Golfer Bryson DeChambeau's scientific quest for a consistent swing

by Paul Thomas / 20 September, 2018
Bryson DeChambeau. Photo/Getty Images

Bryson DeChambeau. Photo/Getty Images

RelatedArticlesModule - Bryson Dechambeau golf science swing

Bryson DeChambeau has put himself in the top spot for the FedEx Cup finale at East Lake with a single-minded drive to simplify the game of golf.

Athletes often talk about the importance of “keeping it simple” or having “an uncluttered mind”. Uncharitable souls might suggest that, for most sportspeople, not “overthinking” is just doing what comes naturally.

“Football players are simple folk,” wrote Don DeLillo in End Zone, perhaps the most notable example of the darkly funny gridiron/nuclear warfare sub-sub-genre. “The football player travels the straightest of lines. His thoughts are wholesomely commonplace, his actions uncomplicated by history, enigma, holocaust or dream.”

US golfer Bryson DeChambeau may look like an all-American jock but he doesn’t conform to that stereotype. Single-minded to the point of obsessiveness and ambitious to the point of hubris, he aspires to nothing less than making golf’s holy grail – consistency – more easily attainable.

It would be easy to dismiss DeChambeau as proof that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, or simply someone trying too hard to be different – and not every golf writer has resisted the temptation. The 25-year-old Californian is a physics major who enjoys strap-lining – walking on thin straps of tubular webbing stretched between trees like a tightrope – to enhance his proprioception, the sense of one’s body position and movements. He taught himself to write his name backwards left handed. Why? Because he could.

“It’s not talent,” he says. “It’s just practice. I’m not really smart but I’m dedicated. I can be good at anything if I love it and dedicate myself.” Be warned: his loves include history, music and science.

DeChambeau excelled at basketball, soccer and volleyball but abandoned team sports because his high-school teammates didn’t share his work ethic. In golf, he found the perfect outlet for his questing nature and scientific approach to the technical side of sport. When he was 15, his coach directed him to what Golf Digest described as “arcane, science-based golf tomes” – The Golfing Machine by Homer Kelley and Vector Putting by HA Templeton.

DeChambeau embraced the philosophy implicit in the title of Kelley’s book and set about putting it into practice. All his irons are the same length – that of the standard six iron – with the same weight heads and same shaft flex and lie angle. This drive for uniformity led him to adopt an exaggerated, pendulum-style swing; the aim is to reduce the variables, to create a “one size fits all” solution to the range of ball-striking challenges the golfer encounters over 18 holes.

“Pipeline” Moe Norman. Photo/Getty Images

“Pipeline” Moe Norman. Photo/Getty Images

The results speak for themselves. DeChambeau is one of only five players to have won both the National Collegiate and US Amateur championships, putting him in the exalted company of the two greatest players of the modern era, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. In the past 14 months, he has won four times on the PGA tour, propelling himself from 99th in the world at the start of the year to eighth. Only Woods, who has gone from 656th to 21st in that time, has had a more dizzying ascent. Tomorrow in Atlanta, he will go into the final event of the PGA season leading the race for the FedEx Cup, the $15 million reward for the player who can top off a consistent season with commanding performances in the four playoff tournaments. (DeChambeau won the first two.)

DeChambeau has attracted variations on the mad scientist/nutty professor label because of his background and tendency to turn the act of thumping a little white ball into a mathematical equation. He prefers to see himself as a man on a mission to make a difficult game easier.

The theory goes something like this: hitting the golf ball straight is harder than it looks, therefore the more controlled, easily replicated, indeed robotic, your swing and the less variation in your equipment, the less there is to go wrong. To put it another way: the aim is to reduce the number of ways your body and mind can let you down.

DeChambeau is different but not unique or even a pioneer. Canadian golfer Moe Norman, who played in the 1960s and 1970s, had a similar swing – rigid, extended arms, minimal hand motion – and was known as “Pipeline Moe” for his straight hitting. “Why was Moe Norman able to hit it dead straight every time?” asks DeChambeau. “It wasn’t that he was thinking about everything; more like he was thinking about nothing.”

Perhaps DeChambeau’s ultimate achievement would be to demonstrate that an active, complicated mind can, when the need arises, effectively unclutter itself.

This article was first published in the September 22, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

Latest

The new What We Do in the Shadows is more dad joke than demonic
104712 2019-04-19 00:00:00Z Television

The new What We Do in the Shadows is more dad joke…

by Diana Wichtel

Diana Wichtel reviews a new American TV series based on the hit Kiwi comedy.

Read more
Louis & Louise is a satisfying exploration of gender and identity
104230 2019-04-19 00:00:00Z Books

Louis & Louise is a satisfying exploration of gend…

by Brigid Feehan

In her latest novel, Julie Cohen traces the parallel male and female lives of a single character.

Read more
Win a copy of Sir David Attenborough's Life on Earth: 40th Anniversary Edition
104844 2019-04-19 00:00:00Z Win

Win a copy of Sir David Attenborough's Life on Ear…

by The Listener

To celebrate Sir David Attenborough season on Sky, we are giving away copies of his book Life on Earth: 40th Anniversary Edition.

Read more
The Kiwi behind the powerful Aspen Institute's Queenstown launch
104788 2019-04-18 09:00:50Z Profiles

The Kiwi behind the powerful Aspen Institute's Que…

by Clare de Lore

Thanks to the determination of Christine Maiden, NZ has joined an international leadership network that aims to work on issues important to the future

Read more
Science must trump ideology in the GE debate
104784 2019-04-18 08:52:29Z Politics

Science must trump ideology in the GE debate

by The Listener

A New Zealand-developed super-grass that appears to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions might be blocked in this country by the Green Party.

Read more
Simon Bridges hails PM Jacinda Ardern's capital gains tax u-turn as victory
104803 2019-04-18 00:00:00Z Politics

Simon Bridges hails PM Jacinda Ardern's capital ga…

by Jo Moir

The National Party is calling the u-turn on a capital gains tax a massive failure for the Prime Minister.

Read more
John Campbell is replacing Jack Tame on TVNZ's Breakfast show
104860 2019-04-18 00:00:00Z Television

John Campbell is replacing Jack Tame on TVNZ's Bre…

by Noted

The TV network is switching things up - again.

Read more
John Lanchester’s ecological-dystopian tale about a barricaded Britain
104431 2019-04-18 00:00:00Z Books

John Lanchester’s ecological-dystopian tale about…

by Catherine Woulfe

The Wall may be speculative fiction, but it feel like it's just round the corner.

Read more