ORLANDO, Fla. – Seventy-two competitors entered the ring Sunday at Bay Hill Club and Lodge. Most of them exited beaten, battered and seeing stars.
“Everyone sort of is feeling it,” said Rory McIlroy after a closing 76 that included five bogeys, a double and more than a few bruises.
“I kind of want to go break something,” added Jordan Spieth, whose head was spinning following his final-round 75.
“In all honesty, if I was at home I would sit back and crack open a beer and watch it,” said Paul Casey, who also finished in 74 and probably needed something stronger.
The final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational, which featured high winds, cool temps and lots of carnage, likened more to a pay-per-view boxing match, with its 75.5 scoring average ranking it the second toughest Sunday in tournament history, only behind the 79.1 clip in 1980 when Dave Eichelberger won by three shots in below-freezing temperatures while wearing two pairs of pants, four sweaters and some panty hose.
Sunday’s champion slipped into only one sweater, albeit an extra-large, red cardigan that barely buttoned up for golf’s own heavyweight champion.
Bryson DeChambeau countered Bay Hill’s countless jabs with knockout blow after knockout blow. He raised both hands in the air like Rocky Balboa after two straight days of carrying the lake and hitting it inside of 90 yards at the 555-yard, sixth hole. And when the final bell had rung, DeChambeau was the last man standing on the 18th green, a one-shot winner over Lee Westwood, the wily veteran who had put up his best fight.
“I'm not going to go out there and go blow for blow with him,” Westwood said afterward. “Some people can do that and will do that, but that's the way for me to play myself out of a tournament.”
It certainly was quite the juxtaposition in the final pairing: the 27-year-old DeChambeau opposite the 47-year-old Westwood. Youth against experience. Protein shakes versus pinot noir.
Westwood entered the final day one clear of DeChambeau, who had spent the night before banging balls into darkness on the range and putting under a spotlight. The overtime practice seemed all for naught initially, as DeChambeau sent a drive right of right on the opening hole – narrowly avoiding O.B. – and made bogey.
“Uh oh, this is not going to be a great day,” DeChambeau said to himself. He later added: “After that I buckled up and saddled up, and I was able to push through it and not make another mistake, really, the rest of the round.”
Just keeping fighting. Such was the message from Tiger Woods, the injured superstar who had sent DeChambeau a text earlier that morning.
If DeChambeau’s U.S. Open victory last September at Winged Foot failed to silence every doubter of DeChambeau’s extreme chase for speed and distance, the few stragglers were hushed on Sunday. DeChambeau led the field in strokes gained: off-the-tee, gaining more than seven strokes on the field, and ranked tops in driving distance, averaging 304.9 yards on a tight layout that demands several irons and fairway woods off the tee.
His moonshots on the sixth hole during the weekend were spectacles of their own. Sunday’s power poke traveled 377 yards before landing in a bunker 88 yards from a back flag – and 168 yards ahead of Westwood’s tee ball.
“I wanted to reintroduce myself when I got to the green,” quipped Westwood, who earlier after hitting his drive threw his hands in the air in a playful ode to DeChambeau, the Tour’s king of pop. “I thought he may have forgotten who I was.”
DeChambeau missed the green with his second shot before matching Westwood’s birdie to keep a share of lead. That was the last circle DeChambeau would mark on his scorecard, as he didn't play particularly sharp with his irons and wedges, but he did also avoid the dreaded boxes. If DeChambeau’s power earned him thunderous roars this week, his touch on the greens earned him the trophy. He ranked sixth in strokes gained: putting on Sunday and didn’t card a bogey in his last 17 holes.
The shot of the tournament was DeChambeau’s 50-foot par save at the par-4 11th hole, where he took too much sand with his third shot from the front greenside bunker and sent the ball tumbling past the hole, muttering aloud afterward, “Worst bunkers on Tour, right there.”
The frustration quickly subsided, and DeChambeau was bulletproof the rest of the way. Westwood made a couple of last gasp efforts, draining long putts for birdie at No. 12 and par at No. 15, but it was his awful three-jack at the par-3 14th and even worse par two holes later that ultimately cost him. DeChambeau, meanwhile, missed a couple of opportunities on the back nine, failing to hole a 15-footer for birdie at No. 15 after muscling a wedge out of a nasty lie and then driving it into a bunker lip at the gettable par-5 16th and making par.
“I get myself in trouble sometimes with the length I hit it and where I hit it,” DeChambeau said, “but I would say that Mr. Palmer probably would like it.”
The late tournament host undoubtedly would’ve approved of DeChambeau’s finish. After battling blustery, U.S. Open-like conditions all day, DeChambeau mustered up enough strength to fly a 7-iron to 20 feet at the 221-yard penultimate hole and then piped a drive on the 458-yard finisher to leave himself just a wedge into the green.
“It had to be done,” DeChambeau said. “I knew I had to stand up and execute three great golf shots.”
Fittingly, once DeChambeau got his 6-foot winner to drop for an 11-under week, he clenched his fists and flexed his muscles, celebrating like the Ultimate Warrior, the wrestler who has been immortalized via GIF.
That was for his fans – and his critics. DeChambeau has been at the center of golf’s distance debate for the past couple of years as he’s pushed the boundaries of equipment and his body. He said Sunday that he didn't think it was possible to "Bryson-proof" a golf course, as it has become evidently clear that thick rough and tight fairways don't work in mitigating great length but rather play into the strong hands of someone like DeChambeau.
No matter what side of the coin you’re on in this speed war, it was hard to deny just how fun the past four days were watching Bryson bash his way around Arnie’s Place.
“Golf's in a healthy place, if you ask me,” Westwood said. “I don't see the big problem.”
DeChambeau projects to jump back to sixth in the world rankings after his ninth professional victory. He also has his eye on Augusta National, promising to do crazy things with a hotter driver that’s longer than the dialed-back version he used this week. But in this moment, DeChambeau could only think about what it meant to win Mr. Palmer’s event, a tournament he played as an amateur and had come oh-so-close twice in the past three years.
Even though he had just barreled his way to a hard-fought victory, DeChambeau saved his softer side for an emotional post-round interview and teary-eyed winner's speech.
“It solidifies that I'm playing with the best of them and I can win with the best of them,” DeChambeau said. “This tournament has been nothing but class every year I've been here, and the best players come to play, and the golf course conditions play like a U.S. Open. I know that's what Mr. Palmer would like, and you have to play boldly to win and I was able to do that."
DeChambeau's bruising performance also borrowed a page from the book of Palmer's father.
As Deacon Palmer once told his son, Arnold: Hit it hard, boy. Go find it and hit it again.