‘I think he has another gear’: Could Bryson DeChambeau actually contend at the World Long Drive?

Bryson DeChambeau will take his booming tee shots to Mesquite, Nev., next month.

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In the fall of 1999, Rory Sabbatini, one of the PGA Tour’s biggest hitters at the time, signed up for a non-Tour competition that would test his prowess off the tee.

True to reputation, the field for that year’s Remax World Long Drive Championship, in Mesquite, Nev., featured a murderers’ row of bombers, brutes whose burly builds made most Tour pros of the era look like Lilliputians.

Among them was the three-time defending champion, Jason Zuback, aka “Golfzilla,” who wound up grouped with Sabbatini in an early knockout round.

Art Sellinger, a former long-drive champion and then-owner of the long-drive circuit that staged the event, recalls that Sabbatini was a model of consistency in the contest, splitting the grid, swing after swing, with drives that maxed out in the neighborhood of 325 yards.

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Not bad for a guy who made his living elsewhere, but nothing next to the eventual winner, Zuback, who routinely blew it 50 yards past Sabbatini.

“It was like a car doing down the freeway at 60 miles per hour verse a race car flying by at 120 miles per hour,” Sellinger says.

The side-by-side comparison lent credence to a claim that has long been held as gospel in long-drive circles: that there is PGA Tour long, and long-drive long, and the two are not at all the same.

Fast forward to the present. The topic once more makes for timely conversation, given the recent news that Bryson DeChambeau, the PGA Tour’s leader in driving distance, having gotten clearance from the Tour itself, plans to test his own power on the grid.

On Sept. 27, fresh off his appearance in the Ryder Cup, DeChambeau will wing into Nevada to bash it with the big boys at the world long-drive championship in Mesquite, just as Sabbatini did way back when.

DeChambeau readying to unload at the BMW Championship last week.

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A lot has changed in the decades since. Equipment is more specialized. Ditto training. The average Tour pro is now fitter, more athletic. They aren’t making many like Tim Herron anymore.

But does that mean the results will change as well?

In 1999, Sabbatini was eliminated quickly.

What are DeChambeau’s prospects in 2021?

One way to gauge his chances is by looking at the stats. On the course these days, DeChambeau can crank his club head speed close to 140 mph, producing ball speeds approaching 200 mph. While other factors — such as launch angle, launch direction and spin — also affect distance, no matter how you crunch them, DeChambeau’s numbers are eye-popping for a Tour pro.

But on the long-drive circuit, not so much. At the top-tier of the sport, competitors can push ball speeds into the 220-230 mph range, with optimized launch and spin.

DeChambeau isn’t there. Not yet, anyway. And that makes a measurable difference. Research has shown that under the right conditions, every additional mile-per-hour translates to roughly two extra yards of distance.

Drawing solely on the data, Wes Patterson, a Florida-based long-drive professional, doesn’t see DeChambeau beating the best. A more realistic goal, he believes, would be for Bryson to make it through the group knock-out rounds.

“If I’m in his shoes, I’m thinking a top-16 finish is a pretty big feat,” Patterson says.

As Patterson knows, though, data alone doesn’t dictate sporting outcomes. Experience also comes into play, and a knack for performing when it matters most. In that regard, DeChambeau might have an edge, according to Bernie Najar, a GOLF Top 100 Teacher who works with Kyle Berkshire, long-drive’s current alpha male.

“Bryson’s used to being in the moment, to playing under maximum pressure,” Najar says. “He’s won the U.S. Amateur. He’s won the U.S. Open. He’s going to intimidate some of the guys he’s up against just because he’s Bryson. They’re going to feel nerves that they’ve never felt.”

kyle berkshire works out
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Najar’s student, Berkshire, is DeChambeau’s buddy. Their friendship was central to DeChambeau’s decision to compete in Mesquite, making an appearance for which he isn’t getting an appearance fee. As DeChambeau told GOLF.com last week, he finds long-drive training fun. He also thinks it’s beneficial, as it stands to help him generate the higher speeds that will “make me a little better at my day job.”

In long-drive circles, meanwhile, the more important question isn’t what the sport can do for Bryson but what Bryson can do for the sport, which could use a boost. Over the past 18 months, as much of the golf industry has enjoyed a Covid boom, long drive has taken a beating, its events either diminished or wiped out by the pandemic.

Compounding those problems was last year’s decision by Golf Channel, which owned the World Long Drive Association and televised its competitions, to sell what was the world’s largest and longest-running long-drive circuit.

He’s going to intimidate some of the guys he’s up against just because he’s Bryson. They’re going to feel nerves that they’ve never felt.

Bernie Najar, GOLF Magazine Top 100 Teacher

Woe is any sport without a major league or a TV deal.

In the absence of both, long drive has sustained itself through DIY events and bootstrapping circuits like the Professional Long Drivers Association, a player-run outfit that formed last year to help fill the void Golf Channel left behind and which will stage next month’s Mesquite event, now called the PLDA World Championship.

“We’re very careful about using the word ‘world,’ because it can’t be a world championship if you don’t have competitors from overseas,” says Bobby Peterson, a long-drive stalwart who co-founded the PLDA with four other veterans of the sport. “And we’ve got them coming. This is going to be an international event.”

Of course, no one slated to compete next month comes close to the star power of DeChambeau. The hope among long drivers is that his presence will help raise the profile of a sport that they feel has never gotten its full due. The more eyeballs, the better. Already, Peterson says, DeChambeau’s name has had an impact, as seen in a surge of inquiries about Mesquite from fans and potential competitors alike. At the moment, there’s a waitlist for entries into the competition. But depending on how things shake out, Peterson says, the professional field might be expanded from its original 64 to as many as 128.

With less than a month until the championship, and no broadcast deal in place, the odds are slim to none of television coverage. But the PLDA plans to live stream the competition on its YouTube channel.

What outcome that feed will capture is impossible to say. The general view among long drivers is that Bryson has no shot of walking off with the $50,000 first-place check. But Sellinger, for one, believes that DeChambeau stands a chance, more so, at least, than did Sabbatini.

“I think he has another gear and the fact that he can handle pressure, hit the middle of the face and he has world-class speed is a different story,” Sellinger says. “He will have the equipment the others do as well. If a champion like Kyle Berkshire hits his best ball, then (DeChambeau) won’t touch him. But the brutes who can create speed don’t deliver the club to the ball as well as Bryson, so it will be interesting.”

The brutes who can create speed don’t deliver the club to the ball as well as Bryson.

Art Sellinger, former long-drive champion

Which raises another question: What would it do the credibility of the sport if its world championship were captured by an interloper?

Zuback believes it would not bode well.

Long drivers, he says, are already up against Tour broadcasts and social-media blasts showing 380-yard drives that benefit from slopes and rock-hard fairways. Treated to such spectacles, Zuback says, “many say, ‘see, the Tour guys hit it as far the long drive guys,’ without an understanding of things.”

A DeChambeau win, he says, “would validate this perception.”

Not that he’s banking on things playing out that way.

“Bryson has worked extremely hard and his results have been remarkable,” Zuback says. “He has borrowed from long drive to help him on his journey and has worked his way to the top of the distance podium on the PGA Tour.”But that’s not the same as being long in long drive.

“Is he ready to ascend to the distance podium of our sport?” Zuback says. “Maybe someday, but not quite yet.”

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A golf, food and travel writer, Josh Sens has been a GOLF Magazine contributor since 2004 and now contributes across all of GOLF’s platforms. His work has been anthologized in The Best American Sportswriting. He is also the co-author, with Sammy Hagar, of Are We Having Any Fun Yet: the Cooking and Partying Handbook.