Bryson DeChambeau entered last weekend’s Rocket Mortgage Classic riding an incredible hot streak: In his previous six tournaments, he had finished fifth, second, fourth, third, eighth and sixth (including ties).1 The only thing he hadn’t yet done this season was win an actual golf tournament, but that came to an end Sunday when he blew past the field in Detroit for a 23-under-par finish that was enough for his sixth professional win.
DeChambeau is the biggest story in golf. And that’s because he’s attempting to become the biggest human in golf. By now, DeChambeau’s weight gain is the stuff of legend: The 26-year-old American began the 2019-20 season noticeably thicker, adding 20 to 30 pounds of muscle by the Presidents Cup in Australia in December. Then when the coronavirus outbreak gave him an additional offseason, DeChambeau did what most all of us did in quarantine: He ate a lot. All told, DeChambeau’s expansive diet, which includes seven protein shakes a day (seven!), and his rigorous weight-lifting regimen allowed him to add some 40 pounds of muscle since last September. The notoriously data-minded golfer viewed this as a calculated experiment to gain a competitive advantage — more bulk means more power and distance off the tee. And at least for now, the experiment seems to have worked.
DeChambeau currently ranks first on the PGA Tour in average yards per drive at 323 yards. The only golfer within 7.5 yards of DeChambeau is Cameron Champ, who is averaging at 322.6. Both golfers are currently challenging Hank Kuehne’s 2003 record average of 321.4 — still the only full season over 320 yards since the Tour started tracking the stat in 1980. But while Champ has been one of the Tour’s biggest bombers — he led the the Tour in distance a year ago at 317.9 yards — DeChambeau was never a mega-hitter. Last year, he averaged 302.5 yards per drive, which was tied for 34th. His best year was 2018, when he hit 305.7 yards per drive (25th best). DeChambeau has improved his average driving distance by 20.5 yards this year — easily the most of any current player.
|Avg. Yards per Drive|
|Player||2019 Season||2020 Season||Diff.|
Looking beyond 2020, DeChambeau’s single-season increase in driving distance is even more impressive. Only three other players have improved their driving distance by more than 20 yards per drive between seasons since 1980, when the Tour began tracking the statistic.
|Player||Year||Avg. Yards/Drive||Prev. Season||Diff|
|Billy Ray Brown||1995||260.0||239.3||20.7|
And unlike DeChambeau, the other players on the above table saw their increases in the 1990s and early 2000s, a period when technological advances allowed driving distance to make its greatest gains of the past 40 years. The sport as a whole was going through a distance boom during this period, in part because of the new equipment and in part because of Tiger Woods, whose ability to gain distance — and thus strokes — off the tee allowed him to dominate the Tour for years while the rest of the field played catch-up. In 2003 alone, the year after Woods collected his seventh and eighth majors, four of Woods’s biggest competitors saw significant gains in driving distance. Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Retief Goosen and Vijay Singh — who began 2003 ranked second, third, fifth and seventh in the world respectively — all saw Bryson-like increases in their driving distance, with each improving by at least 16 yards.
|Player||’03 World Ranking||2002 Season||2003 Season||Diff.|
As you might expect, DeChambeau’s historic power surge has come at the expense of accuracy. Last season, DeChambeau hit 65.02 percent of fairways off the tee, which was 66th on Tour. This year, that number is down to 61.05 percent, which ranks 112th. He likely doesn’t care about that (at least as much as he cares about his tirades being caught on camera, thus damaging his brand). According to strokes gained, which assesses the value of every shot based on how it increased or decreased a player’s expected score on the hole, DeChambeau’s drives helped him gain 0.42 strokes per round on the field last season (which ranked 24th). This year, he’s picking up 1.113 strokes per round on the field through his driving alone, which ranks second behind Champ. Better positioning off the tee has also helped DeChambeau attack the pin. He’s hitting 72.6 percent of greens in regulation this year, up from 66.2 percent, and his ranking in strokes gained “tee-to-green” has improved from 37th to sixth.
DeChambeau’s final two holes on Sunday — when he was chasing off a late bid from runner-up Matthew Wolff — showed the added advantage at work. On the par-5 17th, he uncorked a 355-yard bomb that missed the fairway to the left. Though his ball sat in the rough, it had traveled so far that he needed only an 8-iron to find the green for an eventual birdie.2 It was on the par-4 18th, though, when Bryson fully unleashed the “Kraken” (his expression, not ours). His drive went careening down the left side of the fairway for 367 yards — the longest drive anyone had hit on No. 18 that week and DeChambeau’s longest of the day. He had just an easy wedge left to set up his eighth birdie of the round, which sealed the victory.
If DeChambeau were a right tackle or a power forward or even a third baseman, this would all make good sense. Golfers have gotten much more fit this century, but adding raw muscle mass has never been a clear path to on-course success. If anything, we hear more stories of golfers losing weight to improve their games.
Because DeChambeau’s story is so unusual, there have been a fair number of skeptics. Some, including a few of his competitors, are concerned about the long-term health implications of his weight gain. Golf legend Colin Montgomerie, meanwhile, seems to think DeChambeau’s driver represents an existential crisis for the sport.
Whatever it means, it’s working for DeChambeau now. But he is not a one-trick pony. DeChambeau’s recent success may have just as much do with the short stick as it does with the driver. It certainly did last weekend, when DeChambeau led the field in strokes gained off-the-tee and strokes gained putting, highlighted by a 30-foot birdie on the 70th hole. This season, his putting strokes gained has improved noticeably, from 28th on Tour to 12th. So it’s not all about the long ball for Bryson — but ask any pro golfer, and they’ll tell you that an extra 20 yards of distance per drive certainly doesn’t hurt to have.
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