From ‘The Mad Scientist’ to ‘Happy Gilmore’
ORLANDO, FL (July 13, 2020) – People are talking a lot about golfer Bryson DeChambeau again. But, not in that rolling-of-the-eyes, snarky, “What is the ‘Mad Scientist’ up to now?” or “Why in the world is he taking more than two minutes for a simple, eight-foot putt?” way that they used to.
These days, that snark has turned to astonishment over his Incredible Hulk-like physique (“Hey, have you seen Bryson lately? That dude is jacked!”), and his long drives (“I can’t believe he hit it 375 yards – into the wind”).
Yes, a lot of people are talking about DeChambeau. A victory and five other top-eight finishes in six tournaments tend to get people’s attention. Even people outside the game are taking notice: a Vegas bookmaker has made Bryson the favorite to win all three majors this season, plus the FedEx Cup championship. Only Ben Hogan and Tiger Woods have ever won three majors in the same calendar year.
Yet, that’s the buzz that surrounds DeChambeau these days. He has a lot of people talking, and wondering: Is Bryson the next phenomenon on the PGA Tour or just another meteorite that streaks across the sky and flames out?
‘A Total Non-Conformist’
The 26-year-old DeChambeau has been a polarizing figure ever since he joined the PGA Tour in 2016, following a heralded amateur career in which he won both the NCAA Division I Championship and the U.S. Amateur in 2015.
He always has been viewed as a little quirky, maybe even a little eccentric. After all, how many other golfers have you heard of who determine the center of gravity of their golf balls – or even care – by soaking them in saline water?
Actually, DeChambeau is affable, intelligent, outspoken, and approachable. He’s a welcome change from the autotrons among the Americans on the PGA Tour. A guy who’s completely comfortable walking down his own path, regardless of how far off-the-beaten path it may seem.
He cares not what others may think about his recent weight gain, his desire for Happy Gilmore-esque drives, his single-length iron clubs, his reputation for slow play, or his being viewed as a “Mad Scientist.”
We live in a society that, for some reason, has a growing anti-science bias. Anything that is based on science these days is somehow considered suspect. But DeChambeau, who has a bachelor’s degree in physics from Southern Methodist University, embraces it.
He’s dead serious about applying science to the art of hitting golf balls. “I’m a total non-conformist; for me, it’s about going down rabbit holes,” DeChambeau told Bill Pennington of the New York Times recently. “I have to chase down the most scientifically efficient way to get the golf ball in the hole.”
DeChambeau is all about data – and has been long before things like spin rates, ball speed, and launch angles became the rage on Tour.
It’s a path he charted back when he was 15, and started thinking about using single-length irons. The varying lengths and weights of clubs in a traditional golf set actually require different stances, set-ups, and swing planes for each of the 13 clubs. For instance, irons typically decrease by a one-half inch in length and get heavier as one goes from a 3-iron down to a pitching wedge. As a result, long irons require a golfer to stand more upright and further from the ball than when using a sand wedge. The subtle differences are difficult to master.
To DeChambeau the idea of one set-up, ball position and swing with the single-length irons made perfect sense. The following year, at age 16, he won the California State Junior Amateur Championship.
Today, all of his irons and wedges have the approximate shaft length of a 7-iron.
Now, DeChambeau has his sights set on reaching a plateau no golfer has achieved: consistent, controlled 400-yard drives. But, first, about that much-discussed weight gain.
Packing It In and On
It’s easy to spot DeChambeau on the golf course. At a solid 6-foot-1 and 240 pounds he looks like someone who belongs in a football uniform rather than in a golf shirt and slacks.
Like a lot of people during the COVID-19 stay-safe, stay-at-home isolation this spring, DeChambeau gained weight. But while many of us packed on pounds, Bryson bulked up. An extreme weight-lifting program and an even more extreme diet helped the former Californian add some 20 pounds of muscle – most of it on his upper body – during the PGA Tour’s three-month hiatus because of the coronavirus.
It is a continuation of a program he started nine months and about 40 pounds ago. When the Tour’s 2019 season ended, he promised that changes were coming; and he was correct. DeChambeau has gone from slender Bruce Banner to alter ego The Incredible Hulk, but without the menacing anger and rage in the transformation.
“[Nine months ago] I said, you know what, I want to try and get stronger, because I know there’s an advantage to be gained,” he told Men’s Health magazine.
Getting bigger and stronger, he reasoned, would help him swing faster and harder, which would translate into more distance on his shots.
“I’m full sail going as hard as I can to get as strong and as big as I can,” he told writers after his win at the Rocket Mortgage Classic in Detroit.
He shared with Brendan Bianowicz of the New York Post his diet. Breakfast is “usually four eggs, five pieces of bacon, some toast” and two protein shakes. Throughout the day he consumes protein bars, peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches, and some more protein shakes. Dinner consists of steak, potatoes and a couple more protein shakes.
“So, I’m consuming six to seven protein shakes a day,” he said, estimating that he consumes around 3,500 calories a day.
His weight-lifting routine is designed to increase strength and flexibility. “I’m just going to keep proportionally making everything stronger and applying some force and speed to the golf swing and see what it can handle,” DeChambeau told Michael Bamberger of golf.com.
“When I say that I’m going to keep pushing the limits, I’m going to keep doing that. I’m going to see how far, how fast I can get and how straight I can hit it.”
It is estimated that every additional one mile per hour in ball speed results in an increase of two yards in driving distance. (Building strength also improves his ability to muscle shots out of deep rough.)
Last year, Bryson’s average ball speed with his driver was 175 mph. He says this year he’s achieved ball speeds of 200 mph when hitting drives into a net at his home in Dallas. If true, that means he could add 50 yards to the 302.5 yards he averaged off the tee last year.
His goal is to launch shots like Happy Gilmore, comedian Adam Sandler’s fictional hockey-player-turned-golfer who regularly launches 400-yard drives using an unorthodox slapshot-style swing.
“If I could be like Happy Gilmore…hitting over 400 yards and hitting it straight? That is a massive, massive advantage,” he told Men’s Health magazine.
An Unfamiliar Game
It’s hard to argue with the results so far. DeChambeau has finished in the top 10 in six consecutive tournaments. For most golfers, a top-10 finish in three events, let alone winning a tournament, for an entire year is considered a good season.
“This is a little emotional for me because I did do something a little different,” he said after his victory in the recent Rocket Mortgage Classic. “I changed my body, changed my mindset in the game, and I was able to accomplish a win while playing a completely different style of golf. And, it’s pretty amazing to see that.”
What Bryson did was beyond amazing. He literally overpowered the Detroit Golf Club course, reducing it to a pitch-and-putt outing. Sixteen times during the four days he hit drives over 350 yards (he’s done it 29 times total this season), including one that measured 374 yards.
He was hitting it so long that during the final round he had to wait on the 13th tee for the group ahead of him to clear the green, so he wouldn’t risk hitting into them – and the green was 399 yards away.
For the four rounds, he averaged 350.6 yards on his drives, shattering by 9 yards Tiger Woods’ 15-year-old record for longest average driving distance in a week that ended with a victory.
That’s impressive, especially considering that this was Detroit, not the elevation-aided mountain courses of Colorado where shots fly about 15 percent further because of the thin air, or the Arizona desert courses where shots gain distance because of the heat, dry air, and firm fairways.
Currently, DeChambeau stands No. 1 on the PGA Tour in driving distance, averaging 323 yards a pop. That’s a 20.5-yard difference from 2019, when he was tied for 34th in driving distance.
Pro golfers are unrelenting, almost obsessive, in their quest to add even a yard or two in distance to their shots. They’ll tinker with their clubs, their grips, their set-ups, their swings, their golf balls, and even change coaches – anything to add a little length. So, a 20-yard improvement in one year is, as DeChambeau said, “massive.”
‘Bomb and Gouge’
“He’s changed the way the game is played entirely,” one golfer said after Bryson’s win at Detroit, his sixth Tour victory in four seasons (only Justin Thomas, Dustin Johnson, and Brooks Koepka have more in that time span).
His strategy is similar to what has been called “bomb and gouge”, which places a premium on distance rather than accuracy. Simply, swing hard and fast, and then go find the ball. Golfers simply overpower a course by hitting over the trouble. For a big hitter, tee shots that land in the rough no longer are a huge concern because they are close enough to reach the green with a short club, usually a wedge.
DeChambeau demonstrated how effective that can be on the par-five, 17th hole during the final round of the Rocket Mortgage Classic. After another 350-yard drive, he muscled an 8-iron 233 yards out of the rough, and then had a routine two-putt for a birdie.
Not everyone is pleased with the idea of golfers reaching a par-five with a driver and 8-iron. World Golf Hall of Fame member Colin Montgomerie is one. Speaking at last month’s Charles Schwab Challenge in Fort Worth, TX, the Ryder Cup veteran told the New York Post, “On Friday, Bryson had 10 holes on which he was within 100 yards of the green for his approach. And, if you include the four par-threes, that means there were only four holes on which Bryson was more than 100 yards away for his approach.
“The game has changed dramatically,’ Montgomerie added. “It’s now brute force and a sand wedge.”
Happy Gilmore would be pleased.
Changing the Majors?
DeChambeau could even be helping to influence the way the majors are played. For years, players have emphasized accuracy, knowing that shots which land even a foot or two off the fairway can nestle into deep rough, and lead to a bogey or worse. The United States Golf Association, in particular, likes to set up U.S. Open courses so that players are required “to use every club in their bag.”
But, players like DeChambeau can say damn the consequences and blast away, because they know it can leave them with only a short iron to the green. When you can hit an 8-iron 230 yards, even thick rough isn’t insurmountable.
So, it’s easy to see why DeChambeau would be a favorite to win all three majors this year. He can simply hit over and past the trouble at Augusta National. Then, his ability to muscle shots out of deep and penalizing rough that will be standard at the PGA Championship at Harding Park and the U.S. Open at Winged Foot gives him an added advantage.
It brings to mind the old Bobby Jones quote, “He plays a game with which I am unfamiliar.”
Sparking a New Trend?
Fascination with hitting the ball long distances is nothing new. Back in his heydays in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, Jack Nicklaus overpowered golf courses and his competitors (Nicklaus won the long drive contest at the 1963 PGA Championship with a blast of 341 yards – using a steel-shaft, wood driver).
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Tiger Woods so dominated the game that he forced his fellow Tour competitors to hit the gym and become more athletic, in an attempt to keep pace with the fitness-conscious Woods.
Will Bryson’s success have a similar impact on his fellow competitors? Will pro golfers come to more closely resemble NFL linebackers? It’s hard to imagine many of the PGA Tour members adopting DeChambeau’s extreme workout-and-diet regimen.
But that’s OK with DeChambeau. He’s perfectly content to walk his own path, no matter how odd you might consider it. He’s got his single-length irons, his workouts and protein shakes, his data, and his faith in the science of golf.
And, maybe he’ll bring Happy Gilmore and his 400-yard drives to life.
Dennis Richardson is a writer/editor with Words Matter. He has an extensive background as a reporter, copy editor, sportswriter, sports copy editor, and Senior Special Sections Writer with newspapers in Missouri and Florida. He lives outside of Orlando, FL.