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397?! Altitude game returns in Mexico, and no one is happier than Bryson DeChambeau

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MEXICO CITY – The smile etched across Bryson DeChambeau’s face said it all.

The year’s first World Golf Championships event, the WGC-Mexico Championship, returns to Chapultepec Golf Club for the fourth time this week, and the conversations on Tuesday predictably revolved around the layout’s elevation (7,600-plus feet above sea level) and how the thin air makes the silly distances these modern players hit the ball even sillier.

For DeChambeau, who was deep into an intense range session (even by his workhorse standards), the discussion was much welcomed; the combination of science and speculation is like Christmas in February and the SATs all wrapped into one.

“It’s fun for me,” said DeChambeau, the Tour’s resident big brain. “It just makes the golf course super short, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy. That’s a bad correlation.”

With not one but two launch-monitor devices perched around him measuring every swing, DeChambeau crunched the numbers for more than an hour Tuesday morning. They were video-game numbers that defy the laws of what should be possible.

During his trial-and-error session, DeChambeau took a particularly vicious lash at one driver to produce a carry distance of 397 yards. “When I swung it at 187 [mph] ball speed it went 397. It’s completely unrealistic to normal golf, but it’s fun to do. It makes me happy,” he said.

But one man’s fun can be another’s fear.

As entertaining as this week’s mile-high proceedings are to watch for players, those silly numbers add a level of uncertainty to a game that is already riddled with unknowns. Hitting 397-yard drives may be entertaining – and it is entertaining – but the same forces of nature and aerodynamics apply to every shot in the bag, creating an unsettling guessing game.

“It all depends on the day, one day it could be 9 percent longer, the next day it could be 12 percent,” DeChambeau explained. “It can also depend on the club. Launch angle and spin matter, as well. For some people, it’s going to affect it more. Some people it’s going to affect it less.”

Count Gary Woodland among the latter. The Kansas native grew up hitting low shots in the wind, but low shots with less spin don’t enjoy the same amount of thin-air benefits. While he acknowledges hitting 355-yard drives can be an “ego boost,” there is a cost.

“If I’m sitting there and I hear 215 [yards] I’m thinking 5-iron, but really I’m hitting an 8-iron, it’s tough,” said Woodland, whose caddie created an altitude table with both 12.5- and 15-percent adjustments for shots of 30 yards all the way to 360 yards. “I want to hear the adjusted numbers. For me, it lets me make a better swing.”

Club selection, shot type and weather conditions can all factor into how much of an altitude boost players enjoy this week, and some guys such as Lucas Glover keep it simple, adding roughly 10-15 percent to each shot.

At the other end of the altitude spectrum are the likes of DeChambeau and Billy Horschel, who explained the adjustment like a bell curve –shorter clubs go an extra 10 to 12 percent, longer irons launch an additional 15 percent, and fairway woods and drivers are similar to the short clubs, adding 10 to 12 percent.

Whatever a particular player’s method, what’s clear is that there is no perfect equation.

“The weird shots are the wedges that you hit and fly 10, 12, 15 yards more than you expected sometimes,” said Collin Morikawa, a Chapultepec rookie playing his first WGC. “You just have to trust it. It is fun because you don’t get to play in these elevations, it’s just something everyone has to embrace. It definitely changes the course.”


How can players prepare for high altitudes in Mexico?

How can players prepare for high altitudes in Mexico?

It also forces a player to change the way they think their way around the golf course perhaps more than any other event on Tour.

“It is fun,” acknowledged Kevin Na before adding a familiar caveat, “but it can be frustrating. You feel like you flush an 8-iron and you hit from 190 yards and it flies 200 yards and I’m in the back over the green. It’s frustrating because at sea level that would never happen.”

There will be a good number of silly shots hit this week and an equal number of double takes as players and fans adjust to what is essentially golf’s version of Coors Field.

Everyone enjoys the thin-air enigma, but those showtime shots also come with an altitude warning: at Chapultepec everything is closer than it appears.