A first major is supposed to be transformative. Players are elevated to a higher altitude, not just in their own heads but in those of rivals, fans, and sponsors.
Last week’s triumph at Winged Foot was all that for Bryson DeChambeau but it is the game of golf itself that some would say has gone beyond the point of no return.
DeChambeau’s grip-it-and-rip-it approach to a US Open course designed to neuter the game’s finest with its corset-like fairways and spider-web rough has prompted a form of panic mixed with revulsion. Well, if the barbarians are at at Rome’s gates, then plenty saw them crossing the Alps long before now.
“If you haven’t seen this coming, you’ve been blind,” said Pádraig Harrington. “It’s what Rory and DJ (Dustin Johnson) did, it’s what Tiger did, it’s what Greg Norman did, it’s what Jack Nicklaus did. To play this game, you’ve got to be great off the tee and it’s always been that way.”
Great used to translate as accurate, though.
Harrington is old enough to remember when players were criticised for being too long off the tee. Imagine.
That was in his amateur days and, while Tiger Woods famously reduced the daunting par-five 15th at Augusta National to a drive and a wedge and prompted course designers the world over to cry into their pillows, it was McIlroy’s emergence a decade ago that really started to shift the narrative.
“Last week was not a tipping point,” said Paul McGinley. The difference was, as McIlroy put it, that DeChambeau adopted the ‘might is right’ approach at an event that has always preached caution and didn’t so much get away with it as explode long-held truisms to be pliable guidelines.
With the not insignificant help of some superb approach play and short game, it must be said.
What it stressed yet again were the high odds against a Graeme McDowell or a Jim Furyk matching the game’s longest hitters over a four-day stretch, certainly outside of a links course where the ball bounces, the wind blows, and length’s majesty faces its most unpredictable challenge.
Turns out, though, that accuracy has been overrated as a virtue.
“I went through my stats last year and, of the top 10 players in the world, only one was ranked in the top 100 in driving accuracy,” McGinley explained. “That was Jon Rahm and he was around 88th or 89th. The rest were all outside the top 100. So a lot of this is driven by data and research.”
DeChambeau’s reputation as the game’s mad scientist clearly needs to be revised. The distrust and mockery afforded the Californian’s tinkering and tactical unorthodoxy for so long seems all the more misplaced given the proliferation of stats in the modern game.
McGinley pointed out the work done by Mark Broadie, a researcher and mathematical scientist at Columbia University, and the reams of information being sliced and diced by the likes of 15th Club and a StrokeAverage.com service the Irishman used when Ryder Cup captain.
It’s a cold and calculated approach that has the traditionalists clutching their pearls and protesting that it just isn’t cricket. Maybe, but crunch it all down and the numbers will tell you that the closer you are to the green, the better.
Rough, bunkers, or trees be damned.
Two questions beg answers on the back of this. What can, or should, the game’s guardians do in light of it? And will any attempted curbs actually work given the upward trajectory in things like clubhead speed and the sort of sheer physicality a man like DeChambeau can utilise?
McDowell has voiced his concerns this week that the fear of power and length will see the blame shift to the clubs and the balls. Shane Lowry made the identical point in Galgorm yesterday. Golf “is fine the way it is”, he said, but then players do have lucrative contracts with the companies manufacturing these products.
“Are turkeys going to vote for Christmas? “ asked McGinley. The Dubliner has had his own commercial relationship with TaylorMade since his amateur days in the late 80s but what he does advocate is a collaborative approach that includes the manufacturers, the R&A, and the USGA.
Harrington would look at those inside the ropes rather than anyone outside for the ultimate steer but one of the more intriguing and less dramatic suggestions when it comes to countering the power players came from Nick Faldo who suggested a limit on the height of a tee.
“DeChambeau is teeing it up higher than anyone has ever teed the ball before with tees that are so high,” said McGinley. “So maybe if an inch or two inches was the maximum height, now it is a different scenario because they can’t hit it up in the air the way they could.”
Ultimately, though, nature finds a way. If there is anything mad about DeChambeau’s approach and success it is the fact that he only finished seventh in driving distance at Winged Foot.
Rory McIlroy’s drives were, on average, three yards longer. Dustin Johnson’s were eight. It’s no wonder that the latest major winner is talking about beefing up again.
“In 10 years’ time, there will be an abundance of them out here with 190-200mph ball speed and it doesn’t matter if you dial back the clubhead or dial back the ball,” said Harrington.
“They’ll still be able to do it with a seven iron. If you can swing a seven iron at 110mph there’s not much rough that will hold you back.”
It used to be guys like Bubba Watson and JB Holmes taking the breath away. Both are now drifting down the ladder when it comes to driving distances.
Harrington can see this evolution manifesting itself in even more dramatic ways in the women’s game and believes that the real Big Bang moment will be the point when there is a commercially viable means of selling a product that measures force on the grip and the club as a whole.
When the time comes that this can be mass produced then young and aspiring gofers will be able to adapt their swings on the fly. Put all that together and it seems as if the power game has a way to go before it can really punch it’s weight. DeChambeau’s too.
“With the capabilities at the moment, I would say Bryson is swinging at about, if you compare it to 100 metres, he’d be running at 12 seconds,” said Harrington. “He’s running 100 metres at about 12 seconds at the moment. So he’s still got another 20% more in the tank in terms of human capabilities for other players to come along.”