As a lifelong competitive golfer, I’ve been asked many times since the recent U.S. Open at Winged Foot what I think of the way Bryson DeChambeau brought the fabled course to its knees.
I have no easy answer on this. I’m as conflicted as when the nuns first lectured the pubescent boys in my eighth-grade class about all the sins that were considered mortal.
Part of me admires the hell out of a guy who would successfully transform his body over six months from a svelte and athletic figure to that of a Russian weight lifter, with the certainty that it would make him a better golfer. Another part of me is uncomfortable with the idea that DeChambeau’s awesome power off the tee and the riches and acclaim it has brought him is going to send every aspiring junior or college golfer into the weight room and put them on a diet of 6,000 calories a day.
Will Tour players who a generation ago had the build of Chris Rock, a decade from now look more like The Rock? Will Vince McMahon take over as the next Tour commissioner? Will Hulk Hogan be calling the shots from the booth? This is not what the ancient Scots had in mind when they were swatting cow turds through pastures with their walking sticks.
Part of me admires the hell out of a guy who would successfully transform his body over six months from a svelte and athletic figure to that of a Russian weight lifter, with the certainty that it would make him a better golfer. Bryson’s drive on 14 pic.twitter.com/h2sPqugF70
— LKD (@LukeKerrDineen) September 18, 2020
Golf has always been thought of as a gentleman’s game, and one that could provide a platform for razor thin men and women, as well as those with a little paunch over their belt. In my case, I was too slow for basketball and baseball, and far too skinny for football. At 6-foot-3 and weighing an anemic 155 pounds out of high school, I was still able to earn a full college scholarship because golf teams back then could accommodate all different body types. The only thing that mattered was your score at the end of the day.
Using persimmon woods and balata golf balls in college, my drives averaged about 260 yards. Today’s touring pros hit 4-irons that far. On one hole at Winged Foot, DeChambeau had 166 yards to the flag, and his approach shot ended up 15 yards past the hole — with a gap wedge! A better-than-average male golfer hits a gap wedge 100 yards. In my day, a 180-yard shot required a solid strike with a 5-iron.
In the pre-Open buildup, all the talking heads proclaimed that with the Winged Foot rough at five or six inches, there was a premium on hitting fairways off the tee. DeChambeau scoffed at that. He said he was going to drive it so far that he could wedge his second shots onto the green from the deep stuff. That’s precisely what he did, missing an astounding 33 fairways off the tee and still winning the tournament by six strokes. If the average golfer found the gorse that often he’d be harder to find than D.B. Cooper.
The best golf courses in the world — and Winged Foot is among the very best — were not designed for golfers who drive the ball 380 yards. If the trend towards distance continues, and one expects that it will, all of these venerable layouts that have stood the test of time will become obsolete. And that would be a damn shame.
When Tiger Woods was young and subtle, long before his four back surgeries, he so dominated the par-5 holes at Augusta National that he won The Masters by 12 shots. The ghost of Bobby Jones haunted the clubhouse. So the members lengthened the course by 500 yards. Their process was called “Tiger-proofing.”
Of course, with the unlimited resources to make any changes they desired, the Masters brain trust could do whatever they pleased. That is not possible at most other championship courses.
I’m hearing that the USGA and the R&A, the two ruling bodies of golf, are taking a close look at controlling the impact of increased distance on the venerable game. Jack Nicklaus has been asking them to do that for 40 years.
Until radical changes are enacted to the way golf clubs and golf balls are manufactured, expect the guys we all like to watch on weekends looking more like Arnold Schwarzenegger and less like Charl Schwartzel.