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Bryson DeChambeau has a headache

February 28, 2022
Bryson DeChambeau at the Sentry Tournament of Champions at the Plantation Course at Kapalua in Kapalua, Maui HI on Thursday January 6, 2022. (Photo by J.D. Cuban)

IN 2017, BRYSON DECHAMBEAU WAS struggling to make short, soft putts. It didn’t take a genius to realize he needed to start sinking them if he wanted to stay on the PGA Tour beyond his rookie season, and he began his typically exhaustive efforts to fix the problem. After experimenting with a range of approaches, he adopted his now-familiar arm-lock stroke and was feeling good about it. He analyzed his impact with the ball in myriad ways—his club path, his lie angle, the squareness of his face—and felt his form was beyond reproach. Yet on the easiest makes, his ball continued to spin off his putter: sometimes left, sometimes right, but too often maddeningly off line.

DeChambeau turned his fine-eyed attention to the ball, falling down another of his countless rabbit holes of research. I can’t know for certain, because DeChambeau declined to speak with me for this story (“It’s tough to go talk to a writer,” he said during an appearance on the Full Send podcast late last year. “They take a snippet, and they can do whatever they want with it.”), but I suspect he found an article by a physicist named Rod Cross in the December 2006 issue of Australian Golf Digest.

In it, Cross explains how the same dimples that help us hit longer and straighter drives make the traditional golf ball less than ideal for putting. Billiard balls roll truly because they are smooth. Golf balls don’t roll truly, even on glass, because of their dimples, and sometimes the putter will strike those dimples unevenly—some tiny fraction of one edge before another—causing the ball to tumble like dice rather than roll. Cross found the “dimple result” is most noticeable in the short putts that flummoxed DeChambeau. On drives, iron shots, and even longer putts, compression negates the effects of an imperfect impact. On golf’s gentlest touches, there’s no compression, and the consequences of an otherwise microscopic mis-hit are amplified rather than erased.

Cross finished his piece by proposing that golfers be allowed to switch their usual balls once they reach the green for balls with fewer or no dimples. That idea obviously didn’t take. DeChambeau, however, saw a possibility that Cross did not consider: He believed it was within his power to place and strike his ball dimple-perfect. Rather than risk making first contact with the left or right edge of the randomly leading dimple, he became mindful to place his ball so that it had one centered target dimple. Then, with his previously perfected stroke, he could catch the whole of its circumference evenly, as though he were pushing a tiny button—“like a suction cup,” he told Full Send—and the ball would start and stay on line. Problem solved.

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PLAYED OUT DeChambeau says he nearly quit golf last year. “It became a lot on a human being.”

Photograph by J.D. Cuban

DeChambeau’s apparently sincere belief in his ability to strike at once the entire edge of a single dimple on his carefully placed golf ball is, by most rational measures, insane. It also explains why it has sometimes taken him a very long time to putt, making someone like Brooks Koepka equally insane in the process. But when it comes to trying to understand the world’s most polarizing golfer, it doesn’t much matter whether he really hits his chosen dimple squarely every time he attempts a short putt. All that matters is that he thinks he must, and he thinks he can.

DECHAMBEAU HAS BEEN PREOCCUPIED with the game’s finest details since he was young, in relentless pursuit of perhaps the most elusive objective in golf: repeatability. He was still a teenager when he began using single-length irons, and his determination to steam variation out of his game has become only more pathological since, a maniacal expression of an unconventional love. At 28 he’s as close to robotic as any golfer in memory, absent the Canadian single-plane guru Moe Norman, whom DeChambeau has cited as a spirit guide. He pours himself into length because who can hit the ball the farthest is such an indisputable measure. Distance is pure fact. His related obsession with numbers other than his score—like swing speed, ball speed and spin rate—is both the cause and result of his yearning for concreteness, for exactitude, for a professional life that better resembles a succession of targets reached rather than dreams fulfilled. The idea that you can hit a single dimple on a golf ball appeals to DeChambeau because what could be more absolute? The idea of relying on feel is repugnant to him because what could be more fleeting?

For all of DeChambeau’s efforts to turn golf courses into factory floors, for all of his claims of mathematical certainty, he’s coming off a strangely inconsistent 2021. (Wasn’t it strange for all of us?) His otherworldly driving at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March gave him a one-stroke victory over Lee Westwood, and he tied for third at his next tournament, the Players Championship. Then he endured a brutal summer-long stretch—splitting with his caddie, catching COVID, missing the Olympics, faltering at FedEx St. Jude—culminating in August’s seismic BMW Championship. By his admission, he threw away victory in a sensational six-hole playoff against Patrick Cantlay, missing three different putts for the win, including one from six feet. (“I had it. I should have won.”) After enduring one too many “Brooksy” taunts, he finished his terrible day by nearly coming to blows with a spectator.

Masters 2016

SIMPLER TIMES: DeChambeau’s best Masters finish is a T-21 in 2016 when he was the reigning U.S. Amateur champion.

Nick Laham

How did he follow up that nightmare? Oh, only by helping the United States to a crushing victory in the Ryder Cup, including his emasculation of Sergio Garcia during Sunday’s singles matches. DeChambeau opened the contest with one of the great tee shots in golf history, a 354-yard drive that nestled on the first green; he then walked the entire length of the fairway holding his putter like a sword before draining a 41-footer for eagle. It was as close as golf gets to bullfighting’s moment of truth. Then what? DeChambeau got waxed by Koepka in their cringe-inducing “grudge match” in November, conceding their 12-hole contest after nine and explaining away the humiliation by mumbling that he hadn’t been playing much golf, which seems like a very bad way to stay consistent at it and a very good way to tell people that maybe you’re not in love anymore.

In January, a Zoom news conference in advance of his controversial participation in February’s Saudi International became a surprisingly intimate confessional. He admitted that he nearly walked away from the game even before his tumultuous St. Jude, which included a slow-play warning during his fourth-round collapse. “It became a lot on a human being,” he said. Missing the Olympics in particular, he said, “was just a very, very sad moment in my life.” He felt set upon by the media—after his COVID diagnosis, he was embroiled in yet more controversy, this time about his decision not to be vaccinated—and he was wounded by the ambivalence his fellow players expressed about his grander experiment, and so about him. “It’s just very disappointing to me to feel like I was just getting hammered all the time,” he said. “I was just, like, You know what? I don’t need this anymore.”

Until last summer, the ceiling on DeChambeau’s quest for unprecedented distance seemed a physical one. Limitations were imposed by his equipment or his body. But the laws of gravity and diminishing returns remain stubbornly in play: Already this year, he skipped the Sony Open with a wrist injury, jacked up his back at the Farmers Insurance Open and withdrew after his opening round at the Saudi International, citing hand and hip problems. (He blamed those injuries on a fall, “not from hitting it far.” He added, "I know people won’t believe me, but that is the truth.") He even nixed his defense of the Arnold Palmer Invitational, confessing: “Although I can hit some golf balls, it’s not comfortable.” But by his own reckoning, his mental game accounted for the slightest fluctuations in his physical results, about 10 percent, plus or minus. He had built a swing that was close to impervious to outside interference, and that somehow included his own brain.

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DETAIL ORIENTED: DeChambeau’s quest to steam variation out of his game has contributed to slow-play disputes.

Sam Greenwood

Now a different kind of breaking point has surfaced: What DeChambeau perhaps didn’t foresee was the toll his chase would take on his mental health. He thought people would be inspired by him. He thought he could make fans who loved golf one way love it the way he does. He has supporters; if you enjoy seeing golf balls hit as hard as humanly possible, he is your man. Tiger Woods is among DeChambeau’s admirers, telling viewers of last year’s Hero World Challenge: “What he’s doing is historic.” His more vocal detractors are unconvinced. For people who would like golf's more sacred qualities to remain unsullied, he has become their sworn enemy, the heavily muscled embodiment of the barbarians outside the gates. “As much as I’m trying to influence the game of golf in a positive way, people are like, no, we don’t like that, or we don’t want that change,” he said. For golf purists, his game wasn’t clinical; his game was soulless. He wasn’t different. He was dangerous.

He heard their complaints because they were often shouted at him during golf tournaments. By late last summer his mental state “encroached probably 20 or 30 percent” on his game, always negatively. “That was not a good place,” he said. The great irony of DeChambeau is that the man who seemed destined to represent the end of feel was derailed by feelings. He thought to get himself to the moon he needed only to build a big and fast enough rocket. He has since learned how much courage it will take for him to ride it.

HIS MANIA ASIDE, THERE IS SOMETHING ELSE fundamental about the way DeChambeau views himself and his place in the world: Historically, at least, he has felt almost compelled to stand apart. (“Oh, people hated me,” he told Sports Illustrated in 2020, remembering his adolescence. “My parents hated me sometimes.”) His trademark driver’s cap has been emblematic of that separation instinct.

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VINDICATION: DeChambeau bullied Winged Foot and the 2020 U.S. Open field to validate his chase for distance.

Gregory Shamus

As he tells the story, he was 12 or 13, about to play in a junior tournament, when he went into the golf shop and saw one. It reminded him of his hero, Ben Hogan. It also, conveniently, gave him a chance to look a little different from every other kid in a baseball cap. His father, Jon, told him not to buy it—told him to wear what everyone else was wearing. “I don’t want to look like them,” DeChambeau told him back. He got the hat, won the tournament, won the next one, and never stopped wearing it.

FOR GOLF PURISTS, HIS GAME WASN’T CLINICAL; HIS GAME WAS SOULLESS. HE WASN’T DIFFERENT. HE WAS DANGEROUS.

The problem is, being different is exhausting. Despite past claims to the contrary, DeChambeau cares what people think of him, or he has come to care; his snapping at the fan at the BMW Championship—who, by the way, was being a titanic asshole—was one more indication that he has reached his limit for unkind attention. “It’s not just one thing that sets it off,” he said. “For me, it’s always like a train that keeps tagging along cars, and each car is another stressor. Eventually it just gets to where it’s too many cars, and it’s going too fast. . . . There’s a stopping point where your brain can’t handle that much.”

This winter he has worked to remove cars from that train. At January’s Sentry Tournament of Champions at Kapalua—his first significant appearance since the Ryder Cup, where he had worn a baseball cap to look like part of the team and been cheered for it—he ditched the driver’s cap. He looked like everyone else.

I’M THE FATHER OF A CHILD WITH AUTISM. Charley is 16. He is hard-wired to be different. Outwardly, he’s not obviously atypical, but the moment Charley opens his mouth, strangers will quickly divine that he’s not an average teenager. Like DeChambeau, he will talk in excited torrents about the minutiae that fascinates him and sometimes only him. Occasionally he is indulged by strangers, but more often he receives confused, even cold responses, especially from his peers. It has been heartbreaking for me, watching Charley walk through his schoolyard alone, craving connection, but not having the tools to help him make that connection. Like a lot of lonely teenagers, with autism and without, Charley has given up the fight.

I’ve sometimes wondered, honestly, whether DeChambeau is on the outer reaches of the autism spectrum. Like when he told Sports Illustrated that, back in high school in his native California, “I didn’t like being around people because I couldn’t relate to anybody.” Or when I read that he once copied a 180-page physics textbook by hand. I’ve even wished, on selfish occasion, because what a hero he could be. Though he has undergone a battery of neurological tests—he has learned, and has shared, that his IQ is 121, and he has off-the-charts spatial recognition—he has never mentioned autism as a possible explanation for some of his quirks. I still look at him and can’t help seeing a more athletic version of Charley—in the jokes that don’t quite land, in the inability to understand why people don’t respond to him the way he thought they would, in the comfort in routine, in the singleminded infatuation with one thing at the expense of everything else that life has to offer.

DeChambeau’s constant expression of his dedication to golf—his desire to impress people by telling them how much he knows, but also that need to share his thoughts because he has no other way to get them out of his head—is most evident in his recent experiments on social media. He has become active on YouTube and Instagram, posting his at-home workouts, offering swing tips, even showing his medical records to offset rumors of steroid abuse. Part of that openness is no doubt engineered to help him earn millions through the PGA Tour’s Player Impact Program, another system he can game. It also seems to reflect a genuine, perhaps even desperate desire on DeChambeau’s part to be more liked—and if not liked, exactly, for people like him to be more generously regarded.

A PLAYER WHO OPENLY OBSESSES OVER THE SMALLEST MARGINS CAN SUDDENLY FIND HIMSELF STANDING ON THE EDGE OF A CLIFF.

“It doesn’t have to be me,” he said. “Whenever you’re having a conversation with somebody and somebody thinks a little differently, just try to have respect for that person because they’ve gone through years of experience trying to figure something out or experiencing something a certain way that you can’t see yet.”

I worry this all makes him sound pitiable. He shouldn’t be given a pass for everything he has said or done; he has said, especially, some really dumb things, and someone in his position needs to hear “No, you’re wrong” once in a while. (He did when it came to the Saudi League, at least.) But his running feud with Koepka and the “Brooksy”-bellowing spectators who aligned against DeChambeau in its wake was essentially a battle over conformity, and there is something painful about watching someone atypical getting the most interesting facets of his personality worn down by the braying of normies, the way wind turns rock into dust.

When DeChambeau switched his hat at Kapalua, the online response was largely positive, if in a bullying way. “Total game-changer,” the guys at No Laying Up tweeted. “Punchability falls like 86 percent wearing the normal hat.” That tweet got 3,700 likes, more than any other tweet that account had received in weeks. I saw DeChambeau in that baseball cap, and it made me sad. I saw someone so lonely, he had given up the fight.

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DeChambeau works on his swing, with instructor Chris Como watching via phone, at the Sentry Tournament of Champions in January. (Photo by J.D. Cuban)

J.D. Cuban

DECHAMBEAU HAS MORE MEANINGFULLY SET himself apart from the PGA Tour’s rank-and-file with his confounding putting ability. Traditionally, good putters exhibit an almost mystical “touch,” exactly the sort of ineffable art that DeChambeau would dismiss as anti-science. (Loren Roberts, the “Boss of the Moss,” once told me that he looked at a putt and the line just appeared to him, like a conjuring, usually in green or blue.) Whether DeChambeau is dimple-perfect is debatable; it’s hard fact that he finished last season 20th in strokes gained on the greens and first in driving distance. Not many of us are so adept with both a scalpel and a sledgehammer.

In the very particular universe DeChambeau has built for himself, however, he has reduced putting, like driving, to its most basic elements: distance, slope and break. Given those inputs, he can consult a literal chart that tells him how hard he should hit his meticulously placed ball with his unchanging stroke. Whenever he pulls out the flat stick, the equation is as simple as line + speed = make.

HE LEARNED, AND HE HAS SHARED, THAT HIS IQ IS 121, AND HE HAS OFF-THE-CHARTS SPATIAL RECOGNITION.

Mastering speed, like so much else in his golfing life, was just another exercise in repetition. When it came to determining lines, DeChambeau and every other golfer on tour had, until January 1 of this year, enjoyed a huge assist from green-reading books: laser-read maps of every dip and contour. The players voted to ban those books beginning at Kapalua, with the express hope that golfers and caddies will now have to use “their skill, judgment and feel along with any information gained through experience, preparation and practice to read the line of play on the putting green.”

The hat is one thing, a relatively easy if depressing concession to his fellow pros. The book ban seems an almost purposeful rebuke of DeChambeau’s entire game. “They took a process that I’ve done for 13 years and numerous other people have done for a long time and nixed it,” he said. “It’s one of those things I’m going to have to learn how to deal with and move on and figure out a way to make more putts without the system that I built, the intellectual property that I have.”

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DeChambeau’s monogrammed yardage book (the “A” is for Aldrich).

J.D. Cuban

DeChambeau played well in college without the book. He won the U.S. Amateur and NCAA individual championship. He has sometimes putted decently at the Masters, where green-reading books have never been allowed. He is not going to revert into a below-average putter. But that rule change is another example of how today’s golf isn’t necessarily tomorrow’s golf, and how a player who openly obsesses over the smallest of margins can suddenly find himself standing at the edge of a cliff.

DeChambeau’s mechanical approach hinges upon his ability to turn golf into a game of certainty rather than doubt, of fixed rather than moving parts. He once sought relief from an anthill. Too bad for him, golf remains a game played outdoors, against other human beings, on the planet Earth. Even for someone of DeChambeau’s remarkable skill and determination, variables remain. Pebble Beach rarely plays under laboratory conditions; Bethpage Black isn’t a petri dish. And someone in power can always come along and decide what’s good for your game might not be good for the game, and throw a wrench into your carefully constructed works.

In golf, those interventions are rarely accidents. They’re messages. Few sports have a longer, prouder history of convincing their rogue agents to conform—baseball, maybe. Golf ’s rules remain more likely to be revised or re-written—and when they are, they can be used to break someone like Bryson DeChambeau.

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SCENIC DRIVE: DeChambeau with driver in hand was must-see viewing during January’s Sentry Tournament of Champions at Kapalua in Hawaii.

J.D. Cuban

ALL OF THIS BRINGS US TO AN UNCOMFORTABLE question: What happens when he thinks he must, but thinks he can’t?

For DeChambeau’s first few years on tour, the debate seemed to be whether golf as we knew it could survive him. Now the role of change agent has reversed. He isn’t as sure of his eminence as he once was; he has realized that in the story of Icarus and the sun, not many of us get to play the sun. Asked about his expectations for this season, DeChambeau said they are “definitely reined in. I think there are times you have such high expectation levels, and you put so much pressure on yourself.” He also said that he is done trying to convince anyone of anything, except that he is not a bad guy: “I don’t want to be a super controversial figure.” Asked whether his driver’s cap could be gone for good, he was ambiguous, the opposite of his natural state. “I feel like I’m turning a bit of a page in my life,” he said, “in my chapter and my book.”

THERE IS SOMETHING PAINFUL ABOUT WATCHING SOMEONE ATYPICAL GETTING THE MOST INTERESTING FACETS OF HIS PERSONALITY WORN DOWN.

He might find that golf has made up its mind about him, that first impressions are lasting ones. In that case, he has mapped out an escape route: long driving. He now owns a piece of the Professional Long Driving Association, and in late September, he outstripped expectations—something he hadn’t done in a while—at the PLDA World Championship, including multiple drives over 400 yards.

The appeal of such a contest to him is obvious. “You’re just swinging your butt off and hitting it really far,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun.” The long-drive arena is also one in which he can be the aspirational person he would like to be. “People are going to say it’s a bit against the grain,” he said. “That’s kind of what I’ve always been, unfortunately. But fortunately, it’s something I’m very passionate about and I love.” Within those strictly defined boundaries, he is also loved back. He must stand under those lights, hearing no complaints, and feel so much relief. At last, he belongs.

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ANTICLIMACTIC: Brooks Koepka won the much-hyped post-Thanksgiving exhibition against DeChambeau, 4 and 3.

David Becker

The better future, for him and for us, will be if he finally figures out how to survive golf’s more elaborate, demanding matrix of expectations without losing the best parts of himself in the process. It won’t be easy. If there’s a lesson in the rise of DeChambeau, it’s that the details matter. Get enough small things right at the same time, and you can win the U.S. Open by six strokes. But his golf ball has a lot of dimples—330, to be precise—and by his measure, at least, it takes being off by just one of their edges for everything to go sideways.

Watching him fight to navigate golf—not the game, but its own very particular universe—can make his love for it seem star-crossed, as though he’s fallen for a girl whose family hates him, or who lives in a city he can’t stand. It’s not that, because there is a solution for his current ennui. There is a clear way forward that’s also a way out. Bryson DeChambeau and the people lined up most solidly against him want the same thing: sameness. He wants his game to be like clockwork; they want their ancient sport to remain what it always has been. The best-case scenario is that both he and they will together find a way to embrace the real beauty of golf: not repeatability, but possibility. If golf really is a game that can turn on the edge of a single dimple, imagine what someone like him can bring to it and do to it. Imagine what golf might do for him, each improving the other, trading corrections. Imagine what it might inspire in any of us. What an insanely gorgeous idea.