SOUTHPORT, England – Watching at home in Dallas, Josh Gregory couldn’t help but smile as his former recruit stole the John Deere Classic with a back-nine 30 on Sunday.
Afterward, he sent Bryson DeChambeau a text: “It’s no longer a dream.”
A game-changing PGA Tour title - and with it, a trip to The Open - was what they’d always talked about ever since they first met, in the summer of 2011. After guiding Augusta State to back-to-back NCAA titles, Gregory left to become the head coach at his alma mater, SMU. That summer, he called an intriguing high school prospect out of Fresno, Calif., offered him a scholarship, sight unseen, and vowed not to change him. DeChambeau eventually signed with upstart SMU over other powerhouse programs, and the reason he gave Gregory was simple: “You were the only coach that was going to let me be me.”
Indeed, other coaches were convinced that DeChambeau would flame out, that his theories were wacky, that he was too much of an iconoclast for the team-first ethos of college golf. At the airport after signing DeChambeau, Gregory was told by one of his peers: “Good luck dealing with that kid.”
Three years later, using single-length irons and a putter that looked like a chalkboard eraser, DeChambeau won the NCAA title.
“I knew deep down it would work,” Gregory said by phone Monday. “When you have that much belief in something, it almost has to. It proves there’s more than one way to do it.”
Because of his unorthodox swing, and his unconventional approach, and his visibility on TV, DeChambeau has become an easy target. He’s only partly responsible. For the past three years, the brainy 23-year-old has fascinated local and national reporters, and so each time they ask him what he believes, and why he plays the game this way, he answers openly and honestly and authoritatively, speaking in the language – science – that is most comfortable.
Unlike many of his contemporaries who are just trying to find their footing in pro golf, DeChambeau isn’t afraid to dream big – “There’s an easier way out there, and people just haven’t figured it out yet” – and the attention he garners can lead to both skepticism and jealousy.
Every week, there’s another insult, another slight, another jab at his quirky methods. Just last week at the John Deere, someone in the crowd mocked him: “Go back and get your old clubs.” He says it doesn’t bother him. He says he’ll just remind himself that this is the road he has chosen, that it’s going to be the right move in the end. But almost no one on Tour endures this type of weekly abuse.
“He’s under a lot of pressure,” said Padraig Harrington, who has long bucked convention himself. “There’s no doubt when you do something different, everybody’s watching. I won’t say they’re hoping you fail, but they’re certainly watching and putting pressure and expectation on somebody who’s out there changing things or changing the game. So clearly he’s dealt with that for a long period of time, and it must make you very self-confident. That’s the biggest key to being a good player.”
Even DeChambeau had his doubts. Of course he did. That’s the downside of a trial-and-error approach – not every swing thought or putting stroke works. This spring, while experimenting with a longer backswing to hit the ball farther, DeChambeau missed seven consecutive cuts. “I was trying to understand my swing a little more,” he said, “and was messing around with some things.” But there were consequences to all of that tinkering. Just a month ago, he sat at No. 141 in the FedExCup standings, in danger of being sent back to the minors.
“It would have been easy to say, Do I belong? Can I make it out here?” Gregory said. “But he has the ultimate conviction in his game.”
Once DeChambeau went back to the swing that performed so well in college, the one that propelled him to become just the fifth player to sweep the NCAA and U.S. Amateur titles in the same year, he has been on an upward trajectory, with three consecutive top-20s. Even when DeChambeau’s straight-armed, one-plane swing gets off-kilter, he believes that he has one of the most repeatable actions on Tour. “There aren’t many moving parts,” he said. Last week, he hit every fairway in Round 1. He hit all but one green with his 7-iron-length irons in the final round. But his ball-striking isn’t the biggest difference-maker.
“Your technique makes very little difference to how you play golf,” Harrington said. “Your technique defines what your potential is. Your mental game defines what use you make of it. I don’t see anything better about his technique or worse than anybody else. But I’m saying that because he’s different technically, he must be strong mentally. And that’s the biggest bonus of being different.”
In the summer of 2015, when DeChambeau was at the height of his powers, a prominent college coach told me: “In five years, Bryson will either be No. 1 in the world or in a straitjacket.” The former scenario is probably unlikely, considering the depth at the top of the rankings. But the latter won’t happen either, not after he proved that His Way is good enough to win in just his 35th pro start on Tour.
“I think this will give him that inner peace,” Gregory said, “and I think this will do a lot for his reputation as a player and as a person. It will give him the confidence that he belongs, but I’ve always told my players that I want them to be inwardly cocky and outwardly humble. Sometimes it’s been the opposite with him. He wants so badly to prove somebody wrong and validate that this can work that it eats at him. It can rub people the wrong way, but he just wants to win so badly.”
And now he has, in spectacular fashion. It’s time to dream even bigger.