Bryson DeChambeau's long-driving strategy invites a reckoning

His win at the Rocket Mortgage Classic heralds a scary new chapter in the debate about golf equipment and the course setup.
Bryson DeChambeau's long-driving strategy paid off big-time at the 2020 Rocket Mortgage Classic.

Sorry, Mr. Ross.

During an eventful but overall successful week for Bryson DeChambeau, modern golf’s aspiring scientist-pugilist, one of the standout remarks was an apology, albeit tongue-in-cheek. In the lead-up to the Rocket Mortgage Classic, he was “apologizing” for the confidence with which he’d be able to fly the fairway bunkers at the Donald Ross-designed Detroit Golf Club, turning most par fours there into drive-and-pitch situations, negating the classic course's original, strategic intent.

But among people who owe Donald Ross a sincere apology, DeChambeau is at the back of the line.

In fact, he doesn’t even owe Ross an apology in the first place. After all, he’s a professional golfer. It’s his job to figure out how to hit a golf ball fewer times than his opponents over the course of 72 holes. He did that better than anyone last week by three shots. He also became the first-ever PGA Tour winner to average more than 350 yards off the tee.

Bully for him. He spent professional golf’s three-month COVID-19 hiatus packing on the pounds - 40 of them - and powering up his golf swing to an alarming degree. He’s bootstrapped a long-driver’s mentality onto an already well-rounded golf game: swing as hard as possible off the tee, hope to hit some fairways, wedge it close enough and drain some putts. His strategy is not one of course management, but course decimation.

So if DeChambeau doesn’t owe Donald Ross an apology, who does? Who let golf equipment get to the point where swinging at upwards of 130 miles per hour with a driver became not just possible but sustainable? Who needs to act?

Allow me to nominate golf’s governing bodies. Although instead of an apology to a long-dead golf course architect, a bit of present action would be welcome.

For centuries, golf has remained largely unconquerable on a week-to-week basis for even the elite professionals, in part because of a need to balance two often mutually-exclusive disciplines: power and precision. We often think of Tiger Woods as a power player because he cut Augusta National off at the knees en route to his Masters coronation in 1997, but the separator in his game has been uncommonly accurate iron play to match his long-driving capabilities. He won so impressively because he was long and straight.

Over the last four weeks, DeChambeau has successfully rejected the notion that a golfer needs to temper prodigious power with considerable accuracy in order to win at the highest level of the game. Relative to the field, his performance with irons and wedges was mediocre at best. He won with his driver and putter, leading both Strokes Gained categories. Swinging out of his shoes, he still hit 59% of his fairways for the week.

Golf is not one game, but rather half a dozen or more disciplines that need to be put together to produce world-class results. A two-club game should not be sufficient to produce the way DeChambeau has of late, especially on medium-length but architecturally sophisticated courses like Detroit Golf Club, Harbour Town Golf Links and Colonial Country Club.

The debate over golf equipment regulations has heated back up in the wake of the week. The USGA and R&A’s distance report earlier this year pointed toward some potential for a future equipment rollback, and champions of this movement like Geoff Shackelford may be onto something with their suggestions about limiting the aerodynamic possibilities of golf ball dimples. I have also argued for reducing driver head size, in large part because the bomber strategy relies on the remarkable forgiveness that 460cc heads provide on off-center hits. There would be much greater risk to DeChambeau’s titanic lashes at the ball if his driver were, say, 100 cubic centimeters smaller.

Slightly longer or more proper rough and (weather-permitting) firmer greens would force players to play away from the pin on holes where they’d been careless off the tee, which would be a more just result of the cavalier swings. Firmer fairways, to the extent possible, would increase the need to shape tee shots and wouldn't need to be artificially narrowed to test accuracy.

These adjustments would bring more balance to the power/precision dichotomy that makes golf both difficult to master and fun to watch at the highest levels. If DeChambeau’s brutish, go-for-broke style emerges as a clearly superior way to play competitive golf, it will threaten to erase centuries of nuanced and intriguing course design and player craft that have gotten us to this point. That would be a colossal shame.

Is Bryson DeChambeau's style of play sustainable or scary for the game? Give us your take in the comments below.

Tim Gavrich is a Senior Writer for GolfPass. Follow him on Twitter @TimGavrich and on Instagram @TimGavrich.
282 Comments
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My son and I disagree - he is ok with it. I am not. Although DeChambeau deserves credit for reducing the golf swing to a simpler form, he has further diminished the value of modern day major tournament (as well as other tournament) victories. Equipment improvements have eroded the skill set requirements of players n over time to the point where it is impossible to compare records between generations. I have long felt that professional golfers should be required to play with “blade” irons and use the same ball, not one that has been tailored for their particular swing characteristics. Oh well, who am I to say.

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Maybe golf needs to look at baseball. High school and collage players are allowed to use aluminum bats while major leagues can only use wood bats. The USGA and R&A need to consider reducing the size of drivers, the length of drivers and perhaps golf ball characteristics for professional golfers and those amateurs playing in sanctioned tournaments.

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I thought My Golf Spy's answer to the growing distance concern in today's game was logical: narrow the fairways and grow the rough to reward precision shots. Bryson pretty well blew that theory out of the water. But it's like he said, regardless of what is done to dial back the distance, the game will still reward the longer hitters...

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Sorry for my miserable english, I am swiss.
You with your articles are creating such an artificial problem on a natural champion's talent: I am hitting 240yds on a regular shaft 460cc , that in DeChambeau's hands, would probably reach 380yds!
Hurrah that someone is showing us new technics and body capability!
Or we all sing as Pavarotti and drive as Hamilton?
Regards.
paolo Jasson

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Give them a balata ball. Then let's see what happens. Back in 1980's it was hard just to pay the price of balata. Let's see what happens with the spin and compression of balata.Golf was once a stage for artists, lets make it that again. Bomb and gouge is boring.

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Heck no. The courses weren’t designed for that kind of play. It takes shot making out of the equation. Unfortunately with everyone focused on distance for the last few years you can’t expect anything else.

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These big drives are taking the strategy out of the game. It isn’t as fun to watch and appreciate the course design

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The keys to distance are physical and equipment. The players are working on improving their strength and technique to maximize their swing and ball speed. They need to be allowed to continue in this segment without limitation. Equipment, on the other hand, needs to be evaluated fully with respect to providing unfair advantage to players. The equipment specs need to be closely monitored by the USGA to ensure that they comply with club and ball standards. Therefore, the only areas in which distance can be controlled is equipment and ball. Modifying the ball and driver materials, in my opinion, is the only fair way to limit carrying distances.

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Will never happen. Pro golfers will always use the same basic equipment as recreational players. Theirs is of course tweaked to the nth degree, but if you have the money, you can get exactly what they have. All other sports use the same equipment from HS and beyond with the notable exception being baseball bats which there is an ever-increasing movement to abolish aluminum bats in HS and college. They will never make "pro-use" golf balls and "recreational-use" golf balls. And the minute Johnny Weekender gets a hold of a limited flight ball and can no longer drive the ball 200 yards, there will be a mass exodus from the sport.

The key is the course. They have to stop mowing the first and second cuts just inches high and place the emphasis back on control, not just distance. I have no problem watching a guy drive 340 onto the fairway. But when he is hitting only 50-60% of fairways in regulation but still makes par because they can get out of the rough just as easy....that needs to stop.

Also, they need to start treating tournament set-ups as part of the course. Bogus that a guy can hit the ball to the base of a grandstand and get relief. For that week, the grandstand IS PART OF THE COURSE.

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Strength is not just given. He works hard to get the strength and speed behind the club. Work on muscle mass if you can’t compete. Good for you Bryson.

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The pros, including Bryson, are trying to improve so they can perform as well as possible. We should appreciate that, not take it away from them. Downgrading their equipment to make them more average is not the way to go. Read "Harrison Bergeron" by Kurt Vonnegut. That is not a future I want to see. Make the courses more challenging for the tournament pros so that they can display their full range of abilities for the rest of us to appreciate and try to emulate.

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Bryson DeChambeau's long-driving strategy invites a reckoning