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Bryson DeChambeau's latest video may have just ended the rollback debate ... but not the way he intended

March 30, 2024
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The trouble with Bryson DeChambeau, as has often been the case, is that he’s a little bit right. Which, unfortunately, means that he’s a little bit wrong. I could be referring to a lot of things the most interesting curious man in golf has done in his career (single-length irons, sidesaddle putting, growing the game by joining LIV). DeChambeau even acknowledges as much when he confesses that his obsession with bulking up and consuming eight protein shakes a day was ill-advised and left him (he says) three times more likely to die of a heart attack rather than living to 100.

But the latest video on his YouTube channel, in which he plays nine holes with (he says) a rolled back golf ball, paints a picture of what hardships he expects will befall him when he has to ply his trade with dumbed-down distance. The 26-minute exercise in golfing cinema verite (Haskell Wexler, he is not) is remarkable for DeChambeau’s usual explosive shotmaking. The dude may have slimmed down a touch, but he still makes contact with the golf ball the way Dalton used to smash faces come closing time at the Double Deuce.

DeChambeau’s quasi-scientific premise is to play the front nine from Dallas National Golf Club’s back tees (3,635 yards) using an unspecified version of the Nike One Tour ball. The intent is to show how much of a burden it will be for him to play with a ball that he says will still conform to the rules when the new overall distance standard test is changed. That change, you’ll recall, increases the club head speed from 120 mph to 125 mph, which the USGA’s equipment technical team estimates will result in 15 yards of lost distance for the game’s fastest swingers.

While the video isn’t clear which version of the Nike One Tour that Bryson has teed up, the Nike One Tour balls that Tiger Woods played in his heyday were generally regarded as spinnier, per his demands. It’s also likely true that any version of the Nike One would be a lower-compression (softer) ball than the ball Bryson currently plays—the Titleist Pro V1x (“Left Dash”). That ball is one of the highest compression tour-level balls in the game, and generally speaking, higher compression combined with very high swing speed is an ideal combination to optimize distance. Conversely, a relatively low compression and very high swing speed is not an ideal combination for distance. I once heard a story about a long drive guy teeing up a much, much softer compression ball (more like in the 50s or 60s in terms of a number). After three swings the ball just went dead, like it had been deflated.

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Rob Carr

Bryson didn’t exactly experience this phenomenon. He was still generating a healthy ball speed of as much as 187 mph, or about 14 mph faster than the current average on the PGA Tour. He says he can produce more ball speed with his current ball and in the video demonstrated ball speeds in the 190s. Unlike what the USGA scientists suggest, DeChambeau’s video seemed to assert he was losing 20 or more yards with the old Nike ball. Nevertheless, a ball speed loss of 5 mph might be at least 12-15 yards.

His GC Quad launch monitor, which accompanied him on every shot, also indicated he was producing a less-than-optimal amount of spin on his tee shots and many of his iron shots. More than 3,000 rpm on a driver (ideal probably would be in the low 2,000s for DeChambeau’s speed) and more than 7,000 rpm on a 7-iron, which again Bryson contends is high for him but actually is about where current PGA Tour averages sit. It is generally the case that more spin from the golf ball at very high speeds also can reduce total distance. New balls could be designed to spin more by reducing the specific gravity or density of the outermost layers. That could make the ball less stable, meaning more uncontrolled spin on full swings. It’s not clear if this is the case with the old Nike ball in Bryson’s “test.”

What is the colossal tragedy faced by Bryson in his dead-ball experience? Is he not reaching long par 4s in two shots? Is he laying up on par 5s? Is he unable to carry deep ravines on par 3s? No. No. And no. While Bryson calls using the rolled back ball “ridiculous” after hitting another 300-yard-plus drive, it is worth noting that he more or less comfortably reached the two par 5s (552 and 554 yards), drove a par four (340 yards), and the longest iron he had into a par 4 was a sawed off (“10 o’clock” in his parlance) 8-iron on the 475-yard eighth hole (He did hit a 7-iron to 15 feet on the 225-yard sixth hole. Oh, the humanity!)

There is no doubt the rolled back ball will play shorter. What is not clear and what Bryson’s Mr. Science video fails to clarify or even remotely comprehend or consider is how both golf ball and club engineers might attack this power shortage. A 2008 era golf ball may have been engineered so poorly that it would still conform to the rolled back standard. (Given that it was developed by one of the two or three most important and accomplished golf ball engineers in modern history, the always innovative Rock Ishii, I personally doubt it, but that’s for another day. But while we’re at it, let’s just say this: The ball Bryson is using might not even be short enough to pass the new standard. His comparison numbers between old and new balls show a difference of 5-6 mph in ball speed. In reality, the new balls could lose more like a minimum of 7-8 mph. But he’s Mr. Science, not me.)

As an aside, it’s also worth noting that at average golfer swing speeds (low 90s) the negative effects of higher spin are less dramatic, and that’s largely the reason why the USGA’s research believes the impact on the recreational player will be minimal, maybe five yards on the driver, maybe less, especially if the resiliency of the core is only minimally softened in the new designs aimed at less than elite players. There’s even the belief among the USGA scientists that there might be almost no effect on much of the rest of the clubs in your bag.

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Francois Nel

Moreover, and a point that Bryson doesn’t seem to fully appreciate, it’s likely that the best way to engineer the rolled back ball will be by dumbing down the aerodynamics so balls are less efficient later in flight. If you choose to make a ball shorter simply by making the rubber core less resilient, it will affect all the clubs in the bag, and it will be that much more difficult to help a player to develop a way to extract more distance from the ball. So it’s possible the new balls could be designed with less of a negative effect on ball speed, which is to some degree what Bryson saw with his experiment at Dallas National. Or should we say less of a negative effect if you can generate ultra-elite level swing speed like Bryson can. In short, a revelation first introduced months ago by noted biomechanist Sasho Mackenzie, the “restrictor plate” golf ball will do more to incentivize players to develop stratospheric swing speeds than all the new drivers introduced across the last three decades.

However, what seems most unsubstantiated in his made-for-YouTube debacle (the paid mid-swing endorsement of the AG1 supplement he now imbibes with relative abandon, notwithstanding) are several unasked questions. For instance, I would wonder whether he's considered the possibility that neither was he fit for this particular golf ball nor did he match this particular golf ball to his current driver setup—loft, CG location, shaft, etc. As well, the Mad Scientist hasn’t apparently even remotely contemplated the idea that a 15-year-old golf ball, unless hermetically sealed and kept in a climate controlled and temperature regulated environment for every second, might have deteriorated over time in terms of the resilience of polybutadiene rubber core (making it slower than it was in its pristine state).

In the end, while it clearly was not his intent (“Do you think we should roll the golf ball back? … Everything I saw today, from my perspective, I personally wouldn’t want it.”), DeChambeau’s video may have done more to settle the debate squarely in the corner of supporting a rollback than any statement made by the game’s governing bodies in the last quarter century. The USGA and R&A should just hit "Like" and "Subscribe" and never say another word.