Ed. note: Bryson DeChambeau has single-handedly changed the way we think about the limits of what’s possible on a golf course, with ball speeds and driving distances that boggle the mind. How has he done it? What is his ceiling? And what might his transformation mean for the game? They’re meaty questions — so meaty that we enlisted a panel of our expert writers to explore every angle of DeChambeau’s ascent. Contributing to this special GOLF.com report, which was edited by Sean Zak, were Michael Bamberger, Dylan Dethier, Luke Kerr-Dineen, Alan Shipnuck and Jonathan Wall. Additional analysis was provided by veteran Tour caddie John Wood.
Six weeks ago, on the 9th tee at the Travelers Championship, outside Hartford, Conn., Justin Thomas finally let it rip.
He was two over par and one hole away from signing his card and flying home. After laying up during the first round on the short par-4, the only move now was to bomb driver up over the trees and cut the corner. His drive, caught on the TV broadcast’s ProTracer, was pure, modern distance — 309 yards of carry, 324 yards total, out into the fairway. The real macho move is what followed.
“Where you at, Bryson,” Thomas said, rhetorically, which was picked up by the nearest microphone on a silent course. It was a playful jab at the man everyone was talking about, and who is single-handedly pushing the distance threshold in golf: Bryson DeChambeau.
Thomas’s playful comments were ironic, of course. He knew where Bryson was at. All of the golf world did. He was beginning his second round, a five-birdie 67, en route to finishing T-6 — his sixth-straight top 10. One week later, he beat the field by three in Detroit in the most decisive result of a very changed golfer. In his nine-month quest for unthinkable distance gains, DeChambeau has added 40 pounds to his frame, transformed his swing, altered his equipment and has made success seem inevitable.
Vegas has noticed, making him one of the top betting favorites at this week’s PGA Championship. Among his peers, plenty more than Thomas have noticed. They stare at DeChambeau on the driving range, whisper about him when he’s not around and, in the case of another preeminent long-hitter, Tony Finau, have begun to adopt his go-for-broke methodology. Still, larger questions remain, about DeChambeau and the revolution he is trying to lead.
How did Bryson arrive here?
Among the nicknames DeChambeau earned over the years, he’s only really given himself one: The Casino. It implies what he’s after — tiny advantages, everywhere, just like the house at MGM Grand. Only recently has he begun talking openly about this approach, but it’s been on his mind for more than a decade.
Recall that DeChambeau came of age as a disciple of The Golfing Machine, by Homer Kelly, a complex textbook that breaks down the motions of the golf swing into a series of equations and formulas. It carries the subtitle, “The Computer Age Approach to Golfing Perfection.” Dating to 1969, copies of The Golfing Machine now sell for hundreds of dollars on Amazon. During his mid-teens, DeChambeau grew obsessed with golf rather than team sports and found this system fascinating. It spurred him to build his own set of single-length irons, each weighing 282 grams and swung on the same plane. At 16, he told his father, Jon, “I think I can change the game.”
With fellow Golf Machiner Mike Schy as his coach, DeChambeau turned into a persistent chaser. In their fantasy, this complex game could be much more repeatable, predictable and perfected. All information is relevant, if only to disprove a wild hair. So DeChambeau could be seen dousing golf balls on the driving range (to see how moisture affects the spin rate), measuring the local barometric pressure (to understand how it affects carry distances), even testing side-saddle putting. He continued experimenting with his equipment, to the point that the USGA refused to sanction a few of his inventions. He tried things others never imagined trying, often drawing ire in the process.
DeChambeau’s first win against a stacked field came at the Memorial Tournament in 2018. The victory both validated his singular pursuit and sent him deeper down the rabbit hole; six weeks later he was agitated and emotional on the British Open practice range, clubs and gear strewn about in a clip that went viral online. But two months later he won consecutive playoff events, fueled by a pair of Saturday 63s. His performance and emotions were equally volatile, as were the reactions he inspired on social media.
This brings us to 2019, when Bryson 2.0 truly began to literally take shape.
“I want to figure it out,” DeChambeau told GOLF.com in March 2019. “You know, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to figure it out. I will submit to that. But I want to try and go where nobody’s gone before.” Later, in the same interview: “You have to ask the right questions to move forward, to figure things out, to get better. There’s always an answer. If you don’t think there’s an answer, you’re not lookin’ hard enough.”
I want to figure it out … I want to try and go where nobody’s gone before.”
DeChambeau identified the next frontier as overwhelming distance and hired Chris Como, an innovative instructor best known for his work with Tiger Woods and who has spent years studying the biomechanics of the swing. (Schy remains an advisor and confidante.) DeChambeau gave Como one mandate: They must maintain his “end-range-of-motion protocol,” that had led him to five career wins. (When a joint reaches its end range of motion — like a knee mid-squat — it reaches a relative limit on its movement.) DeChambeau, in his work with trainer Greg Roskopf, has focused on strengthening his body at those end ranges of motion to make his swing repeatable and, in his words, “less sensitive to error.”
“Think about it this way,” DeChambeau said recently. “If you were to design a machine to swing a golf club, how would that machine do it? You wouldn’t program the machine to have a bunch of excess movement. That’s been my biggest thing in life is trying to reduce variables.” Como’s response to that theory: “It’s not about introducing all the variables. It’s about introducing the right variables.”
It is unclear whether DeChambeau considers adding major weight and muscle a variable, but his form began to change significantly.
In October at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open, he told the press, “I’m going to come back next year and look like a different person. You’re going to see some pretty big changes in my body, which is going to be a good thing. Going to be hitting it a lot further.”
DeChambeau spent the next six weeks at his home away from home in the Bahamas, working out twice daily and consuming eye-popping amounts of food. Eggs and bacon, steak and potatoes, PB&Js, endless protein shakes. By the time December arrived, he was 222 pounds, 37 more than he weighed a year earlier. “I’m going to become like a gymnast,” DeChambeau said on the driving range at the Hero World Challenge. “I watch online, on Instagram, these gymnast influencers. That’s where I want to get.
“I’ll never get to my target size or weight. I think now, with this knowledge and understanding, the sky is the limit. I’m going to become massive. You’ll start to see this week.”
DeChambeau didn’t clarify what that target weight was, but he bragged about hitting one drive 365 yards in practice, and carrying another 340 yards in the air. It’s alarming distance, to be sure, but little attention was paid that week. Patrick Reed’s waste-bunker controversy stole all the headlines. DeChambeau also opened with a 76 and beat just three players in the 18-player event. At the Presidents Cup a week later — where he claimed he consumed as much as 6,000 calories a day — Bryson lost his opening match and was benched for the next three before tying Adam Hadwin in singles. Early returns on the bulk-up were hardly conclusive.
This year began with a missed cut in Abu Dhabi before a T-8 finish in Dubai. His Tour season started with a T-52 at the Waste Management — despite leading the field in distance — but then DeChambeau registered three straight top-5 finishes, at Riviera, Mexico City and Bay Hill. Had he found something? It didn’t really matter. Covid-19 spread rapidly across the United States, shutting down the Tour in its wake.
With his hot streak silenced by the pandemic, DeChambeau joined Como in his newly-established “living room lab” in Dallas, outfitted with all kinds of body-tracking gizmos. Over the course of three months, they introduced low-risk variables into DeChambeau’s swing, all of them designed for added speed.
At first, they changed the direction of his swing so it moved more in-to-out as he chased optimal launch conditions: lower spin, higher launch, the classic Tour goal. The change gave his swing a slight across-the-line look at the top of the backswing. It was different, for sure, but Bryson didn’t care.
Como widened DeChambeau’s stance, too, for a sturdier base on which he could torque like never before and pull his arms through the downswing with even greater force. Using 3-D forceplate technology to measure the amount and distribution of pressure he was placing on the ground, DeChambeau would start his swing with a lower body trigger — a counter movement that used a quick bending and straightening of his lead leg to send his pressure over to his trail side.
“We worked hard to incorporate momentum into my swing,” DeChambeau says.
They lengthened his action, too, using the 3-D body-tracking system GEARS. Sasho MacKenzie, one of the foremost leaders in golf biomechanics, advised that lengthening the arm swing on the backswing four inches can increase clubhead speed by 2.4 mph. What’s in his hands mattered significantly, too.
The revamped swing required an all-new driver, preferably one with a flatter lie angle to achieve those preferred launch and spin characteristics. An older model Cobra King Ltd. Pro — initially designed for Rickie Fowler — worked fine for long stretches, but Cobra was worried the space port located in the sole would eventually come loose when DeChambeau released The Kraken, his code word for swinging all out. A driver that breaks under pressure is no good for DeChambeau and even worse for Cobra.
Instead, Cobra handed him their equivalent of Thor’s hammer: a 7-degree SpeedZone driver. He was given two options with different lie angles to see which performed best. “We basically told him, when you’re in the backyard, go pound that driver and figure out if the flatter or upright lie angle is a better fit,” said Tom Olsavsky, Cobra’s VP of R&D. “This was as good a time as ever to test and figure it out.”
The tests were streamed for all to see, on DeChambeau’s increasingly popular Twitch feed, where he paced around like an Olympic weightlifter. With Drake blaring from speakers in his backyard, DeChambeau spent hours launching balls into a net, measuring the success by the numbers on his launch monitor. This is Bryson’s scientific method. Hypothesis, test, analysis, conclusion. On and on.
Eventually, DeChambeau landed on a 5.5-degree Cobra SpeedZone with a flatter lie angle (54.5 to 57.5 degrees) that he felt comfortable turning over (right to left ball flight) and could swing freely without worrying about the spin rate creeping up. DeChambeau also worked with LA Golf to create a one-off driver shaft that he could “grow into,” like a teen going through puberty who buys shoes two sizes too big. DeChambeau had a SpeedZone in mind that he wanted a shaft built for, even if he wasn’t quite there yet.
Cobra King SpeedZone
“It’s never been done this way,” said Chris Nolan, COO of LA Golf Shafts. “Bryson is a true designer. Usually engineers dictate the spectrum when it comes to shafts, but he didn’t care about E.I. curves or traditional [Cycles Per Minute]. He wanted something totally different.”
A whopping 26 prototypes were made for DeChambeau before “MRDR 1” was created. The shaft is made with special inserts that make it 40-50 percent stiffer in the mid-section than comparable Tour shafts. It was tested with professional long drivers to ensure it would hold up against ball speeds greater than 210 mph. It’s also soft in the butt and tip sections, creating a “whip” effect. As Nolan describes it, “it’s like a solid door shutting into the golf ball.”
What have the changes meant for Bryson?
Remember Thomas’s aforementioned 324-yard drive at the Travelers? Just three hours later, DeChambeau emasculated him by uncorking a 358-yarder on an even more aggressive line. On Shotlink, his distance to the pin was measured in feet, not yards. That’s when you know you’re playing a different game.
All this work has given DeChambeau one of the fastest swings on Tour and made him maybe the longest hitter in PGA Tour history. His only competition in this race is Cameron Champ, who checks in at 6 feet and a mere 180 pounds. (His means for manufacturing extreme distance are another story.)
As you can see in the chart above, Champ and DeChambeau are the outliers in ballspeed average on Tour, but overall, swing speeds and equipment advances have made the balls explode off the clubface faster than ever. The average on Tour, across the spectrum of fast and slow swingers, has increased 5 mph over the last 12 years. At some point there will be a ceiling, and the first players to reach it will likely be Champ and DeChambeau.
In Detroit, DeChambeau uncorked 16 drives of 350 yards or longer. Then 11 more at Muirfield Village (in just two rounds, mind you), one traveling 407 before one of its cousins rolled out to 423 yards. DeChambeau’s gains have netted him an average of 324.4 yards off the tee, a full 21.9 yards longer than 2019, and that includes three events worth of drives from the fall season, when he was playing a different game. That one-year gain is tied for the second biggest jump in PGA Tour history, trailing only Brett Quigley in 2001, at the dawn of the solid-core ball era. Couple that with a respectable level of accuracy (60.42%, 112th-best) and DeChambeau is unsurprisingly No. 1 in strokes gained: off the tee. Long and only a little wrong is a winning combination on the PGA Tour.
While Champ (No. 2 in SG: OTT) has struggled to gain consistency in all non-driving aspects of the game, DeChambeau has remained an above-average ballstriker (97th) and an excellent putter (6th). His wedge play has been the least trustworthy part of his game in 2020, and a primary focus since his win in Detroit. All in, DeChambeau’s driving gains have raised his floor when he is playing well. His victory in Detroit was his seventh straight top 10, matching the career-best mark of Rory McIlroy.
But can Bryson’s radical new approach translate to the majors? That is the question we arrive at this week, and it will remain a pressing storyline at the U.S. Open and Masters as well. DeChambeau will tee off at TPC Harding Park Thursday still having never finished in the top 10 in a major championship. In late January, he was asked about how much he’s focusing on the majors. “All of it,” DeChambeau said. “All of it. All of my mind is taken up for the need to do well in the majors. That’s what I haven’t done well in particularly in my career so far, and I am keen on changing that.”
In 2020, he’ll have three chances. The first one, of course, is this week at the PGA Championship at Harding Park. Then, in September, he’ll play in the U.S. Open at Winged Foot. The third and final major of the year will be in November, at Augusta. This is going to get interesting.
Let’s examine each of them, in reverse chronological order:
BRYSON AT THE MASTERS
Millions of us, through the magic of TV, know the Augusta National course intimately. How it will play in November is unknown. It could be fast and firm. It could be soft and slow. Either way, DeChambeau’s colossal length will be an enormous benefit. It’s easy to imagine DeChambeau playing the iconic par-5 13th hole, even with a new back tee, with a driver and wedge, and that wedge coming from the 14th hole, as he said on a Twitch stream earlier this year. The other back-nine par-5, 15, could also be driver-wedge.
His towering drives, now higher and longer than ever, with a consistent baby draw, will give him a chance to smash something high and above the trees on the par-4 11th and leave him with a 130-yard second shot there, while Brendon Todd is half a football field behind him.
But the veteran caddie John Wood makes the point that there are three other holes at Augusta where a Bryson-in-full could be particularly devastating.
“His length will be a huge benefit on the 1st, the 8th and maybe the 18th. Because the way he’ll play those holes, they’ll have no fairway bunkers,” Wood said in a text message, referring to the par-4 opening hole, the longest of Augusta’s par-5s and its famous closing par-4.
“He’ll probably be able to carry the fairway bunker on the first side of the first, leaving sand wedge or lob wedge for his second shot,” Wood wrote. “He’ll probably carry the fairway bunker on 8, which will leave him with a much better angle and a second-shot mid-iron. And he’ll carry the fairway bunker on the left on 18. If it’s in the fairway or not it really doesn’t matter, there’s no real rough. And if you can stand there knowing you can just send it, you’re not worried about cutting it, feeding it through the gap or leaving it short of the bunkers. It changes the hole entirely.”
BRYSON AT THE U.S. OPEN
As for Winged Foot, it’s hard to know how the course will play for DeChambeau and the others. If the rough is unplayable, DeChambeau will hit plenty of irons off the tees like everybody else and his length advantage will be diminished. Nick Price, a USGA committeeman, has said for decades that the way to bunch the fields is to make the courses shorter. But no matter what the USGA does, Winged Foot’s iconic closing hole, with a fairway bunker about 300 yards off the tee, will be a major consideration for almost every player in the field, except for Bryson DeChambeau. Unless the wind is against him, he’ll have no problems carrying it and hitting a short iron or wedge onto the dance floor.
BRYSON AT THE PGA CHAMPIONSHIP
This week, at TPC Harding Park, Wood handpicked three holes where DeChambeau’s length will play a significant role. Here’s is Wood’s scouting report:
The 4th hole is a long (607 yards), sweeping right to left par-5 that only the longest players in the field can reach in this heavy San Francisco air. Bryson is one of them, and with four cracks at it, he’s bound to get at least one eagle putt and three chips on for makable birdies.
On the short 7th, Bryson will likely go for the green from the tee. It’s just 320 yards or so to the front edge, from around which he’ll have likely eagle putts or short up-and-downs for birdie. Meanwhile, like on the 1st, many other players will be crunching the numbers on wind and lay-up locations. DeChambeau simply takes those discussions out of play.
Finally, the 18th, a 480-yard par-4. DeChambeau’s length takes those two fairway bunkers along the right side out of play. They’re simply not on his intended line. If he hits driver where he wants on this hole, the result is yet another wedge while others in the field will be looking at mid-irons and judging the wind into an elevated and heavily sloping green. If the driver is a straight club for DeChambeau this week, look out.
What does the new Bryson mean for the Tour?
Let’s go back to Thomas again, this time less than two weeks after that Friday at the Travelers. Post-DeChambeau victory, Thomas said of his beefed-up peer, “I went from kind of being a little skeptical about it, to maybe saying some things, to realizing he was beating me every week and I should probably shut up and just start playing better for myself.”
Therein lies one of the tricky aspects of DeChambeau as The Casino, the Professor, Golf Hulk, Le Scientist, etc. His tendency to go viral while jousting with rules officials, cameramen or reporters leads many to discount his ways. Bulking up doesn’t help you sink putts. Can he hit a wedge? But winning changes everything.
The victory in Detroit is particularly relevant as it was a classic PGA Tour setup: 7,300 yards, few hazards and only light rough. The winning score of 23 under was unsurprising. DeChambeau playfully jabbed the setup during his pre-tournament press conference. “I think there’s a lot of bunkers that are around like 290,” he said, “so hopefully I’ll be able to clear those and take those out of play. So, sorry, Mr. [Donald] Ross, but, you know, it is what it is.”
As a result of DeChambeau finding new landing zones, Detroit Golf Club is already looking at creating a different setup for next year’s event. Superintendent Alex Mendoza says the club has already identified tee boxes it intends to move back so current bunkering falls within modern landing zones. The club is considering adding fairway bunkers or even cross bunkers to the 19th-century design. “When the landing zone is quickly expanding from — you know, we planned for 275 to 325 and now it’s inching out to the 340 range, it just makes it a little bit more challenging [to set up a course],” Mendoza said.
Mendoza and the superintendents of the PGA Tour are hardly the only folks who will respond to DeChambeau’s distance gains. R&A CEO Martin Slumbers spoke candidly last month with the Daily Mail about how DeChambeau fits into the greater distance debate. “I’m not sure I can remember another sportsman, in any sport, so fundamentally changing their physical shape,” he said. “I can’t think of anyone … But what is extraordinary is that Bryson isn’t the first one to put on muscle in golf. How he’s able to control the ball, with that extra power, is extraordinary. All credit to him, he’s a true athlete.”
And yet, the R&A is focused on dialing in technology — or rather dialing it back — because they consider distance a problem within the broad spectrum of golf at large. As the newest bomber of the long ball era, DeChambeau has taken the party line. “No matter what anyone does, no matter what the governing bodies do, there’s always going to be people in this game trying to push the limits of their own bodies,” he said in March. “So there’s going to be people that hit it really, really far and there’s going to be people that just don’t hit it as far, and that’s it.”
Others are already following in his footsteps, or trying to. Tony Finau, one of the longest players in the pro ranks, recently changed to a 7-degree driver in an attempt to do Bryson-esque things. Just last month, back home in Utah, Finau’s coach Boyd Summerhays filmed him extending his backswing further than normal, giddy as a schoolboy at the result: 206 mph ball speed. George Gankas, the sultan of swing speed himself, commented on Instagram: “Hell yeahhh I’ve been patiently waiting for this.”
Was it any surprise that, just hours after Finau posted his video (and tagged DeChambeau), Bryson clapped back with a post of his own, repeatedly smashing driver into an indoor net? Not at all. His 57th driver swing of the session was clocked at 144 mph.
“We intend to keep pushing”
The history of sport is built on chasing boundaries. Recall what baseball looked like in the 1990s: Greg Maddux, ever the craftsman, struck out batters with finesse, not heat. Few hurlers exceeded 95 miles per hour on the radar gun. Today, pitchers are bigger, stronger and, with their mechanics more scientifically optimized, dozens of starting pitchers regularly touch 100 miles per hour, even in later innings.
In basketball, Steph Curry, James Harden and Damian Lillard are the casinos, having eliminated the 20-footer from their repertoire and instead focusing on raining 3-pointers and earning free throws, which is a much more efficient way to pile up points. In football, the accuracy of downfield passes has never felt more important. All sports evolve. Why should golf be any different?
“We intend to keep pushing,” Chris Como said recently when asked about DeChambeau’s ceiling. Is he approaching a limit? Is there a limit? The USGA and R&A have maximum specs used to regulate equipment, but they cannot regulate the body and how fast it can swing a club. Como has long studied Sasho MacKenzie, who believes there is indeed a limit.
“The odds of a Tour player swinging at 140 mph periodically over the next 10 years are pretty decent,” MacKenzie told GOLF.com before Bryson 2.0 was even a thought. “That said, the odds of a player averaging 140 mph are pretty close to zero — the penalties for mis-hits are just too large at that speed.”
Eighteen months later, MacKenzie’s prognosis seems rather spot-on. Cameron Champ averaged 128 mph in 2019, when the Tour average was 114. DeChambeau’s 2020 average is still being tabulated, but when he released The Kraken during his first round in Detroit, the numbers were astounding: 137.1 mph, in competition, with 349 yards of carry. Suddenly, even MacKenzie may have been shortsighted.
When asked to expound on his forecast on speed ceilings, the human kinetics professor said he believes “many athletic skills do not have ceilings.”
“If anything, I think I’m a little more confident in my predictions playing out,” MacKenzie said in an email. “Bryson is the perfect spark for igniting a firestorm of players unleashing their potential off the tee … Courses will gradually be set-up (and designed) to increase the difficulty of gaining strokes with 350+ carry bombs. For example, I think you’ll start seeing taller trees being placed closer to tee boxes to prevent unorthodox lines with the driver. It may take a bit of time, but the best in the world will learn how to reliably shape drives at 200 mph ball speeds.”
As MacKenzie typed his thoughts, more than 3,000 miles away, on a driving range in San Francisco, DeChambeau walloped away with his driver, in preparation for the year’s first major. With Como observing nearby, the best blast of the bunch was Instagram-worthy. Ballspeed: 202 mph. Carry: 366 yards. The ceiling: who knows?