OLYMPIA FIELDS, Ill. – Read the stories, watch the telecast, listen to his peers – Bryson DeChambeau is portrayed as an obsessive-compulsive, numbers-crazed techie who dissects a golf course.
There’s some truth to that, of course, but it’s clear that there’s also plenty of artistry that lives within the mad scientist.
Consider that the three best shots he played Friday in his U.S. Amateur quarterfinal match against Paul Dunne had little to do with numbers or angles: He slashed out of the trees, chased a 225-yard, bullet 3-iron onto the green, and then backdoored a slick 40-footer with six feet of break.
The unlikely birdie on the sixth hole gave DeChambeau the first lead of the match. He never relinquished that advantage, going 5 under on a U.S. Open setup and cruising to a 3-and-2 victory in a potential Walker Cup preview.
DeChambeau, who will face USC sophomore Sean Crocker in the semifinals Saturday morning, is now two wins from joining an elite list of players – Jack Nicklaus (1961), Phil Mickelson (1990), Tiger Woods (1996) and Ryan Moore (2004) – who won the NCAAs and U.S. Amateur in the same year.
“I’m going to worry about myself, push the pedal to the metal, try to make birdie on every single hole and do my job,” he said.
Regardless of the outcome here at Olympia Fields, the 21-year-old SMU senior has positioned himself as one of America’s brightest prospects – and one of the most feared players in next month’s matches at Royal Lytham.
No, he doesn’t intimidate with big drives, flashy iron play or sublime putting. But his methodical approach to the game and hole-to-hole consistency can exasperate opponents and force them into mistakes.
His Round of 16 match Thursday against Stanford junior Maverick McNealy wasn’t just a battle between the reigning NCAA champion and national college player of the year. It was also a duel between two of the brightest minds in the amateur game.
DeChambeau majors in physics at SMU, and it’s easy to see that influence in his game. He employs a green-reading system called Vector Putting that factors in length of putt, percentage of slope and green speed, uses a torque-balanced putter that keeps his stroke square to the line, and cuts down his irons to the same length (37 1/2 inches, or a 6-iron) to create a one-plane swing.
This week, in fact, marks the four-year anniversary of when DeChambeau first inquired about single-length clubs. Two weeks after the Am – and after destroying a set of clubs during the experiment – he won a junior tournament and vowed to never look back.
“As a teacher, I didn’t want to put him in our box,” said Mike Schy, his longtime coach and caddie this week. “At times it was a bit scary, because he wanted to try things, but it was just a golf swing. Everybody panicked, like, ‘What are you doing with him?’ I said, ‘We’re not doing anything with him. He’s only 15!’ It’s crazy how people think, that you have to think a certain way.”
After all, Bubba Watson and Jim Furyk have unconventional swings. All they’ve done is combine for three majors, 25 wins and $95 million.
Clearly, unorthodox suits DeChambeau, as well.
When he won the NCAAs in June, his college coach, Jason Enloe, didn’t hesitate to call him the best ball-striker in the college game. “Possibly top 20 in the world,” Enloe added.
And he’s not dinking and dunking, either.
Last summer, DeChambeau worked with Schy to maximize his distance off the tee, to develop a go-to power shot when he needed to fly his drive over a bunker or a row of trees.
During a practice round at the 2014 U.S. Amateur, Enloe wandered up to the group and asked, naturally, “So, anything new in the bag?”
Schy gave DeChambeau the go-ahead to let one rip on the next tee.
It flew 340 in the air.
Schy turned to Enloe and smiled. “Yeah, that’s new in the bag,” he said.
DeChambeau has two swings with his driver: the “control” drive (112 mph) and then the big swing that he cranks up to 127. He hits it only a few times per round, only when he really needs the extra pop, and when he does there is no one longer in the college game.
Titanium-denting power is only helpful, however, when applied properly.
Last fall, DeChambeau attended a seminar at SMU conducted by former Web.com Tour player Scott Fawcett, who uses statistics to evaluate course-management decisions. Fawcett helped DeChambeau and the rest of his teammates understand the percentages of when to go for a flag and when to play conservatively. DeChambeau estimates that it saves him about a stroke per round.
“It’s more of a shotgun approach rather than a sniper approach,” he said. “We try to move that distribution to where you’re maximizing your potential of hitting the green every single time.”
Little wonder DeChambeau tends to play so slowly – there are a lot of numbers swirling underneath that Ben Hogan-style cap.
“He takes a very unique approach to the game and buys into it 100 percent,” McNealy said, “and that type of commitment is a huge part of what makes him successful. He’s very analytical and very calculating.”
McNealy is analytical as well, but in different aspects of the game. At Stanford, he is studying – deep breath – industrial engineering that is modified to add computer science and statistics, with a specific concentration in financial and decision engineering.
He’s a brilliant kid, the son of Scott McNealy, the former co-founder of Sun Microsystems, but on the course he is very much a feel player. He’ll take into account the most important numbers – the yardage, the slope, the wind strength and direction – get a feel for the shot and go.
“Bryson, though, was very precise with everything,” McNealy said, “and I think there’s something to be said for that. I can see why he’s such a great player.”
DeChambeau has always wanted to model his game after “The Golfing Machine,” a book that Schy gave him when he was 15.
“We don’t talk about feel very much,” Schy said. “We try to take that out of our vocabulary, because we are both aware that feel will fail us most of the time. He’s been a numbers kid his whole life. He’s very comfortable talking numbers.”
The aspect of his game that doesn’t receive as much attention – or credit – is DeChambeau’s imagination, which was on display during his quarterfinal match against Dunne, the 22-year-old Irishman who last month shared the 54-hole lead at St. Andrews.
Sure, there were clever flop shots and finesse shots around trees and low-flighted wedges, but DeChambeau's best work Friday came after a rare errant drive.
With his ball in the hazard right of the par-5 sixth, he grabbed a 9-iron, tiptoed into the brush and contorted his body around poison ivy leaves.
“Impossible Land,” Schy said.
DeChambeau somehow slashed out to give himself a long look with his third shot. The hole was playing into the wind, and from 225 yards he wouldn’t have been able to reach the green with his 20-degree hybrid because his ball would have ballooned into the air. Fortunately, he said, the ball was sitting down slightly in the rough, so he leaned forward and chased a shot onto the right part of the green, about 45 feet away.
“Honestly, I had a certain line on my putt,” he said, “and for some reason, I felt internally that I was supposed to aim a little bit more.”
So he did. And it dropped.
When asked to describe his game, DeChambeau offered this: “I would say that I am a feel player, but I’m also an extremely technical player and I try to balance both of them. If I’m able to do that, my game performs at its maximum potential.”
And has it reached that level this week?
“My game is the best it’s ever been right now,” he said, smiling.