“Why trust instinct when there is science?”
– Homer Kelley, author of “The Golfing Machine.”
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AUGUSTA, Ga. — The sports kids are all into science. It started in baseball, of course, because baseball is a wonderful little laboratory where just about everything that happens on the field is logged in. For a long while, baseball’s compulsive scorekeeping inspired nothing more than quirky statistics and great trivia questions. Then came Bill James and sabermetrics and computers, and then there were all these advanced statistics, and then there were more analytics, and before long Ivy League educated economists were running Major League Baseball teams.
This trend, of course, seeped into other sports, where the basketball kids began going on and on about player efficiency ratings and true shooting percentage, and the hockey kids began talking about Corsi and Fenwick and other advanced stats that made Don Cherry’s face red with rage. The kids, of course, are not always actual kids – some are older – but they think new, and the trend toward analytics keeps heading skyward. It got to the point this year where the Cleveland Browns hired baseball guy Paul DePodesta; he was the Jonah Hill character from “Moneyball.”
So, yes, it was inevitable that some kid would come along with science and blow up golf.
That kid might just be a Kangol-hat wearing 22-year-old named Bryson DeChambeau.
You have no doubt heard that DeChambeau plays with a set of equal-length clubs, something that sort of blows the minds of many people. Golf clubs are supposed to be different lengths, or anyway that’s what everyone has long believed.
DeChambeau plays with the same-length clubs because he wants to swing every club on the same plane, and he says this same-plane swing is a big reason why he emerged from a so-so college player into a superstar, just the fifth man to win the NCAA title and U.S. Amateur in the same year. The other four are Jack Nicklaus, Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods and Ryan Moore, so that bodes pretty well for his future.
You have no doubt heard that DeChambeau studied physics at SMU and likes to talk about the science of how putts break, the various effects, the velocity and drag and spin rates. He and Phil Mickelson were having such a discussion early in the week when their practice partner Dustin Johnson shouted out in despair, “If I hang around you guys much longer, I’ll never break 100.”
You have no doubt heard that DeChambeau names his clubs. He calls the 60-degree club “King” after Arnold Palmer, who won the Masters in 1960. He called the 42-degree club “Jackie” after the great Jackie Robinson, who wore No. 42. He calls his 3-iron “Gamma,” which is the third letter of the Greek alphabet. And so on.
You have no doubt heard that when DeChambeau was 13 years old, his coach Mike Schy gave him a book, mentioned at the top of this column, called “The Golfing Machine.” That book was written by a quirky character named Homer Kelley, a not especially good player who dedicated his entire life to breaking down the golf swing to its very core. Kelley believed that just about everything that people taught about the golf swing was wrong and, worse, oversimplified.
“Treating a complex subject or action as though it were simple,” he wrote, “multiplies its complexity because of the difficulty in systematizing missing and unknown factors or elements. Demanding that golf instruction be kept simple does not make it simple – only incomplete and ineffective.”
With that in mind, Kelley broke the swing down to 24 components with 144 variations. He called it simple geometry and physics. For DeChambeau, it was like opening up a new world.
You have no doubt heard all of this stuff and formed an opinion about Bryson DeChambeau. That opinion might be: “Hey, this guy is revolutionizing golf by bringing science in and looking at the game in a whole different way. Good for him!”
Or your opinion might be: “Hey, who does this guy think he is, Galileo? He’s going to learn pretty quickly that it takes more than physics to win golf tournaments.”
Then again, you might just want to wait and see. Friday at the Masters, DeChambeau shot just about the wildest even-par round you will ever see. The conditions – gusting winds, fast greens, tough pin placements – made it pretty miserable for the players. It was the first time in almost a decade that not even a single player broke 70. Heck, Jordan Spieth shot his first over-par round ever at Augusta.
And in that environment, DeChambeau seemed to be playing a different course.
He made six birdies on the day, one of those a remarkable birdie at the all-but-impossible 11th hole. He pulled his second shot a bit too much to the left, but it ended up perfect. “Twelve feet from the hole,” he said. Then he corrected himself: “No, it was 8 feet from the hole. And I played 14-inches of break.”
Yes. Eight feet. Fourteen inches of break.
“It is soon apparent,” Kelley wrote in “The Golfing Machine,” “that the body can duplicate a machine.”
DeChambeau came to the 18th hole 3 under par for the day, and he was in second place, one shot behind Spieth. He then pulled a drive into a holly bush, couldn’t play it, went back to the tee and pulled another drive. This one rolled up to a concession stand, and he got to drop the ball some 40 yards away. He then hit it short of the green, failed to get it up and down and ended up with a triple-bogey 7. The science didn’t seem all that great on that hole.
“Everybody is going to go back to 18 and say, ‘Oh, he was nervous,’” DeChambeau says. “No. I hit two pulled drives. … (The driver) was only two degrees closed. That’s what does it.”
In sports – and other arenas too – there tends to be a growing divide between old school and new, between analytics and gut, between numbers and emotions. DeChambeau looks like he will bring that clash to golf, which could be fun. He has ideas. He is not shy about sharing them. He is not shy about his ambitions either.
“I mean, it’s as much for me about playing golf as it is growing the game,” he says. “If I can do that, that’s ultimately what I want to try and do, just like Arnold Palmer did and Jack Nicklaus.”
Bold stuff for a kid who is still an amateur and just played his second round at the Masters. But DeChambeau doesn’t mind being bold. Someone asked him what he learned playing with defending Masters champion and current leader Jordan Spieth the last couple of days. He talked about how amazing Spieth is at hitting his wedge shots. DeChambeau would like to hit his wedge shots like that.
“I’m definitely not there,” he says. “I hope to be soon. And if that part of my game comes along, it will be a fun, fun journey.”