ORLANDO, FL - Beware “The Kraken.”
According to Greek Mythology, Kraken is a sea monster of tremendous size, strength, speed and endurance. Supposedly, its many large tentacles can pull under water even massive ships and destroy entire cities; plus, its sharp teeth can shred even the toughest prey.
Bryson DeChambeau unleashed his own “Kraken,” the nickname he’s given his Cobra SpeedZone driver, on the fabled Winged Foot West Course during the 120th U.S. Open this past week, and the golf world took notice. When the sun set on this suburban New York City club on Sunday evening, DeChambeau had registered an historic victory, while along the way silencing his critics and detractors and crushing U.S. Open myths.
In the six Opens that have been played at Winged Foot, DeChambeau is the only golfer to have shot all four rounds at par or better, and only the second to finish an Open on the West Course under par. He was six strokes clear of runner-up Matthew Wolff, eight ahead of third-place finisher Louis Oosthuizen, an incredible 10 better than the fifth-place Xander Schauffele, and an astounding 31 shots better than the last of the 61 players to make the 36-hole cut.
DeChambeau’s first major victory and seventh career PGA Tour title also put him in elite company. He became just the third golfer to win an NCAA individual championship, a U.S. Amateur, and an U.S. Open (the other two are Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods). He also is just the 11th golfer to win an Amateur and Open.
But it was as much about how he did it as what he accomplished. Jerry McGee, a pretty fair golfer who won four PGA Tour events in the mid-1970s, once described playing in an Open as “tip-toeing through hell.” DeChambeau didn’t tip toe; he bulldozed right through hell.
A Game We’ve Never Seen
“It’s a game we’ve never really seen before,” Harris English, who finished fourth, said of DeChambeau’s play.
The word pre-tournament was that Winged Foot’s setup would be brutal – long (a couple of the par-4s played over 500 yards); with tight fairways; hilly, firm, and fast greens; and 5-inch rough thick enough to swallow a 16-ounce beverage can (since this is golf, we’ll make that drink an “Arnold Palmer”, the iced tea-lemonade mixture favored by the late great golfer). English could attest to the rough’s severity – he lost his drive on the first hole Sunday in the rough, incurred a one-stroke penalty, and had to hit his tee shot again.
For many, it brought visions of “The Massacre at Winged Foot,” the 1974 Open in which Hale Irwin won with a score of seven over par. (And, may have if the course has not been set up in relatively benign fashion for a first round that saw 21 players break par.)
As the tournament progressed, it became evident that this Open was not a battle between 143 golfers, as much as a tag-team duel of competing philosophies. In one corner was the penalizing “traditional Open setup” favored by the United States Golf Association (USGA), which runs the tournament, and a golf course with a well-deserved reputation for yielding high scores. In the other corner, was a “bomb-and-gouge” mentality that stresses hitting the ball as far as possible, and DeChambeau and “The Kraken.”
The USGA long has placed a premium on driving accuracy, and the importance of keeping the ball in the fairway and approach shots below the hole. In the organization’s mind, an Open should require a golfer to use “every shot in the bag.”
Red numbers (signifying a below-par score) are not the USGA’s friend. The golf organization’s position is that shots that land in the rough should incur a penalty, and that golfers should take their medicine of a bogey (or worse) for their errant shot and head for the next tee. Missing the fairway too often should be a sure ticket home after two rounds.
The “bomb-and-gouge” mentality, though, flies directly in the face of that emphasis on precision golf and patience. It preaches “hit it hard, go find it, and then let’s go from there.” Because of the long distance of the shots, even heavy rough is seen more as an inconvenience than a penalty. Length is an advantage that trumps everything, except water.
“I’m hitting it as far as I possibly can up there,” DeChambeau told The Golf Channel pre-tournament. “Even if it’s in the rough I can still get it to the front edge or the middle of the greens with pitching wedges or 9-irons. Even if I hit it in the rough, I still feel like I can make birdies out here. I still feel like I can run it up the middle of the green and make a 20-footer. That’s the beauty of my length and that advantage.”
Everybody Loves the Long Ball
He’s not alone. According to PGA Tour statistics, a record 72 golfers averaged at least 300 yards for their drives during the 2020 season. Everybody loves the long ball. Bomb and gouge. Put a short iron in a Tour player’s hands for an approach shot to the green, and he’ll gladly take his chances for making birdie.
Bryson, who led the Tour in driving in the 2020 season at 322 yards per drive (26 more than the Tour average), and “Kraken” are perfect leaders for that movement. For instance, on the ninth hole Sunday, a 565-yard, par-5, DeChambeau hit driver and pitching wedge, and then sank a 38-foot eagle putt. His playing partner Wolff (another member of the bomb-and-gouge set, who was ninth in driving distance at 311.6 yards), also reached the green with driver and wedge, and then made a 10-foot eagle putt. Such length is hard to beat.
Ever the contrarian on the golf course, DeChambeau refused to change his game to suit the toughened Winged Foot course. He said he knew beforehand that he wouldn’t be able to hit many fairways, so his strategy was to hit it as far as he could in hopes that, even from the rough, he could make par, or even birdie. Reportedly, he spent a lot of his tournament preparation on playing shots out of the rough.
So, the battle between accuracy and distance, between traditional and unconventional was drawn. And, DeChambeau won. Winged Foot bared its teeth, but “The Kraken” had a stronger bite.
By hitting just 23 of 65 fairways over four days, the lowest percentage ever for an Open champion, DeChambeau busted the myth that one can’t win the national championship playing from the rough.
“I don’t really know what to say because that’s just the complete opposite of what you think a U.S. Open champion does,” said Rory McIlroy, a four-time majors champion who will go for the career slam at the Masters in November.
“Look, he’s found a way to do it. Whether that’s good or bad for the game, I don’t know, but it’s just – it’s not the way I saw this golf course being played or this tournament being played. It’s kind of hard to really wrap my head around it.”
Said Schauffele, “Yeah, he’s sort of trending in the new direction of golf. Everyone talked about hitting the fairways out here. It’s not about hitting fairways. It’s about hitting on the correct side of the hole and hitting it far so you can kind of hit a wedge instead of a 6-iron out of the rough.”
A Polarizing Player
DeChambeau is a polarizing player – the type you either love or dislike. He has sniped at fellow golfers, tournament officials, and even TV cameramen. Plus, he is candid, outspoken, and free in his remarks.
Bryson, who has a bachelor’s degree in physics from Southern Methodist University, sometimes is referred to as “The Mad Scientist.” He sees golf not only as a game, but also as a math and science problem to be solved. He leaves no stone unturned in searching for an advantage on the extremely competitive PGA Tour.
Much has been written, not all of it flattering, about his use of single-length clubs; his methodical – some would say excessively slow – play; his willingness to speak his mind publicly; and most of all, the transformation of his physique.
Since the end of last season, the 27-year-old California resident has put on 40 pounds – much of it muscle – with a protein shake-heavy diet of 6,000 calories a day (the recommended daily calorie intake for men is 2,500) and an intense workout regimen. It is designed to help him gain weight and strength -- better to swing harder and faster and to hit the ball farther.
Yet, it is not all brawn. Even though he was just 26th in fairways hit at the Open, he tied for fifth in greens in regulation, and was 11th in putting. Both his putting and bunker play have improved steadily since he joined the Tour six years ago.
“You still have to be able to control your ball. You still have to be able to chip and putt,” reigning British Open champion Shane Lawry told Cameron Morfit of pgatour.com. “If it was just about hitting the ball long, the long drivers would be out here playing in these major championships and they’re not.”
Critics may mock Bryson’s methods, and say that tournament golf is more than emphasizing long drives and brute strength, but a title and a fourth-place finish in the two majors since the Tour returned this spring from its three-month, pandemic-induced layoff would seem to validate his approach.
DeChambeau’s quest to push the envelope – to consistently achieve a 200-mph ball speed (he averaged 184.73 mph during the 2020 season, fourth-best on Tour) and hit drives 400 yards – will continue.
The 6-foot-1, 235-pound golfer says he hopes to gain an additional 10 pounds or so by the Masters. Plus, he says he soon will be trying out a 48-inch driver (his current one measures 45.5 inches in length). Those two changes, he hopes, will help him average 370 yards a drive – almost 50 yards longer than he is now.
Imagine an even more ferocious “Kraken” let loose at the Masters, which has negligible rough and wider fairways. Now imagine Augusta National as a “pitch-and-putt.”
Is He a Game Changer?
The question is, will DeChambeau’s first major victory change the way golfers, amateurs and professionals alike, play the game? Will it have an impact similar to John Daly, when he won the 1991 PGA Championship as a ninth alternate and captivated a nation of golf fans with his “just-grip-it-and-rip-it” approach; or similar to how Tiger improved athleticism and physical fitness levels on the Tour when he dominated play in the 1990s and early 2000s?
“I played with (DeChambeau) at Colonial the first week back out,” McIlroy told Sports Illustrated, “but I sort of said, ‘OK, wait until he gets to a proper course. He’ll have to rein it back in.’ (Winged Foot is) as proper as they come, and look what happened.”
“I think I’m definitely changing the way people think about the game,” DeChambeau said after his win. “Now, whether you can do it, that’s a whole different situation. There’s lots of people that are going to be hitting it far…There’s a lot of young guns that are unbelievable players, and I think the next generation that’s coming up into golf hopefully will see this and go, ‘Hey, I can do that, too.”
Perhaps – but only one has “The Kraken.”
Dr. Cary Middlecoff, who graduated as a dentist before turning to professional golf full time and winning a Masters and two U.S. Opens in the late 1940s and early 1950s, once said, “Nobody wins an Open. It wins you.”
Well, DeChambeau definitely won Sunday. And the golf world definitely took notice in how.
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.
Photo credit: Markus Spiske/Unsplash.com