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The contradictions of Bryson DeChambeau

August 01, 2018

There is no such award as “Golf Tweet of the Month,” but if there were, the July award would surely have gone to SBNation’s Brendan Porath for bringing this incredible video from the Golf Channel (kudos to them, too, for getting the video) to the surface:

It’s an incredible 57 seconds, and it builds wonderfully. It starts with Bryson DeChambeau hitting a bad shot on the range after his first round at the Open Championship at Carnoustie, and displaying an ordinary level of frustration. Then it cuts suddenly to him in a very melodramatic pose, head in gloved hand, obviously confronting some demons. Then he takes another shot, seems vaguely OK with it, and suddenly collapses to the ground, both hands now covering his face in a show of actual grief. At this point, it’s worth looking at the other four men who surround him, because none of them know how to handle this Kabuki theater-level of emotion. They are all, instead, just staring off in other directions.

Then, amazingly, the final 30 seconds of the clip simply show DeChambeau wandering off into the wilderness, all by himself, like a man of surpassing faith who has just been shown incontrovertible proof that god isn’t real.

In a sport that is flooded with anger, this was something else entirely. As a portrait of the artist as a young man, it was both overwrought and utterly sincere, deadly serious and also extremely funny.

From there, he went on to make the cut at the Open, race out to a big lead the next week at the Porsche European Open, and then blow it with a Sunday 78. There’s a stigma about using the word “choke” in reference to professional golfers, but a look at the last four holes in Hamburg shows that yes, Bryson choked. This video should come with a trigger warning ... it’s worse than the Tin Cup meltdown, and it happens to be real.

And somewhere in the midst of that capricious fortnight, he also experiment with “augmented reality.” I turn it back over to Porath, who has become both the Woodward and Bernstein of DeChambeau coverage:

All of this is summary so far, and it leads to my big question: Who is Bryson DeChambeau?

Is he some crazy novelty act? Should we judge him by his artistic temperament and his penchant for gadgetry (see: augmented reality helmet, green-reading protractor that forced a USGA to decide its illegality, irons of the same exact length? Is he actually a wild eccentric, a mere cosplayer (dig the old school Hogan-esque flat cap) or something in between?

The definitive profile on DeChambeau so far was written by Alan Shipnuck, and it’s a story that’s equally about golf science as it is about the subject himself. In that piece, we’re introduced to DeChambeau through two of golf’s iconoclastic nonconformists, David Edel and Mike Schy. The former is a renegade club maker with some outrageous ideas, the latter is a technophile instructor with some complicated notions about the swing. That made them a perfect match for a young DeChambeau, who they met through the boy’s father. The following line comes from Schy’s perspective, but it could come from either man:

He pined for a transformational figure who could make the golf world believe in these unique ideas.

Enter the Bryson. At first, he seems like an ordinary pro golfer—he gave up on team sports because his teammates couldn’t live up to his expectations, he had an obsessive personality and he wanted nothing more than to golf all the time. But then he met Edel and Schy, and as early as age 11 he was transformed by a new putter, a new approach, a new confidence. He finally read The Golfing Machine at age 15, had his “mind blown” and began the transition into half mad scientist, half temperamental artist. That led to his maybe-revolutionary idea to make all his irons the same length in order to develop just one swing and become a consistency machine.

As early as 16, he thought he could change the game. He majored in physics at SMU. By 22, he was a U.S. Amateur and NCAA champion, and he has won three professional tournaments in the last three years. It would be an absolutely remarkable resume for any 24-year-old, both in terms of achievements and mystique, but it still seems like he flies just slightly under the radar. That is due in part, of course, to the presence of a 25-year-old named Jordan Spieth who has owned the “boy wonder” demographic for going on four years.

And unlike Spieth, DeChambeau is defined, somewhat by his frustration. There’s that video you just watched, of course, but there’s also the fact that after his 78 in Hamburg, he gave the brush-off to Richard McEvoy and had to apologize for it. His “brevity,” as he described it, was very understandable, but the inevitable (and perhaps unfair?) consequent thought is … Jordan wouldn’t have done that.

Therein lies a major difference—at this point, we feel like we know Jordan Spieth. We’ve watched him conquer the petulant days of 2014, we celebrated through the glory days of 2015, we persisted with him as he won the British in 2017, and now we suffer with him through his putting slump. But we’re just beginning to know Bryson DeChambeau, and the truth about his character is obscured by the larger-than-life capital-f Facts that raise our eyebrows but paint a rather broad picture.

Is he not also the kid who cried openly after his first PGA Tour win at the 2017 John Deere Classic, and who said that the “true meaning” behind the victory was that it proved there was more than one way to skin the proverbial PGA cat? Is he not also a bit of an egotist, as when he compared himself to Albert Einstein and George Washington? Is he not also someone who occasionally aims for intellectual depth, but ends up sounding a little like Michael Scott, as in this quote about teaching himself to write backwards: “If I wanted to learn Arabic or Russian, I could. Or tie my shoes in a new way, I could. Why? Dedication.” Is he not a capitalist like all of us, with the Puma logo on his cap and physics formulas stamped on his Cobra wedges?

The answer, to all these questions, is probably “yes.” Which is what makes him a complicated figure. Too often, we think of that adjective, “complicated,” as merely meaning “strange.” In reality, complicated means something closer to “contradictory.” The athletes who are best at branding themselves are the ones who present a consistent image, because on some level this is what fans crave. But consistency is often illusory, and the true individuals in the world are more often defined by their inconsistency.

Try as we might, it’s very difficult this early in his career for any of us to put a label on Bryson DeChambeau the way we might on Jordan Spieth. He is worse at the branding game, but that’s because it’s hard for someone like him to walk a single path. There is too much conflicting information, and it’s this trait—more than the science, more than the art, more than the uncontained emotion—that transcends the fantasy, and evokes a fascination of someone very real. And very human.