Golfer Bryson DeChambeau's scientific quest for a consistent swingby Paul Thomas
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.
“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.
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.
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