In Pro Debut, Bryson DeChambeau Shows He’s Not Just Another Rookie

April 15, 2016

HILTON HEAD, S.C. — Bryson DeChambeau was hard to miss as he approached the ninth green Friday afternoon. He wore a white sweater and a red Hogan-cap and walked with his arms across his chest as he kept to the tree-line in the right rough while Michael Kim and Kelly Mitchum played their approach shots.

The arms crossed might have been because it was chilly, about 59 degrees with a brisk wind off the ocean that had some bite.

Or it might have been because he was still ticked off by the previous hole. He’d just made a couple of birdies and risen to fourth place on the RBC Heritage leaderboard when his second shot on the par 5 eight hole — his 17th hole of the day — hit a mound by a bunker and shot out of bounds, leading to a double bogey. Any objective observer would concur, it was unlucky.

“Let’s say it bounces a foot more to the right, it trickles down into the bunker,” DeChambeau said. “If it lands a yard or two more to the left, it lands in the bunker and stays there. But it hit the side of the hill and shot it dead right into the water. I hit the right shot, the wind just picked up a little bit and it cost me.”

DeChambeau is not your average 22-year-old goler. His equipment is unconventional (all his irons are the same length) but he plays the game by the book and studies greens. He even borrowed Masters videos from CBS announcer Jim Nantz to learn some of the shots he’d need and see the breaks on the greens for the tournament pins. Did it help? DeChambeau, the reigning U.S. Amateur champ, finished as low amateur. It’s exactly the kind of savvy, inside-golf preparation that Jordan Spieth would use.

This week, DeChambeau is an amateur no more. He left Southern Methodist University after the school was sanctioned due to violations committed by the now-former coach. This week, DeChambeau officially turned pro, announced a lucrative endorsement deal with Cobra, and is playing for money. More important, he’s playing to gain status and, therefore, access to the PGA Tour. Every tour event he can get in this season is like a major for him.

So was DeChambeau still annoyed as he walked to the ninth green? Of course not. That’s not how you play golf according to the book. You let it go, forget the last shot and play the next shot the best you can. You check your scorecard later.

Harbour Town’s ninth hole is a short-ish, tree-lined par 4 with a horseshoe-shaped bunker guarding the green. It’s a devilish hole that plays much harder than its yardage would indicate. After Kim and Mitchum laid up in the fairway, DeChambeau pulled driver and bashed one at the green. It plowed into the greenside front bunker, less than a foot from the protruding grassy lip.

It was an aggressive play. So I had to ask him, “Were you going to hit driver there anyway or was that an emotional reaction to the result at the eight?” I was pretty sure I knew the proper DeChambeau answer but most guys, after a double, fall into Kong mode — Me want kill ball.

Of course, Bryson didn’t. He wouldn’t.

“No, no emotional reaction,” he said with an easy laugh. “I hit it yesterday and hit it in that bunker. And this time I was able to get it up and down. I hit driver there every day.”

Had his ball stopped a foot sooner, he would’ve had a relatively easy 20-yard bunker shot. His ball was a little too close to the protruding lip for comfort — no big deal except it was going to interfere with the follow-through. DeChambeau played it like the ball was plugged and popped the wedge into it with some power and let the ball fly onto the green and run down by the pin, a beautifully executed shot.

“It was more of a momentum thing, if I get enough energy into the ball, I don’t really have to have a follow-through,” he said. “I just need to create enough energy to pop it up and out of that little spot.”

He made the ensuing six-footer for birdie to salvage a 69 and finish at 3 under par, which was three behind the leaders (Kevin Chappell and Jason Day) after Friday morning’s half of the field finished.

A couple of missed putts on the first nine shifted his momentum, he said, or his round “may have ended with a deep number.” He hadn’t been pleased with his first-round putting, either, which was why he was the last man on the practice green Thursday evening – although, to be fair, he also he played in the final threesome.

Step one to Tour success is getting into the field. Step two is making the cut. Step three is posting good scores on the weekend.

“If I can make a couple more putts, hopefully make birdie on 1 and 2 tomorrow, it will push me forward,” he said.

His approach as a pro is no different than his approach last week at the Masters when he was an amateur.

“Honestly, I’m trying to keep it the same,” he said. “It is playing for money but I’m just out here trying to win some championships.”

There is another piece of evidence of his savvy-beyond-his-rookie-status. He said he’s playing for the trophies, not the money. That’s confidence, the kind only a thoroughbred legitimately has.

The fact is, he is playing for the money. He has to earn enough to get temporary PGA Tour membership, and then maybe win enough to gain exempt status. He is allowed to play seven events on sponsor’s exemptions — this week counts as one of them. He will also play the Valero Texas Open, Wells Fargo Championship, Colonial and the AT&T Byron Nelson on sponsor’s exemptions. He will tee it up in the Memorial and the Quicken Loans because of his U.S. Amateur and NCAA Championship status.

The first step, however, is to have a good weekend at Harbour Town. A local TV person asked if he had any pre-round superstitions.

“Superstitions? It’s fairy-tale like,” he said, dismissing the concept. “I don’t really believe that. I believe in execution of each and every shot and if I can do that to the best of my ability, that’s all that matters.”

He was also asked if a second straight week of windy conditions was wearing him out. That question made him break out a smile, since he played college golf in Texas and considers the wind to be his friend.

“No, this is fun,” he said. “It’s exactly what I love, seeing that little BB ball run out there.”

More wind equals more fun? DeChambeau is going to enjoy this weekend, no matter what.