DeChambeau's win at Winged Foot was an emphatic illustration of the value of strength
June 13, 2021
By Sean Martin, PGATOUR.COM
A stocky 27-year-old had overpowered the U.S. Open, using his length to win by several strokes on one of America’s most historic courses, and groundbreaking statistical analysis had revealed the secrets to the blonde bomber’s game.
“With his power and his ability to carry the ball in the air a long way, (he) often drives over fairway bunkers that catch shorter, off-line tee shots,” read the report in Sports Illustrated. “This means he does not have to worry as much about the sand. Nor does being in the rough bother him as much as it does other golfers, … for he is able to take advantage of his strength there, too, as he slams the clubhead through heavy grass and makes sharp contact with the ball in lies that would defeat anyone else.”
It's an apt description of Bryson DeChambeau and what he did last year at Winged Foot, in a polarizing U.S. Open victory that was an emphatic example of the importance of power. Hitting driver with abandon, he overpowered one of this country’s toughest tests. He won by six shots while hitting fewer than half the fairways. It was a formula for victory that once seemed unfathomable. Narrow fairways and thick rough were supposed to favor the careful and conservative. DeChambeau emphatically disproved that notion.
He was not the subject of that passage, however. It was Jack Nicklaus, a player often more closely associated with conservative course management than overwhelming strength. He beat Arnold Palmer by four shots to win the 1967 U.S. Open at Baltusrol. Nicklaus’ second victory in his national championship came the same year that computers were first dispatched onto the PGA TOUR to provide insights into how the greatest players played the game.
The advantage of Nicklaus’ length was one of the computers’ early findings. It was confirmed the following year when a statistical summation of his season stated: “Big Jack Nicklaus finished second (on the money list) because he was strong enough to reach greens from the rough.”
The place of power in the game will be a focal point again for this week’s U.S. Open at Torrey Pines’ South Course, as DeChambeau defends his title and 50-year-old Phil Mickelson, an obsessive hitter of bombs, arrives after winning the PGA Championship on the longest layout in major championship history.
“Bomb and gouge” is the phrase often used to describe DeChambeau’s approach. It carries a negative connotation, inferring its practitioners are one-dimensional, mindless brutes. Little more than gorillas wielding golf clubs. But greats throughout golf’s history have had power as part of their arsenal. The same math that created a computer capable of defeating a chess champion has only contributed to its rise.
Golf has always had a fraught relationship with power, however, because of factions that believe the game should emphasize artistry over brawn and the impact increased driving distances have had on classic courses. Debates about the optimal strategy to shoot lower scores can be separated from arguments about whether the golf ball goes too far, however.
“If a guy hits it a long way, you have to give him credit,” said Vijay Singh, the man credited with starting the movement. “’Bomb and gouge’ is a media phrase. A lot of guys who hit it a long ways and trust in their driver, we go ahead and hit driver. We don’t play scared.”
Bryson DeChambeau wins 2020 U.S. Open
Well before the age of graphite shafts and Strokes Gained, Sam Snead said he “powdered them hard and into possible trouble because the percentage was with me. I’d rather play a wedge second shot out of rough than a 5-iron from the fairway.”
Snead, winner of 82 PGA TOUR titles, was chided for going against the book in an era that idolized the accuracy of Byron Nelson and the cunning of Ben Hogan, who once called course management 75% of the game.
The U.S. Open was golf’s biggest event back then, and Hogan used robotic ball-striking to win a record-tying four U.S. Opens. Add in his miraculous comeback from a head-on collision with a bus and it was easy to see why Hogan became a mythical hero.
In the following generation, Arnold Palmer mesmerized golf’s first television audiences with his swagger and aggressive play. His father, Deacon, famously told a young Arnie to, “Hit it hard, son.” Arnold took that advice to heart, proving to be an anti-hero to Hogan.
“If you can come off the ground swinging at it, and your head has remained perfectly still, then you’re not swinging too hard,” Palmer said in 1962. “Distance is everything in modern golf.”
He even intuited that a shorter-hitting competitor was giving up a stroke to Palmer on longer holes, thinking quantitatively about the importance of length decades before Mark Broadie’s groundbreaking stats were released. Like Palmer, Nicklaus was taught to swing hard first and acquire accuracy later.
“It’s a philosophy that I think Arnie would agree has contributed to both our successes,” Nicklaus wrote in ‘Golf My Way.’ “Because, believe me, whatever arguments those short knockers may throw at you, distance is a huge asset in golf.”
Still, its full value wasn’t yet apparent.
Nicklaus was known for a conservative approach to course management, often teeing off with a fairway-wood or 1-iron. Persimmon drivers and higher-spinning balls were more penalizing of mishits, as well. The U.S. Open’s position as the game’s pinnacle increased the emphasis on driving accuracy because of the USGA’s notorious course setups, which included thick rough. And a lack of statistics made it impossible to quantify players’ games (computers briefly came on the TOUR in the late 1960s but stayed just a couple seasons).
The PGA TOUR began its stats program in 1980, as Commissioner Deane Beman recognized the interest that statistics had added to baseball. A former TOUR player, Labron Harris Jr., headed the program. Harris, who had a master’s in statistics from Oklahoma State, was a former U.S. Amateur champion and son of the Cowboys’ golf coach. The promising career of the 6-foot-4 Harris was derailed, ironically, when he tried to reign in his driving distance in the name of accuracy. Byron Ferguson, a retired aeronautical engineer, drove about 40,000 miles per year to tabulate the stats at each TOUR event.
The names atop the standings in driving distance that first season didn’t leave players clamoring for extra yards and led to headlines like, “Long-ball prowess no lock on success.” Fuzzy Zoeller, who won the previous year’s Masters, finished third in that stat, though, while Tom Weiskopf and Nicklaus, who were in the latter stages of their successful careers, rounded out the top 10. The 1980 Player of the Year, Tom Watson, ranked 24th, just three yards behind Nicklaus.
Throughout the decade, the top 10 in driving distance was dotted with names like Greg Norman, Fred Couples, Davis Love III and Mark Calcavecchia. Norman, Couples and Love were also among the longest players in the 1990s, along with Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, David Duval, Singh and two-time major winner John Daly.
“Golf at the professional level has always been dominated by the longest, most effective, straightest driver,” said longtime NBC commentator Roger Maltbie, who won five times on TOUR in the 1970s and ‘80s. “That’s always been your best player. Everyone has always known what an advantage it is to possess that quality.
“The game of golf was thought about differently then, and how to play it effectively, and only in recent years has that changed. The fairway has lost much in importance to the players.”
Singh had a simple message for his caddie, Paul Tesori, before the final round of the 2002 Vivint Houston Open.
“I got this.”
What did it mean? Singh would take control of club selection off the tee that Sunday. He had a three-shot lead over Darren Clarke as he sought his first win since the 2000 Masters, a span of nearly two years.
A closed clubface and hooked tee shots had cost him on several Sundays, including the 2001 PLAYERS, when he pulled his tee shot into the water on the 14th hole of the final round, made triple and lost to Woods by one.
Singh was driven to master the driver, the club that he believed was the most important in the bag. He knew the final round in Houston was an opportunity to stress-test his work.
“There were a lot of tight driving holes where guys would lay back. He hit driver everywhere, and it worked,” Tesori recalls. “To win by six after that long of a stretch, he knew then and there that if we were going to take over No. 1 in the world from Tiger, it was going to be because of that club.
Singh won 19 times from 2002-05, including his nine-win season of 2004. Technology played a factor, as forgiving titanium drivers and lower-spinning balls made it easier to keep the ball in play. Larger grooves, which were outlawed in 2010, helped approach shots from the rough stop quickly, as well.
The 6-foot-2 Singh, an imposing figure who once worked as a bouncer, was one of the TOUR’s longest hitters from the start of his career, however. He finished 12th in driving distance in 1994, his first full season on TOUR, and knew the club’s importance. “The long hitter has to take advantage of his ability to hit the ball a long way,” he said recently.
By working hard to eliminate the costly left miss, he could hit driver even more often. A Hogan acolyte, Singh spent long hours on the range to perfect his swing. He was more concerned with the quality of his ball-striking than the final score, preferring a 69 shot with poor putting than a 67 that was the result of a hot day on the greens.
“His entire mindset revolved around the driver,” Tesori said. “If you control your driver, you’re in control of your golf game.”
Singh took exception from the ‘bomb and gouge’ title affixed to his play. He ranked 150th in driving accuracy in 2004 but his 60.4% of fairways hit was just 4% below the TOUR average. “It’s bomb it down the middle and make birdies,” he said.
His play forced his competitors to change their games. Woods, who in 2003 said, “I’d much rather control the ball and get the ball in play,” switched to a longer driver with a larger head by the end of 2004, a season when he failed to win a stroke-play title. The next year, Woods declared driving accuracy was “not as relevant.” He won six times, including the 2005 Masters and Open Championship, his first major triumphs in three years.
Singh wasn’t just long. He was strong. He had devoted himself to an intense fitness regime years earlier and practiced with a weighted club, even hitting balls with it. “I tried to swing it and my arms nearly fell off,” said CBS commentator Frank Nobilo, his former Presidents Cup teammate.
Simple geometry says longer shots can also sail farther off-line, so Singh started sending Tesori into the rough as part of his pre-tournament preparation. He wanted his caddie to scout out areas that were more advantageous to hit from, where the grass may be a bit shorter or there may be a clear path to the green.
Singh’s strategy paid off again in Houston three years later, this time in a playoff with Daly. Water lined the left side of the 18th hole, but Tesori noticed earlier in the week that the right rough didn’t pose much of a problem.
“I told him that it was driver in the middle of the right trees,” Tesori recalled recently. “There was a big gap in the middle of the trees.
“Lanny Wadkins went off on the air and said, ‘Why would you hit driver here?’ We thought it was the safer play. I reached out to him and said, ‘You may want to think a bit more about why we did that. There’s a method behind the madness.’”
Inside Vijay Singh's workout
Richard Bellman created dynamic programming at the dawn of the computer era as a mathematical way to work through complicated, multistep problems. It was used in the creation of Deep Blue, the computer that defeated chess champion Garry Kasparov, and contributed to everything from landing a man on the moon to Wal-Mart’s commercial success.
In short, dynamic programming can find the shortest path from A to B through several in-between points. It has an obvious application in golf, where the objective is to traverse a hole in the fewest strokes possible.
Mark Broadie, the Carson Family Professor of Business at Columbia University, used dynamic programming to analyze financial problems, such as derivatives pricing and risk management. In the early 2000s, he started using his quantitative abilities to gain a deeper understanding of the game he loved. He gathered data on thousands of golf shots to analyze what separated players of different skill levels. The PGA TOUR’s ShotLink system, which started in 2003, allowed him to take a deeper look at the game’s highest level, as well.
“One of my motivating questions was if I had a magic club that would allow me to hit it 20 yards farther, what would happen to my score?” he said. “I was pretty agnostic before doing the research. I didn’t know the answer.
“By now, I think I’ve pretty much answered it to my satisfaction.”
Most fans know that Broadie’s research took an axe to the axiom of “Drive for show, putt for dough.” His second-most detested phrase? “Bomb and gouge.”
“The gouge part is a fallacy,” he said. “If you take a look at these long drivers, someone may be ranked 180th in driving accuracy and the image that brings to mind is someone who is wildly missing every fairway. That is just wrong.”
DeChambeau is 172nd in driving accuracy this season, hitting 54.4% of his fairways. The TOUR average is just under 60%. That means DeChambeau, while hitting it nearly 30 yards farther than the average player, is missing just one more fairway per round.
Before Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee was released in 2016, driving distance was measured on just two holes per round and driving accuracy only measured whether a ball was in the fairway, with no consideration of the lie if the ball was off the short grass. The statistics viewed a 250-yard drive in the fairway more favorably than a 280-yard shot in the first cut. Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee showed the value of the longer drive, even if it was off the fairway. Players and coaches quickly embraced this new metric because the first Strokes Gained statistic, which measured putting, proved to be a superior measure of skill after it was released in 2011.
Here’s the basic math behind the distance advantage. A player picks up 1/10th of a stroke every time he hits one 20 yards past his peers. There is a penalty for finding the rough – typically 3/10ths of a stroke – but the additional drive in the rough is outweighed by the incremental gains the longer player has accrued on the other holes. And, Broadie found, that long hitters aren’t hitting it into penalty areas or out of bounds at a greater rate than their peers. Those fractions of a stroke add up over the course of 72 holes, and an entire season.
“Distance is this consistent weapon that is just at their disposal week after week,” Broadie said. “Distance doesn’t come and go.”
It was something that some had intuited, but now the numbers proved it for all to see. Across sports, analytics have proven the value of the long ball. Baseball players have eschewed the sacrifice bunt and now swing for the fences. Statistics have led to NBA players shooting exponentially more 3-pointers and NFL teams using wide-open, aerial attacks.
“Once you could quantify everything, that’s when the horse bolted,” Nobilo said. “After that, why would you try to squirt one down the fairway?”
Kyle Berkshire completed his rapid rise from struggling college golfer to world champion on Sept. 4, 2019. Three years earlier, he was having trouble cracking the Mean Green’s starting lineup despite a rapid gain in driving distance before his sophomore season. His college coach, Brad Stracke, encouraged Berkshire to pursue long-drive competition after seeing him hit a 425-yard drive and 275-yard 3-iron in practice.
Long drive was long considered little more than a sideshow, but Golf Channel purchased the circuit in 2015 and started televising its competitions. It gave the network live programming in the nighttime, as muscle-bound competitors bashed balls under floodlights and with heavy metal blaring in the background.
Thackerville, Oklahoma, had an estimated population of 514 people in 2019, but the World Long Drive Championship descended on this small town halfway between Dallas and Oklahoma City. The final showdown came down to Berkshire, the game’s rising star, and two-time world champion Tim Burke. Burke hit his final attempt 374 yards. Now it was Berkshire’s turn. His long mane brushed against his shoulders as he addressed the ball and rocked back and forth, from one foot to the other, and prepared his body to expend all its energy onto the golf ball teed up in front of him. Pyrotechnics shot sparks into the air after his ball came to rest 406 yards away.
DeChambeau was watching.
“He just obliterated the field and hit it with swing speeds that I was baffled by,” said DeChambeau, who remembers thinking, “If I could get … just 10% of that, what would that mean for me in my performance on the golf course?”
He consulted with his swing coach, Chris Como, and Broadie, whose calculations confirmed the benefits. “That just solidified the decision,” DeChambeau said.
A month later, he was ready to publicly announce his plan to pursue such speed, commencing with the 3,500-calorie diet and constant workouts under Greg Roskopf, who’d made his name working with NFL players like Peyton Manning and other professional athletes.
The COVID-19 pandemic catalyzed DeChambeau’s progress, giving him an extended period of time to train without worrying about competition. Como, unsure when golf courses would re-open, asked his realtor to find him a home with high ceilings so he could build his own biomechanics lab.
The importance of technology in today’s distance age cannot be overstated. Everything from force plates to 3D motion capture and launch monitors give players immediate, objective feedback about whether they are heading in the correct direction. Players used to fit their games to equipment. Now it’s vice versa. In a 2006 Golf Digest article, the ability to optimize launch conditions was called “the biggest factor” in distance gains. And the ways to do so have only grown since.
The technology allowed Como and DeChambeau to observe his progress while he was hitting into a net during the COVID shutdown, measuring the increased forces he was generating and monitoring his clubface, even while it traveled in excess of 120 mph, to ensure he wasn’t losing control of his golf ball. The technology kept him from getting off-kilter during his experimentation, and provided a path back if he did.
“I try a lot of different things, and 99.9% of them don’t work, but … when we find that little nugget, it’s special, it’s very special,” DeChambeau said. “That’s how you gain an edge out here, is when you find these little things that can make all the difference for repeatability (or) for speed.”
It was a risky endeavor, considering DeChambeau had already won five times on TOUR. There was limited upside – fractions of a stroke per round – but limitless risk. DeChambeau is a difficult man to dissuade once he is passionate about something, though. He gained 20 pounds during the COVID hiatus, which helped him lead the PGA TOUR in driving distance (322.1 yards) after ranking 34th (302.5) in 2019.
“Bryson is always thinking of how far he can take something,” Como said. “When he gets into something, he is completely all-in on it.”
He finished in the top 10 in his first three starts after the season resumed before winning the Rocket Mortgage Classic. A fourth-place finish at the PGA Championship – his best at a major – provided further verification. And when he arrived at Winged Foot, it was quickly apparent that it played into his hands.
“They just made the fairways too small this week to have it be an advantage for guys hitting the fairway,” DeChambeau said. “(If) nobody is going to hit the fairway, OK, length is going to win.”
Bryson DeChambeau’s longest drives at Rocket Mortgage Classic
The only downside of lopsided victories – if there is one – is the elimination any drama. A coronation doesn’t end with an exclamation point.
Woods hit 272 incredible shots en route to a 15-shot win at the 2000 U.S. Open, but there is one that stands out from the rest. It wasn’t a long putt or hole-out, and it took place in the second round, not while he was wearing red on that historic Sunday. The shot, on one of Pebble Beach’s most scenic holes, was an incredible display of strength, and the call from announcer Roger Maltbie – which perfectly put the moment in context – has made it memorable decades later.
The sixth hole at Pebble Beach is an uphill par-5 along Stillwater Cove. Players must hit their second shot above a sheer rock face to reach the upper fairway. Woods was already asserting control of the tournament when he drove the ball into the thick rough right of the fairway. Maltbie had seen every player in that position pitch back to the fairway, leaving themselves a blind third shot of approximately 180 yards. Woods lashed at his ball with what Maltbie later called “a haymaker of a swing.” The ball climbed over the cliff and rolled onto the green.
“You think strength is not an advantage?” asked announcer Gary Koch.
Maltbie’s reply? “It’s just not a fair fight.”
It should be no coincidence that two of the courses where Woods won eight times, Torrey Pines and Firestone, have some of the hardest fairways to hit on TOUR each year. His ability to extricate himself from the rough was one of several skills that separated him from the competition. Woods inspired future generations to not only swing hard, but complement their length with a strong short game (“The biggest change now is that 100 guys have elite short games. Before it was 5-10,” said Tesori).
Maltbie’s enduring appeal, and the fact that NBC regained the U.S. Open’s TV rights shortly before last year’s COVID-delayed championship, meant he was on hand for DeChambeau’s win last year, as well. Again, Maltbie put an incredible performance in the proper perspective for his audience. The five-time TOUR winner, now 69 years old, spoke for the conflicted traditionalists who couldn’t help but be impressed by his performance.
“Every part of me wants to not like this, that you just reduce the game to power and the fairway becomes less important, …especially at a U.S. Open because historically, that’s just not the way it’s been done,” Maltbie said on-air, “But this is impressive and he’s convincing me that he’s not wrong in the way that he’s assessed how to play the game now.”
DeChambeau won at Winged Foot with a truly modern approach that has stood the test of time.