Bryson is Long, But Distance Has Always Been Key to Success
By absolute standards it’s difficult to shrug over the fact that Bryson DeChambeau averaged 325 yards off the tee on route to his victory in the US Open on Sunday. Of course, golfers have been pounding deep drives for quite a while now. But even by the standards of Rahm, McIlroy, and co., such firepower is verging on absurd.
This at least is what the pundits are saying. Many are already looking ahead to Augusta National and fearing that DeChambeau’s new brand of power game will make all the great courses obsolete. There are gathering calls for distance to be reined in, rumours of harsh new equipment rules - anything to stop the Mad Scientist experimenting.
And yet, the stats tell a different story. It is true that Bryson averaged well over 300 yards off the tee last week. But this was only good enough to claim him seventh on the list of the week’s longest drivers. The longest hitter in the field wasn’t actually DeChambeau, but world number one Dustin Johnson, averaging 333.6 yards, almost 10 yards further than the champ.
Rory McIlroy had some veiled but firm words to say about DeChambeau on Sunday. Although he refused to say whether the Mad Scientist’s bomb and gouge tactics are “good or bad for the game” he plainly didn’t approve. From his comments, you would never guess that McIlroy too hit the ball further than DeChambeau this passing week. He pipped DeChambeau by three yards. His average drive was 328 yards.
For all McIlroy’s and others’ perspective then and the narrative, already established, that DeChambeau is driving the ball miles past everyone else, this is not backed up by the data. In other words, the difference between DeChambeau, McIlroy, Johnson and Rahm isn’t one of firepower. Instead, it is looking more and more as though what really separates DeChambeau from the rest is will and golfing intellect.
Part of this manifests obviously in the terrific transformations he’s made in the gym. McIlroy, of course, also famously bulked up, as did Tiger Woods before him, so it isn’t the case that Bryson lacks a precedent. Still, he has taken it to a whole new level. Woods, no stranger to an elevated shirt size, never swelled to the bovine proportions of DeChambeau. McIlroy hasn’t shown a willingness to chug eight protein shakes a day.
But the other way DeChambeau’s will manifests is in his course management. McIlroy inadvertently admitted as such. In his interview on Sunday, this is what he said in answer to the question ‘If I had told you on Wednesday that the winner would have hit 4 of his last 21 fairways what would you have said?’ ‘No chance,’ was McIlroy’s curt reply.
But there was a chance, and one that DeChambeau evidently saw before Rory and everyone else. Bryson was bold enough to realise that fairways aren’t what matters when it comes to scoring well, not really. In fact, distance and greens in regulation are the key stats and when you have the power he has, extricating yourself out of the rough with a lob wedge is easier, although perhaps counterintuitive, than getting a level of control that's comparable with a long iron from the fairway.
Xander Schauffele, another young player who is no stranger to hot form, said “if you look at the people who have dominated, it’s always been distance. Tiger was the first guy to really hit it far, Jack hit it really far. It’s no longer a touchy-feely game. [Bryson's not revolutionising,] maybe he’s just exposing our game.” Strong words.
And right on the money. One of the reasons McIlroy’s comment on Sunday seemed particularly off is that he isn’t renowned for short hitting himself, being instead known for exactly the same power game as Bryson. Sure, he does it with a bit more elegance, but when he won his first major, at Congressional in 2011, distance was a huge part of the code. A 310 yard average is never to be sniffed at, but on a rain-sodden Congressional it proved a key part of what enabled him to dominate.
Visually striking though it certainly is, then, DeChambeau’s long hitting isn’t quite as revolutionary as it seems at first blush. He’s long, granted. However, his length isn’t particularly abnormal when measured against the boom and bust stats of other power players like Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy. For a guy with the nickname of the Mad Scientist we should have guessed - what really sets Bryson apart is all mental. He was the first to see the true potential of distance; he isn’t the first to capitalise on it. And if young guns like US Open runner-up Matthew Woolf are anything to go by, he won't be the last either.
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