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In defence of Bryson Dechambeau: the 2020 US Open champion

Bryson Dechambeau's US Open victory may be one of the most dominant golfing performances in the last decade. So why are fans unhappy with the winner? Ben Winstanley takes a look at the facts, and comes up with a few uncomfortable truths…

Bryson Dechambeau US Open winner 2020, Winged Foot 18th green

Let’s address this right now: why don’t you like Bryson Dechambeau? Why doesn’t golf in general? Think about it. And, no, you’re not allowed to say it’s because he wears a silly hat.

It was fascinating to see the number of players, pundits, and casual golf fans speak out against the newly crowned US Open winner as if his six-shot romp on one of the hardest courses on the planet should be tempered by his apparent personality flaws.

“He isn’t my cup of tea… but huge respect for winning,” Ian Poulter tweeted, the pot calling the kettle black without a hint of irony.

Or how about golf ‘fanalysts’ No Laying Up, who wrote: “What a round of golf. *Almost chokes on vomit* What a deserving champion.”

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Or even Rory McIlroy, a full 12 shots behind the winner, who shook his head in his press conference and said: “Look, he’s found a way to [win]… whether that’s good or bad for the game, I don’t know.”

Golf is a simple enough sport at its core – get the ball into the hole in the fewest number of shots – and yet here we have prominent voices in the game all expressing their dismay at a player besting the field by a margin completely fair and square. In McIlroy’s case, even questioning whether the integrity of the sport is at risk. What gives?

Dechambeau famously has a degree in physics and takes a uniquely scientific approach to the game of golf. His experiment, in his own words: “Can I execute the shot more repeatedly than anyone else?”

Validation sure tastes like protein shake

He uses a host of gadgetry such as launch monitors and pressure pads to gain insight into every last detail of his swing. He putts using an unconventional arm-lock technique that has transformed him from being statistically poor on the greens to being one of the top-ten best putters on the PGA Tour. He uses irons that are all the same length. He deliberates over green and yardage books before taking each shot. He's a bit of a geek, in short, and an awkward one at that.

Earlier this year, in his boldest move to date, he gained almost two stone during Lockdown in an effort to hit the ball significantly further: he’d crunched the numbers, and length off the tee was the key to winning more golf tournaments.

Well, since Lockdown he’s won a PGA Tour event, tied 4th in the PGA Championship, and won his first major – validation sure tastes a lot like protein shake, wouldn't you say?

The story of Dechambeau’s US Open victory revolves around the hallowed Winged Foot golf course on which it was hosted. Heavily penal rough mixed with long narrow fairways was supposed to put a premium on driving accuracy. Members were thirsty for a bloodbath, while a war of attrition was touted by many.

Where some erred caution off the tee, however, Dechambeau spied opportunity: “It was a tremendous advantage [to hit it long]. I kept telling everyone it was an advantage… they just made the fairways too small this week to have it be an advantage for guys hitting fairway.”

He was right. Only 39.6% of fairways were hit by the whole field and, lo and behold, the bombers in the field were able to get the ball in and around the greens with their second shots while those further back tended to compound the issue when making mistakes.

Golf’s ‘mad scientist’ added superb iron striking across the 72 holes, and a final-round putting masterclass to streak away from the field. In the end he’d simply beaten the tournament organisers at their own game.

Dechambeau has exposed the modern game's failure to disincentivise hitting it as far as possible

And perhaps herein lies the problem. Dechambeau may have his faults, but his greatest flaw is in exposing the modern game's failure to disincentivise hitting it as far as possible. Purists like Rory McIlroy (funnily enough a big hitter in his own right) worrying about what’s best for the sport may do better to direct their contempt towards the PGA and R&A who have allowed driver distance to proliferate unchecked for more than a decade.

The first line of defence on classic course designs is supposed to be in strategically placed bunkers, green complexes that require shots from a certain quadrant of the fairway, and hole layouts that put an emphasis on being able to turn the ball left and right. But why bother being drawn into a cautious chess match when you can simply bang it over all the trouble and hit a wedge from wherever you land? 

Tiger Woods may have been the catalyst for a new generation of super-athletic golfers who can all hit it long, but Bryson Dechambeau might just be the destination: an already excellent player who has carefully considered the facts as they are and fully committed himself to exploring their maximum potential. Science has bested artistry, at least for now; that's not Dechambeau's fault, that's golf's.

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Just look at the previous three winners of the US Open: Gary Woodland (swings like a baseball player, hits it miles), Brooks Koepka (built like a brick shithouse, hits it miles), Dustin Johnson (extremely athletic, hits it miles). The only difference with Dechambeau is he gained his superior yardage through an immense body transformation, as opposed to being naturally blessed with comparable strength as the above names.

We should be applauding this innovator for playing the sport his own way, while at the same time seeking to reestablish golfing flair as a core skill in the modern game. 

There’s only a month left until Augusta, but Dechambeau’s next move is to test a 48” driver shaft (the longest currently legal), and bulking up even further: “Hopefully to hit these drives 360-370 [yards], maybe even further, who knows?” Like it or not, until golf's governing bodies wake up, there’s only one way to find out.

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