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Why DeChambeau’s win at the U.S. Open is causing a panic

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Bryson DeChambeau, of the United States, plays his shot from the 17th tee during the final round of the U.S. Open , Sunday, Sept. 20, 2020, in Mamaroneck, N.Y. Depsite hitting only 23 of 56 drives in the fairway, DeChambeau won his first major at Winged Foot.

AP

SALT LAKE CITY — Bryson DeChambeau bombed and gouged his way to victory in the U.S. Open and now the golf world is panicked. The purists say it is the beginning of the end of golf as we know it, as it was intended to be played, but this change has been in the air for a while.

Golf aficionados do not dig the long ball, and that is DeChambeau’s game. Beginning last fall he set out to add muscle with the specific goal of hitting the ball farther. Following an intense weightlifting program that included the consumption of 6,000 calories a day, he added 40 pounds, 20 of it during the COVID-enforced break, bringing the 6-foot golfer to about 230 pounds. And now he pounds the ball.

He leads the PGA Tour this year in driving distance, averaging a record 322 yards — about 20 yards farther than his 2019 average. His grip-it-and-rip-it philosophy — or as he calls it, “bomb and gouge” — gave him his first victory in a major Sunday. 

Before the tournament began, DeChambeau vowed to bomb and gouge his way to the greens, and he did just that. He swung for the fences, to use a baseball term. He didn’t care if it landed in the rough; he just wanted to be closer to the hole for his second shot. He landed the ball on the fairway on only 23 of 56 drives — the lowest ever for the U.S. Open winner — and it didn’t matter. He finished at 6 under. No other golfer could break par. He averaged 325 yards on his drives — the longest ever for an Open winner.

The U.S. Open is known for being played on difficult courses, with tight fairways, deep rough and challenging pin positions, all of which place a premium on accuracy (the previous five winners failed to crack par). The Winged Foot course was all of those things. It didn’t matter. “I beat the golf course. I dominated it,’’ DeChambeau told the Golf Channel.

Brute strength is replacing finesse, strategy and accuracy, and that’s what worries golf’s purists. Jack Nicklaus, among many others, has warned about it for years. The USGA commissioned a study of increased hitting distances, which have been climbing for a century. Among the conclusions: “Increased hitting distance can … undermine the core principle that the challenge of golf is about needing to demonstrate a broad range of skills.” Par-5 holes are now playing like par 4s. Where golfers might have once had to lay up, the long ballers just hit over it.

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Tiger Woods, one of the PGA Tour’s original big hitters, plays his shot from the 14th tee during the first round of the U.S. Open Golf Championship, Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020, in Mamaroneck, N.Y.

Charles Krupa, Associated Press

It’s not just DeChambeau. As DeChambeau noted, Tiger Woods started it all a couple of decades ago by adding a weightlifting program to his preparations. Golf slowly caught on. As Iain Carter of the BBC noted, the last five U.S. Open winners have been won by big hitters — Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka (twice), Gary Woodland and DeChambeau.

DeChambeau wasn’t even the longest hitter in the U.S. Open last week. His whopping 325-yard average off the tee ranked no better than seventh. Johnson and Matthew Wolff both averaged 333 yards.

“The future just happened,” said Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee. “This beefed-up, bulked-up Bryson just changed the game. … There’s been some seismic championships that have happened in this game … I would argue that this one will eventually change the game either in the way it’s played or perhaps in the equipment that it’s played with.”

Then there was this BBC headline: “Is it time for golf to act after DeChambeau’s ‘bomb and gouge’ U.S. Open win?”

“I’m not going to stop. Next week, I’m going to be trying a 48-inch driver. We’re going to be messing with some head designs and do some amazing things with Cobra to make it feasible to hit these drives maybe 360, 370, maybe even farther.’’ — Bryson DeChambeau

But what can be done? You can’t tell golfers not to lose weight or get stronger. Fading from the scene are the many golfers who looked like, well, the rest of us — paunchy and out of shape. They’re being replaced by Koepka and DeChambeau, who look like linebackers. Even Phil Mickelson has gone from portly to fit after shedding weight.

Maybe the PGA Tour could grow the rough to a foot high — or replace it with a corn crop — anything to make accuracy a required skill again. In the past, the response to the long ball has been to add distance to PGA Tour courses, but courses are simply running out of room and meanwhile it’s destroyed their strategic challenges. The equipment could be harnessed as well — new club designs and golf-ball technology have added greatly to the distance, along with increased muscle.

Here’s an idea, as the first step in addressing the problem: Require Tour golfers to use the same ball — and one that is not so tightly wound that it can fly 400 yards. Name another sport that allows everyone to use the ball of his choice. Not basketball. Not tennis. Not baseball. Not football (although Tom Brady tried). Only golf.

The ball manufacturers won’t like this, but who cares. Yes, DeChambeau and Johnson will still outhit everyone else, but they won’t be able to hit over all the challenges of the course. Unlike the PGA Tour, Major League Baseball hasn’t allowed every new technological creation to enter its game. It banned, for instance, aluminum bats, which would have made Major League parks too small and threatened the health of fielders and fans.

Golf will have to respond, it seems. After Sunday’s win, DeChambeau sounded what amounted to a warning when he said he wants to put on even more muscle. “I think I can get to 245,” he said. “I’m not going to stop. Next week, I’m going to be trying a 48-inch driver. We’re going to be messing with some head designs and do some amazing things with Cobra to make it feasible to hit these drives maybe 360, 370, maybe even farther.’’