‘He’s been so much happier’: How Bryson DeChambeau found joy, acceptance in long drive
MESQUITE, Nev. — Even before this week, it wasn’t hard to see Bryson DeChambeau’s value to the world of long drive. The sport that showcases players putting a jolt into golf balls was in desperate need of a jolt itself.
In 2020, Golf Channel dropped the World Long Drive Championships at the beginning of the pandemic despite owning a majority stake in what was then called the World Long Drive Tour. The network’s decision was a death knell. Sponsors scattered and the league quickly folded, leaving many to wonder if the sport had a future. Instead, players and a core group of sponsors came together to form the Professional Long Drivers Association — resuscitating the sport with shoestring budgets and grassroots events.
At about the same time, DeChambeau emerged from the PGA Tour’s pandemic-induced hiatus with stories of 10,000-calorie days, endless protein shakes and intensive workouts — and with 40 pounds of new muscle. He looked like a different person, with a thicker neck and meatier shoulders. DeChambeau said he’d bulked up in pursuit of speed and, by extension, distance, and that he’d learned by stealing the best practices of long drive pros.
The irony was painful. Here, long drive had waited for 30 years for a missionary in the pro game to jumpstart interest in their niche sport, and now he shows up, with long drive on life support? Word also soon trickled out that DeChambeau had forged a relationship with the brightest young star long drive had seen in years — a long-haired, soft-spoken fire-breather named Kyle Berkshire.
Berkshire is to long drive what Jordan and Magic were to the NBA. He’s the longest, fastest hitter in the world, and if you’re anywhere within several hundred feet of him at the time of impact, you know why. PLDA merchandise features his silhouette in follow-through position, and it’s obvious he’s been asked to carry the weight for the future of his sport, despite being just 24.
“Golf Channel made a mistake dropping us,” he said. “But I also think they had no choice. We had something happen to us, two years ago, that was a once-in-a-lifetime thing [the pandemic]. They’ve got to protect their business. So I think it’d be unfair to say they’re villains in the sport. But I do think we’re on the precipice of a massive resurgence.”
I think we’re on the precipice of a massive resurgence.
That energy is largely due to DeChambeau, who threw a charge into both long drive and traditional golf when he saw Berkshire’s unusual swing and decided to reach out for advice. The two hit it off, sharing an affinity for the scientific minutiae of the swing. Before long, they were training together, swinging so hard they approached “blacking out.” Through Berkshire, DeChambeau’s exposure to long drive grew, and he began reaching out to other pros on social media. Soon he was sharing highlights on his social media accounts, tracking data to see how his speed compared to the best in the sport and hosting long drive pros at his Dallas compound.
“What he’s doing is absolutely incredible,” said Martin Borgmeier, a Hulk-sized long driver from Germany who also competes in standard stroke-play tournaments. “He’s elevating the whole game, and he knows what it takes to be successful in long drive. What he’s doing for the sport, he showcases that you can use these principles on the golf course, too. There’s a lot to come for us.”
At the World Championships this week, The Bryson Effect is real. The event has generated much social media attention ever since DeChambeau accepted his invitation, and Golf Channel is back on-site at a long drive event for the first time in two years. For a sport on the brink, a week of nonstop media attention harnessed through one of the game’s biggest personalities has been a blast of oxygen.
Before DeChambeau’s first set on Wednesday, a public address announcer excitedly asked that fans stop trying to connect to the WiFi network that supports the tournament’s live stream.
“We have 18,000 people watching this right now,” he said. “We’ve had more than 500,000 hits on our website. Please, don’t cause us to lose those fans.”
Among some of the competitors, DeChambeau’s attention brought with it a pang of wariness.
“Are you here for us,” wondered Kanani Lodge, one of the favorites in the women’s division. “Or are you here for Bryson?”
Fair question. I, for one, came to Mesquite primarily for Bryson, and no doubt many others did, too. But to his credit, in interview after interview he has tried to deflect the attention to others.
After I interviewed DeChambeau earlier in the week, he asked if he could introduce me to Scottie Pearman. DeChambeau ushered me over to a bearded man dressed in purple.
“Why don’t you tell him about your son?” DeChambeau said.
Pearman and DeChambeau proceeded to share the story of Scottie’s son, Xander, who was born three months premature at less than 2 pounds, and who survived two stomach surgeries in the first days of his life.
“Now, Scottie donates his winnings from long drive events to charity,” DeChambeau said. “He wears purple for the Family Support Network. How great is that?”
“All this attention on us, it’s all because of Bryson, man,” Pearman said later. “He’s bringing it back for us.”
To others, the biggest benefit of DeChambeau’s presence is not the media buzz. “It’s validation,” Berkshire says — an acknowledgment that long drive isn’t one of golf’s weird sideshows, but one of its supporting acts.
“I think he’s doing it because he wants to see other guys get involved from the PGA Tour,” Berkshire said. “Obviously, when they’re in the offseason, and they’re not competing in golf. I think he wants other guys to try to do it, too, and see how fun it is. It’s a great way to be swinging a golf club and still get away from the game — a great way to improve that outlook.”
Observing DeChambeau this week and how much he is clearly reveling spending time around his fellow bombers, one can’t help but ponder another question: Does DeChambeau need long drive as much as it needs him?
On its surface, it seems a silly question for a golfer with more money in his bank account than he can reasonably spend in a lifetime, and a schedule overflowing with sponsorship obligations. But then you see the version of DeChambeau on the range in Mesquite, and you start to wonder whether it might be true.
This golfer is nothing like PGA Tour Bryson, the guy who oozes so much intensity he sometimes appears ostracized from his fellow competitors. At the long drive, his ramblings about the central nervous system and his “speed reserve” are met with enthusiastic rebuttals, not eye rolls. On the range, he smiles genuinely — not the cocky smirk that occasionally follows his big-swinging exploits. He trades playful barbs with his competitors, but also encouragement.
On Monday night, DeChambeau had dinner with a group of long drivers. He came alone and stayed for a while, shooting the breeze and absorbing jabs from his soon-to-be competitors, who were surprised he’d showed up at all.
“You’re just a rookie out here, bro,” long driver Bobby Bradley teased. “I’m going to big-time you tomorrow. Show you the ropes.”
“A rookie?” DeChambeau said with a laugh. “Didn’t I just win the Ryder Cup?”
“You think that matters?” Bradley fired back.
On Tuesday morning, DeChambeau arrived at the Mesquite Sports Complex with a showman’s flair. He grabbed the first range slot — closest to the grid, where the crowds were assembled — and began launching balls into the abyss. A small group of cameras swarmed, and DeChambeau assumed character. He was jocular, jawing with influencers and sharing launch numbers as he cranked drive after drive. When it finally came time to “enter the grid” for the first time, he raised his fists, beckoning the crowd for more noise. He later admitted the introduction was a little too much to handle.
“Being out there, the first set was a little nerve-wracking for me,” he said. “It was uncomfortable.”
Nerve-wracking? Over the weekend, he’d hit shots in front of 20,000 fans at the Ryder Cup; on Tuesday, there might have been 200. Who cared how he played? These results were irrelevant.
Still, he performed well, riding a surge of adrenaline to a handful of 400-yard drives. When DeChambeau finished his sets, Bradley and Borgmeier engulfed him in a hug. It would have been a perfect end to his day, only his day wasn’t over. DeChambeau stuck around for another two hours, shadowing Berkshire. They were separated only when DeChambeau broke away to sign autographs and pose for selfies, which lasted for close to an hour.
DeChambeau’s admiration for his fellow long drivers is sincere. If anything, he seems as if he’s hoping to earn their affirmation, not the other way around. He seems to be just one of the guys, and maybe that’s because in the world of long drive, he is.
Bryson seems to be just one of the guys, and maybe that’s because in the world of long drive, he is.
“It’s a great escape for him,” Berkshire said. “You can literally see it in his face, how much happier he is being out here. Not to say that he’s not happy at PGA Tour events, but it’s noticeable, especially this week. He’s been so much happier, more pep in his step. I think this is something he’s doing because he loves it.”
Berkshire has become one of DeChambeau’s closest friends over the last two years. They talk weekly, exchanging advice on everything from speed training to the pressures of fame. I asked Berkshire whether he believes DeChambeau when he says this week isn’t about him.
“I think he legitimately doesn’t want to be the center of attention,” he said. “I think Bryson has always been a center of attention. He’s got a lot of attention on him even in this sport. But he’s not someone who necessarily always enjoys that. In fact, I don’t think anybody does.”
Whether DeChambeau liked it or not, all eyes were always going to be on him this week, but that was a tradeoff the sport was happy to make. DeChambeau could never just quietly show up. If he did, he’d be letting down his friends and the sport, both of whom need his influence even when it brings the circus to town — and perhaps because it brings the circus to town. When you’re scared of going dark, it doesn’t matter who pays the electric bill.
And, oh yeah, it was hard to keep him away. DeChambeau loves long drive. He might show off for the cameras, but his passion is real. His performance Tuesday, he said, “felt like I’d won a big PGA tournament.” On Wednesday, it was a “dream come true.” He couldn’t stop smiling when he edged Borgmeier by a yard to reach the round of 32 (“the second these guys hit downwind, it’s OVER for me,” he said, stifling a laugh). For the better part of a half-hour on Wednesday evening, he was deep in conversation with a group of senior division competitors about their histories of long drive injuries.
So, how does DeChambeau see it? He could support the game in many ways — why long drive, why here, why now?
“These guys all have families and lives and this is usually their hobby or second job,” he said. “They’re just trying to survive, a lot of them are, and I think they need to be getting support. Support from the world of golf, and support financially. This is the best way for me to do that. So why wouldn’t I? Why wouldn’t I do what I can to make this thing what it should be?”