Golf's Distance Dilemma
During the first round of the PGA Championship at Harding Park in August, Bryson DeChambeau launched what for him was a pedestrian 296-yard drive on the 7th hole, then leaned on his battle weapon as he reached down to pick up his tee. The weary implement, having spent half a season blasting drives in excess of 330 yards, snapped at the neck, leaving him with the shaft in one hand and the head in the other.
“That was weird,” he said with a grin walking off the tee. “Swinging too hard.”
In this strangest of PGA Tour seasons, altered and distorted by the Covid-19 pandemic, DeChambeau gave the golf world something else to talk about, and debate, when he showed up at the start of the year looking like a linebacker rather than a pro golfer. During the 2020 season, he’s been smashing tee shots at a record pace, averaging about 325 yards per drive.
In his own words, DeChambeau has brought “The Kraken” to the PGA battlefield. The Kraken is a folklore legend, a huge cephalopod-like sea monster that terrorized sailors in the frosty waters of the North Atlantic—a fitting nickname for his driver.
DeChambeau didn’t exactly terrorize his fellow PGA pros, but he certainly got them talking. And in September he shocked them by winning the U.S. Open with a dominant performance at Winged Foot. (See sidebar, page 61.) With an off-season regimen of daily workouts, ramped up during the three-month Tour shutdown at the start of the pandemic, and a prodigious diet that includes maybe a half-dozen protein shakes a day, DeChambeau put on about 40 pounds of muscle in a sport that is increasingly becoming about power.
The weight (upwards of 240 pounds) and strength allow him to anchor his body for his mighty lunge, rather more like a linebacker plowing into a running back than a golfer whacking a ball. He tees the ball up 3 inches and uses a driver with 5.5 degrees of loft with an extra stiff shaft.
“He went away with a medium shirt and came back with an extra large,” said CBS television commentator Nick Faldo.
This smash-and-grab strategy has carried DeChambeau to the elite level of major winner. With a club head speed approaching 140 miles per hour and ball speeds routinely in excess of 190 mph, the sound of a DeChambeau drive thunders across the landscape. The 27-year-old from California came up with the recipe for his ongoing health and his tour success.
“Eight months ago I said, ‘You know what, I want to try and get stronger.’ Because I know there’s an advantage to be gained,” said DeChambeau early in the season. “If I could be like Happy Gilmore or Kyle Berkshire, hitting over 400 yards and hitting it straight? That is a massive, massive advantage. So I set out to do that, and I’ve been healthier and stronger ever since.”
What started as a plan to shore up his balky back morphed into a life strategy for DeChambeau, a player whose decidedly quirky professional outlook has always been heavily influenced by the science of the game. (His compatriots call him “The Mad Scientist.”)
Greg Roskopf, a trainer based in Denver, designed DeChambeau’s workout regimen. His “Muscle Activation Techniques,” which have helped other athletes such as Peyton Manning, are based on how the muscle and nervous systems communicate with each other. DeChambeau first learned of
Roskopf’s ideas in college, and in 2017 he went to the trainer to relieve his hip and back pain. Roskopf helped strengthen his core and went muscle by muscle to relieve shoulder and wrist aches.
“I’m able to get up out of bed without feeling stiff in the morning,” DeChambeau said. “I used to wake up every single morning feeling terrible because my abs weren’t working properly, and my back would hurt because it was overcompensating for them. So once I started training the body proportionally, it really showed me a new life.”
And in turn his strategy has shined yet another light on the distance debate that has been going on in golf ever since John Daly’s grip-it-and-rip-it style propelled 300-yard drives that won him the 1991 PGA Championship.
When DeChambeau won the Rocket Mortgage Classic at the beginning of July, he did so by bringing the classic Detroit Golf Club to its knees. DeChambeau led the field with a driving distance
average of 350.6 yards, the highest mark ever recorded for a winner of a PGA Tour event, according to the 15th Hole blogger and stat maven Justin Ray. Tiger Woods set the
previous mark of 341.5 yards during his 2005 British Open victory.
DeChambeau finished the 18th hole on Sunday with a 367-yard drive—his fourth-longest shot of the week—that set up a flip wedge to 3 feet for birdie and a three-shot victory. DeChambeau also led the field in shots gained off the tee and putting for the week.
“This is a little emotional for me because I did do something a little different,” he said after the victory. “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. I hope it’s an inspiration to a lot of people.”
It’s not exactly as if pro golfers need a lot of inspiration to gain length. It’s been bombs away since Daly cut the doglegs off the Crooked Stick Golf Club on his way to winning that 1991 PGA. That year, he led the Tour in driving distance
average at 288.9 yards. He would head the list for all but one year through 2002, first breaking the 300-yard mark in 1997 at 302 and ultimately reaching 306.8 in 2002. In 2003, Daly was
supplanted by Hank Kuehne, who still holds the PGA Tour record with an astounding 321.4 yards.
This season, DeChambeau has been leading the driving distance stats with an average of 325 yards per tee shot. Cameron Champ’s lithe, rhythmic swing, the polar opposite of DeChambeau’s power, is second at 322.2 yards. Champ led the Tour in driving distance last year at 317.9 yards, while DeChambeau was tied for 34th last year at 302.5 yards. So far this season, there are 74 players averaging at least 300 yards.
The figures that mean the most to DeChambeau, though, are in the PGA Tour’s strokes gained category. Through the year to date, he is first in strokes gained off the tee, fifth in strokes gained putting and second in strokes gained overall. His scoring average of 69.097 was the Tour’s second best.
And of course, his massive strikes reignited the distance question in golf. Many PGA tour players now hit their 7-iron more than 200 yards and a 3-iron often sails 250 yards.
“He’s reignited [the debate] because he’s done it physically,” says Faldo. “He used the science to build up his body without screwing up his touch. That’s the real bottom line. You can’t fault him for that. He originally did it to protect his back because his back was bad; took a year to get his back strong. Then he embarked on this strength thing believing he could make the club head go faster.”
It was Tiger Woods who set the bar on physical workouts for golfers in the early 2000s, though Gary Player famously promoted rigorous exercise going back to the early 1980s, which made him a bit of a freak in that regard.
“There are skinny guys whipping it out there,” says Faldo. “Rory McIlroy is 5' 9'', but he has done it physically as well, creating fast-twitch muscles. Cameron Champ, skinny guy, hitting out there as well. Even Tiger is hitting out there with a couple of fused vertebrae. They are athletes now. I was playing tennis with Rod Laver last year, and he never went to the gym, ever. You did all the training on the court. I was told as a kid, you don’t lift weights, it will wreck your touch. I would agree with that. Lifting a 100-pound weight and then lift a 12-ounce golf club. That doesn’t make sense, so we didn’t do any of this. Now they have a way to be a power athlete,” Faldo says.
And now they hit it so far that almost no matter where they end up off the tee, they are so close to the green that at least there is a way to make par.
“The attitude is I’ll just cut the corner, and I’ll play the percentages,” says Faldo. “If it comes off, I’m in perfect shape. If it doesn’t come off, I’m in the rough and I can probably find a way. If it’s soft greens, I can still get it inside 20 feet.”
Fellow CBS commentator Ian Baker-Finch won the 1991 British Open and had his mind set on winning other majors. He felt he had to get longer, especially when a player like Greg Norman was pounding it out there 290 yards. But Baker-Finch didn’t go the physical fitness route.
“In the mid-’90s, I felt if I really wanted to continue to win majors I needed to hit the ball farther because all of the top players seemed to get longer,” said Baker-Finch. “I changed my swing and lost my confidence. I didn’t do it by trying to get stronger.”
That said, he now marvels at DeChambeau’s physical gambit for added distance and thinks it’s good for the game.
“I think it’s great for golf, what he’s doing, giving us something exciting to watch,” says Baker-Finch. “Young people are enjoying seeing Bryson and others over the last few years that hit it far.”
And that has Jack Nicklaus concerned, as he has been for at least 30 years. Nicklaus was once a prodigious hitter himself, capable of hitting 300-yard drives with a persimmon driver and a balata ball. He chose to dial himself back, opting for control and precision over brute strength, and it turned out OK for him and his 18 major titles.
Nicklaus is concerned that great courses are being made obsolete for competitive purposes because most simply can’t add another 1,000 yards to challenge the modern driver-wedge game. (This year at Nicklaus’ Memorial Tournament at his Muirfield Village Golf Club, DeChambeau blasted a drive of 423 yards on the 475-yard first hole.) Nicklaus wants to retain the integrity of classic courses by dialing back the golf ball, making it fly maybe 20 percent less far.
“The USGA and the R&A have got to wake up sooner or later,” said Nicklaus during the Memorial Tournament. “They can’t just keep burying their heads on this. They see it; they watch television. They see where these guys hit the golf ball. It isn’t about how far they hit it. You just can’t keep making golf courses longer. You just don’t have enough land. You don’t have enough money to do it.
“The golf ball is a very simple thing to fix, and I’ve been preaching about it for . . . 43 years,” he said. “I mean, that’s a long time to be studying something. Guys, stop studying it and do something! Will you please?”
If the USGA and the R&A, golf’s governing bodies, ultimately decide that there needs to be equipment changes that roll back the distance factor, DeChambeau wouldn’t mind. “No matter what rules they give me, I’m going to try and do my best to maximize my athletic ability,” said DeChambeau. “They can’t take working out away from me. I know that. So in regards to whoever is saying we’re going to have to look at equipment, I’ve got no problem. I’m, again, just going to look at my game and how I can improve it in the best way possible . . . Even if it gets rolled back there’s still going to be a gap.”
And even Nicklaus would nod his approval to that. “I don’t like seeing the ball going that far,” said The Golden Bear. “But if the guy is hitting it straight, more power to him.”
DeChambeau’s approach to the game has always had his peers spinning their eyeballs. Justin Thomas gave in to DeChambeau’s strategy by mid-summer after questioning it to begin with.
“It’s obviously working for him,” said Thomas at the Workday Charity Open. “I went from kind of being a little skeptical about it to maybe saying some things to realizing he was beating me every week and I should probably shut up and just start playing better for myself.”
In early 2019, well before embarking on his bulking up project, DeChambeau appeared on commentator David Feherty’s show. His rather eccentric approach to the game and to life (he recently said he hoped to live to 140) was perfect fodder and yielded the ultimate answer.
“If you could have dinner with one dead person, who would it be?” asked Feherty.
DeChambeau had a rather perfect reply, “Einstein.”