memorial Tournament’s Muirfield Village course’s fast, firm conditions countered players who hit it so long. The week before there, Collin Morikawa won with 19 under par on the same course, but one with slower greens and shorter rough. The next week, Jon Rahm won at 9 under in completely different conditions.
“That was telling how you can make a golf course defend itself, no matter how long some guys hit it,” Fleetwood said. “At the end of the day, if somebody’s going to come out and drive it 370 yards straight down the middle and be good at the rest of it, then fair play. I’m definitely going to have a hard time week to week beating that.”