Golf attracted me from a young age (and has kept my attention) in part because it was the consummate underdog sport. Through my junior golf, high school and college days I was never particularly long; probably slightly shorter than average at best. But that was okay, because I was brought up in the game to understand that shorter hitters could usually compete with longer ones because swinging the club faster meant a certain baked-in amount of wildness, especially off the tee. Keeping it in play and putting a steady round together was a good way to play the game.
Bryson DeChambeau is not a revolutionary. He is a fanatic.
Even as I played through the interval where driver heads went from under 300 to 460 cubic centimeters seemingly overnight, I believed that the straight-and-steady style of play was as legitimate as the long-and-wild one.
I was dead wrong. Even though I’m only three years older than our newest U.S. Open champion, Bryson DeChambeau, I feel like a dinosaur. My handicap is a skosh to the good side of scratch, but I’ve never felt less connected to the upper echelons of the game because the style of play I honed - and saw other pros deploy to great success - is no longer represented at the game’s highest levels.
The 2010 Travelers Championship seems like a century ago, rather than a decade. That week, Bubba Watson earned his first PGA Tour victory in a playoff. He was far from the first modern bomber to win a tour event, but it was who he beat in that playoff that marked it as something of a changing of the guard: Scott Verplank and Corey Pavin.
That year, Bubba Watson was #2 in Driving Distance at 309.9 yards. Verplank was tied for 166th at 278.8 yards. Pavin didn’t play enough Tour rounds to register, but the previous year, he averaged a minuscule 259.0, dead last by almost ten yards. Nevertheless, at least that week, there was room for long-and-wild and short-and-steady to run neck-and-neck.
Look at the list of names who have dominated over the last decade-plus and it becomes obvious that there is only one way to really succeed in professional golf anymore: hit it far, knock it within range and if you hole some putts over 72 holes, you win. Stat oracles like Mark Broadie and Scott Fawcett have convinced their advisees that hitting 320-yard drives into the rough is better than hitting 290-yard drives in the fairway.
Bryson DeChambeau is not a revolutionary. He is a fanatic. He hasn’t reinvented golf; he’s taking the modern approach toward its limit. If 320-yard drives in the rough are good, then surely 380-yard drives in the rough are better, as long as the cone of uncertainty can be managed.
There is little reason to doubt DeChambeau will continue to prosper as he bootstraps a long-driver’s mentality onto an effective all-around game. His only barrier is the equipment regulations set forth by golf’s governing bodies, which currently allow for the use of a driver whose aerodynamics are stable enough and whose sweet-spot is now large enough to work with a 130 mile-per-hour swing to produce acceptable results at the game’s highest levels. Hank Kuehne led the PGA Tour in Driving Distance in 2003 at 321 yards, but he was not particularly consistent off the tee. He used a 390cc TaylorMade r510 TP that year, quite a different instrument than the maxed out drivers the current elite players use.
Where do we go from here? Is the complete obsolescence of finesse and tact as a way to play a positive development for the game? Do we want golf to become like basketball and football, where from a very young age, it will be clear that only certain people have the built-in physical gifts (make no mistake: DeChambeau’s physical transformation is not remotely possible for everyone) to compete at a high level? Or will we decide that we still value diverse skill sets among our best players?
Part of what used to make professional golf interesting to watch was that the differences in the pros’ styles of play mirrored those of golfers everywhere. We could identify with players who seemed to play the game like we did. Now, the best players – not just DeChambeau – all play a game with which we are not familiar. The days of relatability are gone, and the governing bodies must now decide whether they are gone forever.