DUBLIN, Ohio – It’s decision time for Bryson DeChambeau.
Walking to the fifth tee Wednesday at Muirfield Village, he threw up his hands in mock disgust. He scanned his obstacle, up and down, taking it on in his mind. There was a small tree, maybe 25 yards ahead of him. He could play safely. Hit 5-wood or 4-iron off the tee. Have a mid-iron into the green. Two-putt for birdie, or perhaps roll in an eagle.
Or, he could wail away on driver, his favorite toy, his most lethal weapon, and leave himself only a flip wedge into the 527-yard par 5.
And so that’s what he attempted in a practice round here with Tiger Woods.
“Here’s the heater, Tiger,” DeChambeau said, goading arguably the greatest golfer of all time.
Deep exhale. Hat readjustment. A few more twitches, getting his muscles ready to fire.
After the explosive impact, DeChambeau grunted like he’d just finished his final bench-press set. He glanced down at his ubiquitous launch monitor and then strode off the tee box. “195, there we go,” he woofed, referring to his ball speed.
His tee shot sailed over that measly little tree, over the fence, over the dogleg and ... into parts unknown. He couldn’t find it. Only later did he learn his ball one-hopped into the pond that bisects the fairway, a carry of roughly 350 yards.
Was it worth it? He’s still crunching the numbers on that. But the answer seems obvious. No chance. A push: out of bounds. A pull: water or trees. A slight miss: a sidehill lie with rough so juicy he might not be able to hold the firm green, even with a wedge. Grabbing driver would just be for show. For his ego. But they’re questions he didn’t even need to ask last year, or in 2018, when he won here at The Memorial.
“It’s going to play a little differently for me this year,” he said, “and I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
Other than the sport’s return amid a pandemic, DeChambeau’s length and body transformation have been the talk of the Tour this summer. Doubters have become believers. Marathon range sessions have become appointment viewing. The increased attention has inspired cynicism and jealousy, but his early results are indisputably impressive: seven consecutive top-8 finishes, on a variety of courses, including a victory in his most recent start.
“Bryson was able to use the time off in a way that I don’t think anybody could have envisioned,” said Tour commissioner Jay Monahan, “and what he’s done has been remarkable in a short period of time.”
And now DeChambeau heads to a big ballpark that, at least on the scorecard, should suit him best. Colonial, Harbour Town and TPC River Highlands all checked in at less than 7,200 yards. He played Detroit Golf Club after hearing that it’d be conducive to his brawny style of play, and after a practice round, he apologized to the late Donald Ross – he was about to turn the classic course into a pitch-and-putt. And that he did, leading the field in both driving distance and putting on his way to a resounding win, his first on Tour in 20 months.
“More power to him,” said world No. 1 Rory McIlroy. “He’s making golf interesting, and he’s certainly getting people to talk about him. He’s won already, and he’s played some good events and been in contention, so it’s working for him.”
Muirfield Village is set to play at 7,456 yards, and a player of DeChambeau’s immense length can fly trouble that the majority of the field must play around. For the first two rounds he’ll be alongside defending champion Patrick Cantlay and last week’s winner, Collin Morikawa. Neither is short. Last season, Cantlay ranked inside the top 25 in driving distance, averaging 305 yards a pop. But Cantlay anticipates that he’ll play at least second into every hole.
“I’m expecting him to hit it far,” Cantlay said. There are even a few holes (such as the 13th and 17th) that actually give DeChambeau a “double advantage” – meaning, not only can he fly the bunkers, but then the fairway widens and a downslope will accentuate his advantage. With the right wind conditions, DeChambeau said the water on 17 could come into play. It’s 440 yards away.
“I’m excited,” Cantlay said. “I’ll see it in person, and I’m sure I’ll be impressed at how far he’s hitting it.”
But, in person at least, the stunning part isn’t so much the distance – which is awesome – but rather the accuracy. There’s little shape to the shots. They rocket off the clubface and then hang in the air for six, seven, eight seconds before ever-so-gently falling left or right on the descent. Swinging with that speed, with that ferocity, you’d expect the occasional foul ball.
“But the harder I swing,” he said, “sometimes the straighter it goes, and that’s been a tremendous benefit of being able to play out here.”
Throughout DeChambeau’s career there’s been little reason to be self-conscious about his length off the tee. Even as an amateur he developed two driver swings: the control (with 112-mph clubhead speed) and the crank (127), the latter of which was capable of flying 340 yards. McIlroy remembers glancing up at the stat tracker on the range last year at The Open. DeChambeau’s drives registered ball speeds in the 190-mph range. “He’s always had the speed,” McIlroy said. Now, the added mass has given DeChambeau a little extra boost, pushing his “fairway finder” to 185 mph and the “crank” to 195. “I’ve just moved the curve to a higher ball speed,” he said.
It can’t be easy to play with DeChambeau these days. Not only does he unleash game-changing length that can make opponents feel inadequate, but he also provides running commentary, like when he talks through some silly carry numbers with caddie Tim Tucker (347!), or boasts when he truly catches one (“Oh, I killed it”).
His launch monitor provides instant feedback. “So bad,” he groaned on the sixth hole Wednesday, as his ball seared through the bright blue sky. Then he glanced down at the numbers. So bad that it still carried 306 yards. So bad that it still finished a pace or two off the center stripe. So bad that he still outdrove Woods’ perfectly-flighted tee shot by 15 yards.
Woods and DeChambeau have played plenty of practice rounds together over the past few years, and, at this advanced stage of his career, Woods is more interested in positioning than power. When asked his initial impressions after their nine-hole practice round, Woods said, "He didn’t really step on any today. He hit a couple good ones, but nothing he stepped on because the front nine doesn’t really allow it.”
Maybe so, but when DeChambeau flushed his second attempt on 6, he was a good 50 yards past Woods. Without stepping on it, apparently.
DeChambeau can’t remember the last time he hit 7-iron into a par 4. He’s hitting mostly 6-irons into par 5s. The next step, he said, is working with his team to fine-tune his wedge play and short irons. He’s average, not great, from 150 yards and in, and he’s forever in that zone with this newfound length. He aspires to feather wedges like Woods and Steve Stricker and Justin Thomas. “If I could gain a little bit of that magic,” DeChambeau said, “that’s just another edge that we’re trying to get at.”
“I know where we’re going to be heading,” he added, but he didn’t want to divulge any more details. Not until he’s ready. Not until the transformation is complete.