A Crazy Good Amateur
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The high priests of the practice tee observed Bryson DeChambeau and sensed danger. With each swing, the young man mocked all they held dear. That the balls he hit went far and true only made the threat more real.
The teaching pros would sidle over, as teaching pros do. "Hi, Bryson, I'm Whoever," they would say. "I think I can help you with that takeaway, and your grip, and your setup, and your hands at the top, and those clubs are wrong for you, and . . .
And the young man would find himself playing defense, having to justify his methods to the older men.
"I don't know how many times I've seen that," says DeChambeau's instructor, Mike Schy (pronounced "shy," which he is not). "Not mentioning names, but these were often well-known golf pros, guys you've heard of, telling him, That won't work. It didn't bother Bryson because he knows and owns what he does, and because I told him, You will be vilified. You're gonna get blasted. We're not afraid of what people say."
What people are saying now is "Wow." Because with his recent U.S. Amateur win, the 21-year-old SMU senior became only the fifth man to claim amateur golf's most prestigious title the same year he also won college golf's prized possession, the NCAA individual championship. By comparison: Winning two majors in a year is a wondrous accomplishment but much more common, having happened 20 times since 1961, the year Ohio State's Jack Nicklaus first achieved the amateur double.
"He’s the hardest worker in the college game, in the mold of Vijay Singh and Tom Kite. Hitting balls and inventing new shots relaxes him." -- Jason Enloe, SMU men’s golf coach
You've probably heard that DeChambeau majors in physics and approaches the game with a scientist's mind. Here's a partial list of the elements of his go-his-own-way style: At address, the strapping, 6-foot-1 DeChambeau has his arms extended and his hands up versus the modern dictate to relax the arms and let them hang from the shoulders. The right elbow rises as his club goes back, apostasy for those who teach and deify Ben Hogan, which is almost everyone on the lesson tee. Every club in DeChambeau's bag is oversize, and each of his irons has the same shaft length (37 1/2 inches), a rarely tried and never-popular arrangement. And his grip? The club rides mostly in his palms, not his fingers. The traditionalists wept.
DeChambeau, whose game will be on display again at next week's Walker Cup at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, is being regarded in the same curious way high jumper Dick Fosbury was when he first began using the Fosbury Flop in the 1960s: Very different, doesn't look like it should work, but does it ever. There are even those -- Golf Channel's Brandel Chamblee among them -- who wonder whether DeChambeau's techniques, like Fosbury's, could revolutionize his sport.
Several other things, though, that set DeChambeau apart haven't been commented on much. First is his dedication, which includes an absolute belief in repetition. "He's the hardest worker in the college game, in the mold of Vijay Singh and Tom Kite," says SMU men's coach Jason Enloe, a former tour pro, referring to two of golf's all-time ironmen. "Hitting balls and inventing new shots relaxes him."
DeChambeau also deserves credit for having the courage to think for himself in a game in which the pressure to conform to convention increases as success, fame and scrutiny grow.
"No, I don't think courage, is exactly the word," says Jan DeChambeau, the phenom's mom, from the family's home in Clovis, Calif., near Fresno. "I think it's stubbornness. He's steadfast. Once something is proved to him, he stands his ground. He gets that from his father. That old Dutch streak."
John DeChambeau, once one of Northern California's top amateur golfers, currently battles diseases of the kidney and pancreas, and is awaiting one or more transplants.
Jan describes the younger of her two boys as an unusually focused child, fastidious about a lot of things, including his neat-as-a-pin room (although, she says, sadly, that's changed). At around 6, he could add large sums in his head and showed a precocious understanding of basic algebra. And he was a jock, playing baseball, soccer and basketball very well before golf took over.
"Not mentioning names, but these were often well-known golf pros, guys you've heard of, telling him, 'That won't work.' It didn't bother Bryson because he knows and owns what he does, and because I told him, 'You will be vilified. You're gonna get blasted.' We're not afraid of what people say." -- Mike Schy
That is, before Schy took over. And through Schy, DeChambeau met the two odd giants on whose shoulders he stands: Homer 'n' Moe.
Homer is Homer Kelley, a Seattle aircraft mechanic obsessed with producing the engineering specs of the golf swing. His self-published 1969 book The Golfing Machine presented a thicket so dense a mental machete is required to get through even one page.
"Regardless of Vector Directions of unaligned Impact forces," wrote Kelley (who liked to capitalize), "the Ball moves in one direction with a Force less than the sum of the Forces." But the book spoke to Schy as a teenager, and he took it to high school every day.
Years later, with Schy ensconced as an instructor at Dragonfly G.C. in Fresno, he gave a copy of TGM to 15-year-old Bryson. He took it to school, too, and studied the master mechanic's thoughts on Geometric Oriented Linear Force and the 24 basic components of the swing, each with its 144 component variations.
The Golfing Machine delivered what science-minded types such as DeChambeau crave: data. While other instructors and instruction told him what, Kelley and Schy explained why.
Moe is Moe Norman, golf's savant and a real-life golfing machine. Among other things, Moe suffered from palilalia, a compulsion to repeat things. "Five birdies, two bogeys. Five birdies, two bogeys," he might chant at the end of a round in his high-pitched singsong. "Can't make a putt. Can't make a putt."
More to the point, Norman also repeated endless solid shots with an unorthodox, arms-extended swing that looked computer generated (or Kelley generated), but wasn't. The eccentric Canadian pro provided DeChambeau with a precedent, if not a model.
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Says Bryson: "After a couple of years of guidance from Mike, we came up with a single-plane swing from The Golfing Machine that's called a 'zero shifting motion' more technically. I picked a certain specific set of variations for my components and made my golf swing what it is today."
Schy encouraged the young Newtonian to keep experimenting. "I never said no to him," the instructor says. "He's so inquisitive, and so bright, he always wants to try something new, some variation in posture or swing or grip, just trial and error.
"Challenging him is a lot of fun," Schy continues. "While he's practicing putting, or he's in his routine for a full shot, I'll ask him to recite some mathematical formula, or I'll ask him to spell Utah. OK, now spell it backwards." (The right-handed DeChambeau can sign his name backward with his left hand, offering up one of the more unusual autographs you'll ever see.)
Another book gets a shout-out from the DeChambeau camp. From Vector Putting: The Art and Science of Reading Greens and Computing Break by H.A. Templeton, they got the idea of testing golf balls for internal symmetry in saltwater (an old Hogan trick). Of a dozen new balls, three of four usually fail the test. And another helper besides Schy and Enloe deserves mention: Ryan Overturf, a biomechanics expert who consults with SMU's golf team.
So it's all tangents and vectors and drag force with DeChambeau and Co. They don't mention the F word; feel is too, well, touchy-feely for them. But there's no doubt Bryson's got it. Did you see the way he chipped and putted and worked the ball at the U.S. Amateur? He was like an artist.