OLYMPIA FIELDS, Ill. – Bryson DeChambeau was thrashing around deep in the trees, dancing around poison ivy leaves, wondering how The Machine had malfunctioned.
For the first time all week, his face was flush with frustration. His normally reliable swing had abandoned him at a few critical junctures. His lead had dwindled, from a possible 4-up advantage before lunch to a 1-up lead as he walked off the 19th green. And his caddie/longtime coach had retired to the clubhouse training room, sidelined with plantar fasciitis and a half-dollar-sized blister on his foot.
“Every single shot out there, I kept telling myself that I was good enough,” DeChambeau said. “Just keep playing your style of golf.”
Sticking with what he calls “Bryson Golf” – rhythm, momentum, feel – DeChambeau ripped off seven wins in a nine-hole span to storm past Derek Bard and win this U.S. Amateur in a rout, 7 and 6, the most lopsided result in 16 years.
DeChambeau, a 21-year-old senior at SMU, became only the fifth player to win the NCAA individual title and U.S. Amateur in the same season.
“I can’t even imagine what I just did,” he said. “It won’t sink in for the next couple of days, but I’m honored.”
This appeared like a mismatch from the outset, and DeChambeau only highlighted the disparity between the two players by kicking his game into high gear over the final 90 minutes at Olympia Fields.
With his lead cut to only 1 up after a sloppy double bogey before lunch and a lost hole from the trees on the 19th, DeChambeau demoralized Bard with three consecutive birdies and four other won holes. Before long, it was over.
“The thing about Bryson that you really have to understand is that there is absolutely no quit in him,” said his coach and caddie Mike Schy, who forfeited the bag to one of DeChambeau’s former teammates, Brooks Price, at the turn. “There will be no quit until you have to drag him off the course. He was always going to right the ship.”
Five days of national-television exposure have made clear what the rankings do not: DeChambeau is the best amateur in the world, a part-mad scientist, part-artist who can mow down opponents with machine-like efficiency.
That’s been the goal, after all, ever since the curious 15-year-old began studying Homer Kelly’s “The Golfing Machine,” a teaching manual that allows a player to build his own swing with 24 components and 144 variations.
“At times it was a bit scary, because he wanted to try things,” Schy said, “but it wasn’t drugs or anything. It was just a golf swing.”
The swing DeChambeau built is unorthodox looking, with high hands at address and little wrist cock at the top, but it’s steady and, most importantly, easily repeatable. Including the usual match-play concessions, DeChambeau played his 103 holes here on a U.S. Open setup in 19 under par; Bard was 9 over.
“I’ve never seen somebody hit the ball so solid and so straight and have such control of his swing like he does,” said his coach at SMU, Jason Enloe, a former Tour player. “His swing hasn’t changed in three years, and it only gets better because it keeps getting refined. He’s basically a Tour player playing in college.”
From DeChambeau’s unique swing to his Hogan-style hat to his custom equipment to his physics background, it’s obvious that we’re witnessing the emergence of a different kind of star.
His clubs are unlike any you’ll find on a Tour range: TaylorMade driver and fairway woods; Edel irons and wedges that are cut to the same 6-iron length (37 1/2 inches) with the same lie angle and Jumbo Maxx XL grips; and an Edel torque-balanced custom putter.
Instead of attending a player barbecue this week, DeChambeau stayed back and soaked his golf balls in Epsom salt to determine which were out of balance (about four out of every dozen).
And when asked what he likes to do in his free time, the college senior didn’t immediately answer that he hangs out with friends or attends sporting events or tears up downtown Dallas. No, he offered this: “I like to write cursive backward and left-handed.”
“I do these sorts of things to keep my mind off of golf and to help my fine motor skills with my hands, create more sensitivity and increase my brainpower,” he said.
Odd, yes, but it’s hard to argue with the results.
Yet how DeChambeau arrived here, posing next to the Havemeyer Trophy, is more a story of curiosity and self-discovery.
Josh Gregory had just accepted the head-coaching job at SMU when he received a tip from another coach: There was a quirky kid in Northern California that he absolutely had to see.
“I’ve never done this in my life,” Gregory recalled Sunday, “but I cold-called him. I said, ‘Bryson, you don’t know me, and I don’t know you, but I’m hopping on a plane tomorrow to come watch you at Torrey Pines (for the Junior Worlds) and I’m going to offer you a full scholarship.’”
DeChambeau was confused.
“But I don’t even know who you are,” he said.
“I know,” Gregory replied, “but I’m coming to watch you and only you, because I hear you’re special.”
Gregory watched DeChambeau at Torrey Pines and was blown away by a player he called “the biggest sleeper in the country, ever.”
“I said to myself, ‘Oh my God, this guy is one of the best ball-strikers I’ve ever seen,’” Gregory said. “I thought his swing was extremely weird, but I tried not to watch how it looked. I just looked at his ball flight and knew I’d never seen anything look that good. The ball made the most incredible sound.”
Gregory saw DeChambeau again at the California State Junior before earning his commitment. When Gregory asked why he had chosen to come to Dallas, DeChambeau replied: “Because your call was the greatest compliment I’ve ever received. Because you were the only coach who let me be me. Everyone else wanted to change me.”
Said Gregory: “I like a kid that’s a little different and outside the box, a kid that has a little attitude on him, because you have to have that to be great. He didn’t care that he was different. He thinks it’s right for him, and he owns his game.”
Gregory’s faith was rewarded, of course, but only after DeChambeau endured a few painful years of near misses and self-doubt.
Though he racked up top-five finishes at a startling rate, he struggled to control his emotions when things went awry. Never was he worse than at the 2013 NCAA regionals, where DeChambeau broke 80 only once in three tries.
“Emotionally, he was a wreck,” Gregory said. “It was a come-to-Jesus moment that his emotions weren’t under control. That was rock bottom.”
DeChambeau showed improvement during his sophomore season, but he was still too hard on himself, lamenting runner-up finishes and staying on the range late at night and calling Schy or Gregory at midnight just because he needed to talk through what he was feeling.
The turning point came at the Western Amateur last summer, when DeChambeau lost a match because of an improbable 30-footer that slammed off the back of the cup. He wasn't upset. He was relieved.
“Coach, I’ve got it,” he told Gregory through tears. “I’ve finally figured it out. My attitude is what’s been holding me back.”
It didn’t sink in for Gregory – who left the SMU program last summer – until he watched DeChambeau’s match against British Open star Paul Dunne in the quarterfinals.
Scrambling to get back into the match, Dunne holed a big-breaking 30-footer on the 15th hole that could have trimmed his 3-down deficit.
The camera then panned to DeChambeau – and he never flinched. A few moments later, he poured in an 8-footer right on top of Dunne and went on to win, 3 and 2.
“One of the coolest moments that I’ve ever seen,” Gregory said.
The disappointment at the Western Am gave DeChambeau perspective. The victory at the NCAAs in June gave him belief. And now the U.S. Amateur has given him the sense that his potential is limitless.
In the past few months, he has received plenty of TV time, whether it was at the NCAAs, two PGA Tour events or here at the Amateur. Many have commented on his pace of play – he figures to live on the clock at the pro level – but Enloe predicts that DeChambeau will be a “fan favorite” once he hits the Tour next summer.
The kid has big aspirations too, saying that he hopes to “revolutionize the game of golf in a unique way.”
“There’s a bunch of different ways to play the game of golf,” he said. “You don’t need to play it one way. It doesn’t need to be one swing that’s perfect out there.”
DeChambeau has proved that. Intelligence, quirkiness and strong belief are a scary combination.