The second best moment in golf right now is the moment right before Bryson DeChambeau lines up a big drive. There’s the initial flurry of excitement as he unsheathes the big dog from his bag. A little sumo-bounce of the hips, the sense of an immense and gathering power. A couple of taps on the ground. And then the coil, the swing, the devastating crack of metal, which is – needless to say – the best part of all. Then lots of American men holler like caged animals, and DeChambeau howls something unintelligible before bounding down the fairway after the ball.
DeChambeau is 27 jaar oud, is ranked No 5 in the world and has a record of one major win and one top-10 finish in 17 attempts. Op die oog af, this is an unlikely platform from which to launch the single‑handed destruction of an entire sport. But none of this on its own seems to explain why DeChambeau inspires such awe and fear in equal measure: a product not just of his success, but the bold and iconoclastic way in which he has gone about it.
You only have to listen to the way people talk about him: the fixation on his physical strength, the 40lb of weight he put on during lockdown, the moral panic inspired by his immense distance off the tee, the way rivals and rule-makers alike seem to wilt in his mere presence. Rory McIlroy admitted last week that he tried to imitate DeChambeau’s power game and ended up messing with his swing in the process. The R&A and USGA are about to restrict the rules on driver length in an apparent attempt to Bryson-proof their courses. After he declared his intention to circumvent the 18th fairway at Sawgrass by driving the ball up the 9th fairway instead, organisers quickly declared the route an internal out of bounds.
Perhaps the timing of DeChambeau’s emergence as an elite challenger, coinciding as it did with the absence of crowds, heightened this sense of mistrust: the sense that with his scientific bent and gym-built power, DeChambeau seemed to portend a cold new vision of golf’s future: bloodless, artless and driven by algorithm. The impression was only deepened by DeChambeau himself, who looked exactly like a golfer that would be conjured up in a Silicon Valley robotics lab: drilled by machine learning, fed a variety of choice human phrases and dressed up like a real live boy.
Uiteindelik, I suppose, this boils down to what you want out of your sports stars. Do you want them to be relatable and recognisable, witty and humble, extended versions of your own idealised social circle, the sort of person you could imagine going for a pint with? Because no, DeChambeau is not really one of those people. For a start, he doesn’t really seem like much of a pint-drinker. He would probably hold it up to face-level, swirl the liquid about suspiciously, tap the glass with his nail a few times. He would probably have lots of questions about viscosity and glycerol content.
En toe, unimpressed by your answers, he would probably disappear in search of greater intellectual fulfilment, probably to the fruit machine, which he’s noticed hasn’t paid out in 68 minutes and seems to have a clear cherry bias.
But perhaps, when you’re sitting on your sofa with the television on, the calculation is a little different. Perhaps you just want to be entertained.
Perhaps you just want to see someone ridiculous doing something ridiculous.
Give me jaw-dropping feats and outlandish bodies. Give me your wired and your weird. Give me a man who trash-talks Augusta itself, who shouts at the ball like it’s a dog, who signs autographs with his left hand for no reason at all, who claimed in a GQ interview last year to be able to live to “130 or 140”. Give me a golfer who has something called a “muscle specialist”, who practises so hard he occasionally ends up on the brink of fainting.
This goes beyond regular sporting obsession. Really it’s a form of madness, the madness of the method actor who starves himself for a part, or the artist who sits in a glass box for four days while people stab her with pencils, the madness of Eliud Kipchoge or Simone Biles or Robert Lewandowski. We celebrate the madness not just because it pleases us but because we know on some level that this is how we evolve: through experimentation and disruption and ridicule and suffering, the spark of insight that bunts the whole edifice a little further down the road in the process.
Perhaps this is why DeChambeau has inspired such angst within golf. In a sense, this is a sport that has always been reluctant to change, suspicious of disruption, that on some level imagines itself as the last little oasis of sanity in an ever-maddening world. Verwoester waarskuwing: golf will be fine.
Maybe a few tee boxes will need to be moved. Maybe a few par-72s will have to become par-70s. Maybe in a more muscular, youth-oriented sport a few contenders will fall by the wayside (although given the top two at Sawgrass were the wiry Justin Thomas and the 47-year-old Lee Westwood, perhaps the juicification of golf will have to wait a while longer). Maar, at the same time, perhaps a sport desperate to connect with new audiences has just stumbled on its most brilliant, alluring presence in years. DeChambeau may wreck golf. He may save golf. Op die lange duur, the two will probably end up looking very similar.