During an eventful but overall successful week for Bryson DeChambeau, modern golf’s aspiring scientist-pugilist, one of the standout remarks was an apology, albeit tongue-in-cheek. In the lead-up to the Rocket Mortgage Classic, he was “apologizing” for the confidence with which he’d be able to fly the fairway bunkers at the Donald Ross-designed Detroit Golf Club, turning most par fours there into drive-and-pitch situations, negating the classic course's original, strategic intent.
But among people who owe Donald Ross a sincere apology, DeChambeau is at the back of the line.
In fact, he doesn’t even owe Ross an apology in the first place. After all, he’s a professional golfer. It’s his job to figure out how to hit a golf ball fewer times than his opponents over the course of 72 holes. He did that better than anyone last week by three shots. He also became the first-ever PGA Tour winner to average more than 350 yards off the tee.
Bully for him. He spent professional golf’s three-month COVID-19 hiatus packing on the pounds - 40 of them - and powering up his golf swing to an alarming degree. He’s bootstrapped a long-driver’s mentality onto an already well-rounded golf game: swing as hard as possible off the tee, hope to hit some fairways, wedge it close enough and drain some putts. His strategy is not one of course management, but course decimation.
So if DeChambeau doesn’t owe Donald Ross an apology, who does? Who let golf equipment get to the point where swinging at upwards of 130 miles per hour with a driver became not just possible but sustainable? Who needs to act?
Allow me to nominate golf’s governing bodies. Although instead of an apology to a long-dead golf course architect, a bit of present action would be welcome.
For centuries, golf has remained largely unconquerable on a week-to-week basis for even the elite professionals, in part because of a need to balance two often mutually-exclusive disciplines: power and precision. We often think of Tiger Woods as a power player because he cut Augusta National off at the knees en route to his Masters coronation in 1997, but the separator in his game has been uncommonly accurate iron play to match his long-driving capabilities. He won so impressively because he was long and straight.
Over the last four weeks, DeChambeau has successfully rejected the notion that a golfer needs to temper prodigious power with considerable accuracy in order to win at the highest level of the game. Relative to the field, his performance with irons and wedges was mediocre at best. He won with his driver and putter, leading both Strokes Gained categories. Swinging out of his shoes, he still hit 59% of his fairways for the week.
Golf is not one game, but rather half a dozen or more disciplines that need to be put together to produce world-class results. A two-club game should not be sufficient to produce the way DeChambeau has of late, especially on medium-length but architecturally sophisticated courses like Detroit Golf Club, Harbour Town Golf Links and Colonial Country Club.
The debate over golf equipment regulations has heated back up in the wake of the week. The USGA and R&A’s distance report earlier this year pointed toward some potential for a future equipment rollback, and champions of this movement like Geoff Shackelford may be onto something with their suggestions about limiting the aerodynamic possibilities of golf ball dimples. I have also argued for reducing driver head size, in large part because the bomber strategy relies on the remarkable forgiveness that 460cc heads provide on off-center hits. There would be much greater risk to DeChambeau’s titanic lashes at the ball if his driver were, say, 100 cubic centimeters smaller.
Slightly longer or more proper rough and (weather-permitting) firmer greens would force players to play away from the pin on holes where they’d been careless off the tee, which would be a more just result of the cavalier swings. Firmer fairways, to the extent possible, would increase the need to shape tee shots and wouldn't need to be artificially narrowed to test accuracy.
These adjustments would bring more balance to the power/precision dichotomy that makes golf both difficult to master and fun to watch at the highest levels. If DeChambeau’s brutish, go-for-broke style emerges as a clearly superior way to play competitive golf, it will threaten to erase centuries of nuanced and intriguing course design and player craft that have gotten us to this point. That would be a colossal shame.