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On Bryson DeChambeau

Drew's Cool Golf Revue
On Bryson DeChambeau
By Drew Millard • Issue #8 • View online
B-Sides from my book, Vol. 1.

This is an essay that I wrote that’s half about Bryson DeChambeau, half stuff which I will probably use in a bunch of different parts of my book. But I also meant for this to be a stand-alone piece if that makes sense? IDK.
One.
Bryson DeChambeau is on steroids, the man I have just met tells me. He’s sure of it. I have not brought Bryson DeChambeau up to this person, made no indication that I do or do not think he became the most talked-about golfer since Tiger Woods through the use of performance-enhancing drugs. But we are standing on the first tee of the local public golf course, and this is the sort of thing that qualifies as an ice-breaker with the people you get paired with. It’s like going on Twitter and accusing the Clintons of having something to do with the death of Jeffery Epstein: It’s probably not factually accurate, but it speaks to a higher sense of unfairness that transcends any political alignment chart.
Before the pandemic, I didn’t have these kinds of conversations, because golf courses were not crowded like they are now. Even on a Sunday, I could just show up, give the pro shop person eighteen dollars to play nine holes and buy three used balls out of the bucket next to the counter, and within 15 minutes, I’d be teeing off. Alone. But while the supply of golf has remained static over the past year, demand for golf has skyrocketed. Golf is one of the few ways to hang out with people while maintaining social distance, and golf courses themselves were largely exempt from stay-at-home orders throughout the country. Besides, the pandemic has turned so many of us into early retirees. 
Bryson DeChambeau must be on steroids because the PGA doesn’t test for them, the man I just met continues. Later, I will look up the PGA’s official drug policy and see that they actually do test for steroids; but, for now, I shrug and mumble something about how all the chemical analogs out there at this point probably mean that you can take supplements which offer the benefit of steroids without showing up on a pee test. 
But the man I just met has a PhD in applied mathematics. He used to be a quant on Wall Street, then a floor trader. He’s the guy who figured out that if Pepsi stock is going up and Coke stock is going down, you can short Pepsi while going long on Coca-Cola and make a lot of money. They’re basically the same thing, right, so each price will deviate to the mean, he says. So you take both trades, bundle them as a single financial product, and sell them on the Japanese market, everybody makes money. So: Bryson DeChambeau is on steroids, you have to do the Pepsi/Coke stock thing specifically in Japan, and he will not be taking any questions because it’s our turn to tee off. He hooks every shot he doesn’t send skittering on the ground and still ends up beating me on two holes. 
Another day, I play golf with a man who has no left knee. Well he has a left knee, just no left meniscus. He’s been meaning to get a new one ever since it happened, he says —“it” being the time he was a high school wrestling coach and a kid took him out from behind while he was teaching one of the freshmen how to grapple. A snapping noise occurred. It happened 25 years ago, and every time he was going to get it fixed, something ended up getting in the way. Last year, he finally retired for good and was going to get the procedure. But then COVID-19 hit, and his wife needed ankle surgery, and if they were both laid up in the house who was going to pick up the groceries? 
After it happened, he became the school’s athletic director, and he seems really happy when I tell him my dad used to be a high school principal. He can’t really turn his body when he swings because of the knee thing, but there isn’t a putt he doesn’t make. Besides, he plays in a little league on Tuesdays and they’re all too old to give a shit anymore so they play from the front tees and he says it’s more fun that way. On the 16th tee box, he plops a ball right in the water and then pulls another out of his pocket and hits it onto the green, a sequence of motions so seamless it seems like he planned the whole thing. He makes the putt.
Soon after North Carolina’s dreaded six-week winter fades and it’s shorts weather again, I run into a pair of chefs getting ready to tee off on the eighth hole. They’re in the early 30s and have tattoos. I’m in my early 30s and have tattoos. Etiquette dictates that we have to play together, but it also makes sociological sense. 
One of them didn’t play golf before the pandemic because he was too busy running the fancy sandwich shop in the new food hall downtown. The guy he’s playing with, his buddy, got him into the game; he’s been down south for the past nine months because it didn’t make sense to stay cooped up in New York without a job. Now he’s just hanging out and ghostwriting recipes for cooking blogs. It’s a thing, he says, seriously, before puring a seven-iron up onto the green. He’d give me his number, the buddy tells me, but he’s headed back to the city because rent’s gotten so cheap that he pulled the trigger on a studio up there. He thinks he’ll have a job to come back to, too. The sandwich shop guy slices a drive into a creek. I tell him to concentrate on straightening his left knee on his downswing. Not that I know anything other than a couple things, but I can tell he’s falling backwards as comes down on it and that makes him use his driver less as an instrument to hit golf balls and more as a counterweight to keep him on his feet. Thinking about straightening your knee sort of automatically puts more weight on your front foot and mitigates the falling feeling, I explain. It’s a quick fix to keep him in play, and it works. I hit the fairway and knock my pitching wedge to ten feet. I make par.
Two.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, I have spent approximately $6,000 on golf. This includes:
  1. An average of $250 a month in greens fees at my local public course
  2. $100 every other month on greens fees at a different, very difficult course an hour away
  3. $170 for a used Titleist 815 D2 driver
  4. $625 for a new set of Cleveland UHX irons (4-iron through pitching wedge; originally $800 but discounted because I traded in some clubs)
  5. $120 for a backup set of Mizuno MP-60 irons, whose thin soles and small clubface feel incredible when struck perfectly but kill ball flight on mishits (I end up keeping the 9-iron in my bag, specifically as a chipping club, and the amount of pars I’ve saved with it make the entire purchase worth it)
  6. $40 for a used Sonartec four-wood
  7. $160 a month for lessons from one of the top instructors in the state
  8. $75 on two boxes of premium golf balls (TaylorMade TP5x, $40; Snell MTB Black, $35)
  9. $120 on two $60 pairs of Adidas golf shoes (One with spikes for maximum traction; one spikeless for maximum comfort when walking)
  10. $600 on a trip to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina with my friend Steve, where we played two rounds of golf and got so drunk at an outdoor bar with live country music that we no longer worried about how risky it was to be at an outdoor bar with live country music. Also, I threw up.
Looking at that number, which I spent in a pandemic that started with me getting laid off from my job, makes me want to throw up again. 
I tell myself I would have spent some of that money on other things, leisure things, if everything were normal right now. But things are not normal and my leisure activities are no longer plural. Maybe I can write it all off on my taxes or something. 
The day I began writing this, I shot an 82. That’s ten over par, a score that included seven pars, two birdies, five bogeys, four double bogeys, and five penalty strokes. On the back nine, I shot a 39, an achievement unto itself. Before the pandemic, I had only broken 40 on a side once. I spent $6,000 to get to the point where I have a reasonable chance of doing so every time I step on my home course. 
Actually I should say $6,060, because now that I think of it I spent $60 on a premium subscription to an app called V1 Game, which tracks every shot I hit during every round of golf I play. Looking at it now, it’s showing me that if I hadn’t notched those penalty strokes, had been a bit less sloppy around the green, made a few more easy putts, I would have shot even par. This is nice to know. It’s knowledge like this, the feeling that I’m getting better all the time and that I can see all the ways in which I can make my scores match how I’m feeling, that have turned playing golf into more or less a bodily function.
Three.
It’s March, and Bryson DeChambeau has won a golf tournament again.
This is normal, in that Bryson DeChambeau frequently wins golf tournaments. What is not normal is the way in which he wins them: by hitting the golf ball farther than fuck. The sixth hole of Bay Hill, the course that hosted the tournament he just won, is a long par-five with a fairway that resembles a C-shape, but in reverse. The C is filled in by a bunch of water, and the idea is to hit three shots to the green, tracing the C — maybe two, if you don’t mind the risk inherent to cutting the dogleg by hitting a fairway wood or long iron over the water.
On successive days during the tournament, Bryson went for the green in one shot, attempting not to trace the backwards C but instead hitting a shot that, if rendered as a straight line, would turn the hole into a regular D. He made it over both times, leaving himself about 50 yards out from the green, and both times ending up with birdie.
The first time Bryson crossed the water, he pumped his arms up in the air like he’d just hit a home run. When he sunk the putt, which won him the tournament by a single stroke, he pumped his arms downwards, shaking them, as if he were sucking the life force of the earth up through his feet. With his big muscles and silly newsboy cap, he looks like a real-life version of Popeye the sailor.
Between the end of the PGA’s 2019 season and the late start of the 2020 season, Bryson put on 40 pounds of muscle so that he could do things like reach a par five in one shot. He became the longest hitter on tour and won the U.S. Open by six shots, but was so average at everything that wasn’t driving or putting that people started talking about needing to change the rules so that Bryson couldn’t just win by hitting the ball really far. 
The last time a golfer had success with a similar, and similarly lopsided, skillset was the early 1990s, when John Daly won the PGA Championship as a doughy rookie from Arkansas with a mullet that would have been really cool now but was extremely not cool back then. Daly chainsmoked Marlboro Lights, had a habit of teeing off still drunk from the night before, and was the first golfer on tour to consistently hit it over 300 yards. Also, he was the original owner of every vintage polo you’ve ever bought from Beacon’s Closet:
Obviously, all of this made him extremely popular. But he was never an existential threat to Ye Olde Game of Golffe, because even though he could blow the field out of the water when he had his shit together, most of the time, John Daly extremely does not have said shit together. (Allow me to submit to the court this video he recorded on behalf of The Trump Organization in which he declares he’s killing any COVID that gets into his by drinking an entire bottle of Belvedere a day, as well as the chorus of Kid Rock’s “Half Your Age,” which features Daly and is sort of shocking because of Daly’s competence as a singer but is mainly shocking because he’s competently singing, “She’s half your age, and twice as hot.” He has always been precisely this level of himself.)
Up until Tiger Woods came along, pro golfers didn’t seem to really understand that they were also professional athletes — that being in shape, or being better than in shape, could help them win golf tournaments. 
But the Bryson generation works out. They don’t smoke; they dip. When it comes out that they’ve been dabbling in cocaine use, they deny they have a drug problem but very openly admit to having an alcohol problem, then clean up with the help of their father-in-law, Wayne Gretzky, and bounce back to become the number one golfer in the world. That last one specifically applies to the Bradley Cooper look-alike Dustin Johnson, but in a general sense, it applies to everyone within spitting distance of getting their Tour Card, too. Professional golfers make too much money to care about anything more than they care about golf. Bryson DeChambeau drinks protein shakes and plays Fortnite with the same intensity with which John Daly once boozed and added a third verse to his cover of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” that was completely about golf
This year, Bryson wants to hit a golf ball 415 yards. A few months after I started taking lessons, I hit the best drive of my life. It went 282.
Four.
Golf clubs are kind of like cars in that they should really last you about 20 years, but lots of people buy new ones every year anyway. When I started the job I was eventually laid off from, I immediately went out and bought a convertible. A cheap one — an old Volkswagen Cabrio with no cruise control and a leaky top — but a convertible nonetheless. I drove it all summer, top down, and eventually the heat and humidity caused so much damage to the CD player that it managed to fuse with my copy of The Best of Motörhead, which had been living inside of it. 
I didn’t know that you’re supposed to drive old cars once a week to keep the battery running properly, and by the time I got laid off the next spring, the battery in the Cabrio was dead and so was the rest of the car. I should sell it, probably, but I swear I’ll get it fixed up one day, if only to get the Motörhead record out. I just checked the trunk on a whim and found another set of irons: TaylorMade 320s with stiff graphite shafts. They cost $900 they first came out. That was 2000, and they’re worth about $35 now. Such is life.
Five.
Just before twilight one evening, I play seven holes with my golf teacher, a softspoken man who has played in multiple Champions Tour events. I get three pars, three double-bogeys, and pick up on the final hole out of frustration. 
“It’s like I was two different golfers, only one of whom knew what they were doing,” I say as he drives our golf cart to the parking lot. 
“No, this was good,” he tells me. “Now I know what we need to work on.” His coaching style involves watching me hit balls, coming up with the what-to-do, how-to-do-it, and why-you-should-do-it of a swing change, telling me two of them, and leaving me to figure out the third. On the course he kept telling me to maintain my tempo and balance, because I was swinging too fast and losing my balance. Playing good golf is about lots of things — thinking critically about how each shot will set up the next and basing your club selections accordingly, being creative with greenside shots, developing feel with your putter — but without tempo and balance, those things don’t mean shit, because the ball won’t go where you want it to and by the time the wedges come into play you’re chipping for bogey or worse. This time he left the how-to-do-it to me and things did not work out. 
This is not an isolated incident. Ever since last, fall my handicap’s dropped two and a half strokes and is trending even lower. But my tempo kills me. As I make my way through a round, I start swinging faster and faster, which is half of what you’re supposed to do. You want to go back slowly, winding your arms and torso and legs until you get to the point where you’ve “loaded the shaft” — a term I can’t really explain verbally but which I can feel when I do it properly — and then let yourself swing fast on the way through. Executed successfully, the whole thing is like pulling a rubber band back on your finger and then shooting it across the room. 
But it’s a matter of letting yourself swing fast, not doing a fast swing. Whenever I have a few good holes, the adrenaline kicks in and tells me to start swinging hard. I begin to bring the club back too quickly, which sends me off-balance. This is a thing that happens because golf clubs are sticks with weights at the end, comparable-ish in function to thing you hold while walking the tightrope, except instead of using the stick to maintain your balance while walking, you use it to maintain your balance while swinging it in a way that leads to the middle part of the clubface striking the golf ball. I think this is part of the reason why golfers complain they’re better on the driving range than on the course — during a round, you’re walking without a net.
Six.
I once read an article in an anarchist zine which claimed that golf was the sport that was most “of the earth.” Something to do with how the motion of swinging a club is kind of like swinging a scythe? Sweeping the grass, giving it a little haircut, treating the earth not as a subject to be dominated but a collaborator in a project that’s greater than either of you, etc. This is not how the anarchists on TikTok view things. They hate golf. Is this technological determinism? Or is it just that the type of people who are predisposed to getting really into TikTok are also predisposed to thinking of things in literal instead of conceptual terms? 
Seven.
The thing about Bryson is that he’s only really got two shots. He drives it well, always, and whenever he putts it well, he wins or gets close. Those birdies on number six at Bay Hill? Could have been eagles. Probably should have, even. 
The first time, he hit it 370 yards and left himself with a 70-yard wedge onto the green, which he left short. The second time, he hit it even further — so far that he landed in a sand trap, setting himself up for an approach that bounced off the green. The point of hitting it that far on a hole like that is so you get to the green in two shots, and the reason you want the first shot to be really long is that the closer you are to the green, the harder it is to miss. Reaching the green in three because of a bad second shot, a la Bryson at Bay Hill, almost negates the advantage gained by the first. 
One of the reasons that Bryson’s so popular is that he resembles a turbocharged version of the golfer that many weekend golfers aspire to be: able to hit it longer than everybody else, able to putt good enough, and absolutely inconsiderate of, and subsequently inconsistent with, the shots in between. This, I think, is a byproduct of how Bryson approaches the game: as a problem to be solved through optimization. He knows his strengths and weaknesses, so he leans into the strengths while hoping the weaknesses don’t drag him down. 
Most pro golfers are pro golfers because they’re obsessed with golf. They play among themselves and a handful of celebrity friends whenever they’re not competing, have practice facilities at home, mostly live within a few miles of each other in Florida, and are constantly gambling on the course for sums that would bankrupt you or I but are inconsequential to them. 
Bryson, meanwhile, spends his time tinkering with his equipment and working out. He was a physics major in college, and has all sorts of crazy theories about how to optimize the clubs in his bag, some of which may be true. He plays a driver with a face that’s nearly flat and a shaft that bumps up against the PGA’s legal limit, because he thinks that if you’re big and strong like him you can launch the ball not with the loft of the club, but with the force you can generate — and that the longer the shaft, the more speed the clubhead can pick up through the same set of movements.
The first one is real: clubs with lower lofts make the ball go further, because they lose less force popping the ball in the air, and if you swing fast, you can integrate the forward force and upward force into one thing. The second one is real if you’re a robot, because the amount of speed potentially gained by a super-long driver shaft is sacrificed by the amount of human error introduced into the equation. He also plays irons that are all the same length, because it means that he can maintain the same swing path with each club (traditional irons, with progressively longer shafts, call for slight variations in stance/posture with every club).
When he was an amateur, he putted as if he were playing croquet. After being informed that this was an illegal technique on the pro circuit, he began completely straightening his left arm when gripping the putter in a technique called the “arm lock.” I have tried this myself, and even though I watched a YouTube video on the subject, I still have no idea how it works. 
To definitively respond to the guy who said he was on steroids: He isn’t. I mean, he might be, but probably not. He’s just a professional athlete, and he can spend the time that most of us spend working making himself freakishly jacked. 
His current training partner is a guy named Kyle Berkshire, a champion on the long-drive circuit (a sport that’s parallel to golf, yet fundamentally different) who’s gearing up to make a run at getting his tour card. Bryson’s trying to get to where he can hit like a long-drive guy, while Berkshire’s trying to obtain a sense of control and feel that might allow him to play for scores instead of distance. In this way, they complement each other. When they get together, they play a game to see who can swing the fastest. Their goal is to crack 155 miles per hour. The average golfer gets it to somewhere around 95.
Eight.
In the mornings, I write my book about golf. In the afternoons, I go to the golf course and play. After I shoot the 82, the bottom falls out of my game. I can’t get under the ball to save my life. Instead, I send shot after shot skittering on the ground — or at best 30 feet in the air, not nearly enough height to stop my ball from rolling out upon impact with the ground. As my scores go up and my shots stay down and nothing I do changes anything, I begin to feel like the guy in greek mythology who pissed off the gods and was damned to have his liver pecked out by some bird, only to have it grow back so the whole process could play itself out again the next day. Prometheus? Wait, I just googled it and it’s Prometheus. 
“You’re in your own head, dude,” my friend Charlie, the one who sold me the four-wood, tells me. We’re on the second to last hole at his home course, and I’m about to shoot my worst score in probably three years. The course is hard so I practiced for an hour before coming here, trying to iron out the jerky tempo, which I suspect is to blame for my recent inconsistency. After a hundred balls or so, I got everything grooved, but it was too much preparation for walking 18 holes, and I tired out almost immediately, my muscles misremembering the rhythm and sequence. 
Today, every shot seems to be the wrong one, and I’ve been lucky to so much as make a bogey. Every time I think I’ve overcome whatever’s gotten into me, I fuck up again, flubbing a drive, or skulling a chip so hard it rolls off an ice-firm green, or hooking three sequential shots into the woods. The latest self-directed insult arrives after I knock a pretty great three-wood off the tee and leave myself with an uphill approach to the green. I hit my seven-iron about as perfectly as I’ve been able to all day. It’s high and straight but lists right just enough to hold the green once it lands — only it’s the wrong club, and I end up ten yards short, just behind a bunker which I’ll have to chip over to even think about saving par.
Emotions, specifically mine, are high, and I have sweated sunscreen into my eye. It stings and I can’t tell if Charlie thinks I’m crying or not. 
“Hit another one,” he says. He definitely thinks I’m crying. He is a good friend. After we’re finished, I ask Charlie to scratch my round out on the scorecard instead of adding it all up. I don’t want to think about how I’ve played today, and I definitely don’t want to write about it. 
But this is how golf works. In order to get better you have to bottom out; otherwise, you won’t know what to fix. 
My golf teacher has me do an exercise where I swing slowly, putting all my weight on my back foot so that I can feel my weight coil before letting go. He says this will help my tempo but leaves the why blank this time. It works perfectly on the driving range and then explodes in my face when I try to replicate it on the course, suddenly bereft of his encouragement when I get it right, plus his corrections for when I’m doing it wrong. It’s only after I give up on being perfect and return to my old swing that I understand the Why behind it all: you exaggerate the swing change knowing that you will go back to normal. Or at least that’s what you’ll perceive. Because the exercise stays with you. It feels like nothing’s changed, but I can tell that my swing’s gotten a little easier, my balance has become more stable, and I’m swinging with a newfound sense of control. 
The next week, I get my clubs regripped, more as a ritual of renewal than anything else, and suddenly I’m playing fine again. The day I finished writing this, I shot 83. This time, my best shots didn’t go as far, but my worst shots didn’t destroy my sense of self. This is progress, and if I zoom out the line between where my scores were last summer and where they are now is basically downward and straight. It’s the outliers we focus on, but in the end everything deviates to the mean.
Nine.
My golf teacher tells me that the best athletes have short-term memory problems. If they fuck up, it rolls off their backs. If they do something amazing, it does not, cannot, affect what they’re about to do, either. The rest of us, our errors compound while our successes become burdens. 
When I was in high school, I played soccer. Goalie. I mainly succeeded because the kids I played with were so good that they made it nearly impossible for the other team to get a solid shot off, though I once made the local news for blocking two penalty kicks in a single game against one of the best teams in the state. My senior year, we ended up going all the way to the state championship. About a third of the way through, our center midfielder placed a shot in the top-right corner of the net to put us one up. Minutes later, the other team kicked a high cross towards the goal with the hope that one of their guys would knock it in with his head. There wasn’t anybody else around, so I was the only person who was going to be able to make that not happen. I jumped high, swinging my right leg up so it would turn my body towards the ball and protect me from getting knocked out of the air. The player who was closest to me dove towards where the ball was supposed to be, but my hip was there instead.
There was a crack.
An ambulance arrived. The whole thing got his teammates so amped up that they came back and nearly blew us off the field. It was like I was letting them score out of guilt. Maybe I was. The kid ended up being fine, and made it back to the sidelines in time to catch the final whistle and get hoisted up by his teammates in celebration. It was very inspiring. I’ve hated competition ever since.
Ten.
Whether Bryson DeChambeau is good for golf or bad for it depends on who you are. If you host golf tournaments, you hate him. If Bryson’s in the field, you have to spend tens of thousands of dollars moving your tees back, letting the rough grow so thick that it drives the rich amateurs who usually play your course to madness, waste hours on the phone with rules officials figuring which portions of the course you can rule out of bounds so Bryson won’t try to take another 370-yard shortcut.
If you are a person like this, he is bad for the game.
If you are his sponsor, Cobra, a company that swears that its clubs cost slightly less but send the ball slightly longer than the competition’s clubs, you love Bryson. Every time he wins a tournament, you sell more golf clubs. It doesn’t matter to the people who buy golf clubs that Bryson very clearly gained the edge that’s put him over the top not by his superior equipment but by becoming ridiculously jacked. We are an aspirational society.
Some pro golfers love Bryson, and some of them hate him. The ones who hate him tend to be no fun—the kind of players who blame bad shots on the roar of a crowd, or a bird flying into their peripheral vision. The ones who say fans shouldn’t be allowed to drink beer while watching them. Some fans think this way too, and they’re the ones who should be banned from the course.
The pros and fans who aren’t uptight, though, love Bryson because Bryson is Happy Gilmore but real. Look at his muscles, laugh as he drinks a protein shake for no reason, shiver as he makes the little ball go longer than anyone else can.
The best tournament in all of professional golf is called the Waste Management Open, where every year they erect a stadium around one of the holes and let the fans heckle the players until they get so frustrated they want to bury themselves in a sand trap. The second-best tournament in all of professional golf is whichever one Bryson DeChambeau happens to be playing in.
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