- In his weekly Monday column, Daniel Rapaport discusses Bryson DeChambeau's fourth win in nine starts, a European Tour controversy, why the Waste Management Open is good for golf and much more.
Bryson DeChambeau stood over his ball in the rough on Sunday, briefly assessed the lie, then turned to his caddie. What followed was an exchange that was equal parts golf, arithmetic and meteorology.
“So it’s 26 air density. “
“26 air density to the flag?”
“So, six, seven short?”
“10% is 12 yards, so…137.”
“Land this five, 10 short.”
“Let’s talk about trajectory here. If it’s high, it’s not going to run out.”
“What’s it to the hole?”
“Natural 29, low air density. 26 air density. O.K.”
“I like just hitting a full 50 degree.”
After all that, a stock gap wedge into the middle of the green. Bryson being Bryson.
This time last year, DeChambeau was coming off back-to-back missed cuts and still trying to find his footing as a professional. Ranked No. 99 in the world, he was known chiefly for his peculiarities. By now, they are well known: his single-plane swing; his swearing by The Golfing Machine: The Computer Age Approach to Golfing Perfection, a book first published in 1969; his irons, which are all the same length; his goofy hat, a nod to Payne Stewart; his use of a geometric compass to aid his green reading; his deep commitment to using physics and biomechanics to improve his on-course performance.
Now inside the world's top five, he’s becoming known for something else: winning.
DeChambeau won the Dubai Desert Classic by a touchdown this weekend, blitzing a solid field with a closing 64 to pick up his fourth victory in his last nine worldwide starts. In golf, there are good stretches and then there are abnormally impressive, everyone-take-notice stretches. DeChambeau’s on one of the latter. He’s accumulated the most world-ranking points of anyone over the last 12 months. Part of that is due to how frequently he plays, but it also speaks to just how well he’s fared in the last year. Here’s the complete list of players with five worldwide wins since the start of 2018: Bryson DeChambeau. That’s it.
Obviously, DeChambeau’s analytical MO isn’t for everyone. Feel-first players like Dustin Johnson and Bubba Watson are never, ever going to discuss air density before hitting a wedge shot. But here’s the thing about DeChambeau’s funkiness: it’s all based in reality. There’s no funny business going on, no witch doctor voodoo, no pseudoscience. Everything is explainable. I received the following text message from a Tour pro on Sunday afternoon: “I have to admit, I kind of like what he does. He’s not wrong.”
You have to think a growing chunk of players are thinking this way. Anytime someone doing things as differently as DeChambeau is having this kind of success, you can’t help but wonder if they’ve cracked the code. No one was working out like Tiger Woods when he took over the sport in the late 90s, but his dominance forced everyone else to re-assess their training and preparation habits. They had a professional responsibility to do so. Within a couple years, basically every Tour player had incorporated fitness and nutrition into their process.
You can’t help but wonder if DeChambeau will have a similarly transformative effect on his peers. Each successive triumph further challenges players to explore whether they can apply some of his principles to better their own games. Don't expect single-length irons to become the new norm, but his pre-shot calculations are absolutely replicable and seem to produce more specific information than anyone else's. He’s already shown he can be a trendsetter—DeChambeau was the first player to say he planned on putting with the flagstick in, aesthetics be damned, and he was virtually the only one doing it in that first 2019 round in Hawaii. Now you’re seeing everyone, even Tiger, leave the stick in more and more.
In a sport where the difference between a multiple major-winner and a journeyman pro is so very small, you simply cannot afford to let anyone else have a competitive advantage. No matter how odd DeChambeau’s methods may seem, the results are speaking for themselves. Loudly and clearly. Now it’s up to his competitors to decide what to do about it.
Yes, the Waste Management Open is #GoodForGolf
It’s time for the biggest party in golf: the Waste Management Phoenix Open, which begins on Thursday. That means it’s also time for the tired debate over whether this event, which features the biggest and most raucous crowd of any golf tournament in the world, is good for the game. Let there be no ambiguity: of course it is.
For a casual golf fan—the guy who will follow the majors and watch whenever Tiger is contention—so many PGA Tour events must blend together. What differentiates the Desert Classic from the Valspar Championship from the Texas Open? There are 40-some odd events per year, and the vast majority of them lack a distinguishing feature. No matter how you feel about Phoenix, you can’t deny it has an identity.
More than 700,000 people came TPC Scottsdale during tournament week last year, making it the best-attended golf event anywhere by a wide margin. While the tournament generally attracts a solid-enough field, it’s not the quality of the players that’s attracting the crowds. It’s the rowdy atmosphere of the event itself, which doubles as a big outdoor party in the dead of winter.
While I don’t agree, I understand why some aren’t the biggest fans of this event. The fratty atmosphere at the enclosed 16th hole is nothing short of a circus. Beer chugging and shirtless men and heckling aren't everyone’s cup of tea. But this event appeals to a larger demographic—think of it as the non-golf fan’s golf tournament. A group of my college friends who otherwise couldn’t care less about the PGA Tour are taking a buddies’ trip down to Phoenix for the tournament this week, and you better believe they’ll be partying at 16.
If golf lovers’ paramount objective is to grow the game, attracting non-diehards to fly across the country to attend an event can’t be seen as anything but a resounding victory. If the cost of that is a bit too much noise on one hole, then so be it.
The European Tour gets it right again
From a strictly on-course perspective, the PGA Tour is unquestionably the premier circuit in the world. It has better fields, larger purses and more prestige than its chief counterpart, the European Tour. That point was hammered home by Rory McIlroy, who did not mince words when he explained why he’s prioritizing golf in America this year.
That doesn’t mean the PGA Tour is superior in every facet, because it’s not. In fact, I’d argue that the European Tour has a much better handle on media relations. Its in-house creative team produces compelling video content—from its 14-club challenge series to interviewing fans about a made-up player to this absolutely hilarious spoof of a media planning sesh—that showcase its players personalities. Simply put, they just seem to get it, and their quick response to a controversy involving Haotong Li was characteristically spot-on.
Some background: On the 18th hole in Dubai on Sunday, Haotong Li had about a two-footer for par. His caddie stood behind the ball to read the putt, which is standard practice, but he failed to walk away before Li approached the ball.
Strictly speaking, that is a violation of the new Rule 10.2b(4):
“Rule 10.2b(4) does not allow a player to have his or her caddie deliberately stand behind him or her when the player begins taking a stance because aiming at the intended target is one of the challenges the player must overcome along.”
So, Li was hit was a two-shot penalty, which dropped him from a tie for third to a tie for 12th and cost him over 60,000 euros. Understandably, the penalty caused quite the controversy, with most rushing to Li’s defense. The caddie didn’t say anything to Li while he was standing behind the ball, and he was only in violation of the rule for a nanosecond. There was certainly no intent of cheating or gaining any unfair advantage.
Instead of staying silent and ignoring a hotbed topic altogether—which was the NFL’s strategy after the non-pass interference debacle in the NFC Championship game—the European Tour had its chief executive, Keith Pelley, issue a wonderfully logical statement:
"Let me state initially that, under the new Rules of Golf...the decision made by our referees was correct, under the strict wording of the rules," Pelley said. "It is my strong belief, however, that the fact there is no discretion available to our referees when implementing rulings such as this is wrong and should be addressed immediately."
That is a masterclass in controversy management. He simultaneously defended his rules officials, made it clear he didn’t think the player was cheating and moved the discussion forward, toward finding a solution rather than harping on the incident.
Take notes, Mr. Goodell.
Let's hold off on the Tiger takes
Every time Woods plays a tournament, there’s a temptation—if not an expectation—to make a wide-ranging conclusion from his performance. If he misses the cut, we suggest he’s dealing with back problems again. If he contends but falters down the stretch, we suggest he’s lost the ability to close out events. If he wins, we suggest he’s about to dominate the entire sport once again.
Sometimes, though, one tournament is just that: one tournament. Not every week is an indictment on the state of his game. His performance at the Farmers Insurance Open is a good example. Woods did some good things—he hit his driver well and shot four straight under-par rounds, including a closing 67. Woods did some bad things—he putted poorly the first three days and had some wild iron misses from the fairway.
That’s it. There was some good and some bad, but nothing so drastic to warrant particular excitement or alarm. In the current media environment of piping hot takes and knee-jerk reactions, that may sound like a cop-out. It’s not. Sometimes there just isn’t a spicy headline to manufacture. This is one of those times. Three meh rounds, one really good set of nine holes, a decent T20 finish. Onto the next one.
• Justin Rose won the Farmers Insurance Open in commanding fashion, making birdie on the 72nd hole for a two-shot victory. This was just his second start with a completely new set of clubs, after the world No. 1 switched from Taylormade to high-end Japanese manufacturer Honma. His swing is so good right now, he could contend with 14 broomsticks of varying lofts.
• There was a ton of debate Sunday as to whether Tiger’s shirt was red or pink. People were legitimately upset at the thought of Woods wearing a non-red shirt during the final round of a golf tournament. Me? I’m colorblind. I recuse myself from this one.
• Only in golf does the most hyped “feud” in recent memory culminate in a hug on the first tee. Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed were paired together this weekend for the first time since Reed’s post-Ryder Cup comments, when he accused Spieth of not wanting to play with him. They literally hugged it out. A fun story while it lasted.
RAPAPORT: Patrick Reed is the Villain Golf Needs
• Here’s a silly thing that needs to end: pretending players won tournaments they didn’t. Tiger won the WGC-Bridgestone at Firestone eight times, but that tournament just moved to Memphis, where it will make its debut as the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational. So now, officially, his Bridgestone victories become FedEx St. Jude Invitational victories. Which is odd, given the fact that Woods has never played in that event. The same is true for Woods’ seven wins at the WGC at Doral, which have since been converted in the record books to WGC-Mexico Championship victories. Tiger is not a seven-time winner of the WGC-Mexico Championship. He’s just not.
• For all my fellow golf architecture nerds: Cavalier Golf Photos (@LinksGems) is an absolute must-follow on Twitter. Jon Cavalier, a freelance golf photographer, posts stunning pictures of holes around the world, often accompanied by explanations of their architectural genius.
The 219-yard 4th at Hidden Creek Golf Club, a Redan par-3 from Bill Coore & Ben Crenshaw: the idea here, as with most Redans, is to work the the ball in from right-to-left and land it on the right edge of the green, allowing the slope the green to bring the ball to the hole. pic.twitter.com/AmTG6WmoUv— Cavalier Golf Photos (@LinksGems) January 27, 2019
Here’s a closer look at the left greenside blowout on the par-4 7th at Sand Hills. It’s enormous. And coming out from the bottom of that pit and trying to stop the ball on that green before it runs through and down the slope us no easy thing. Truly, a great short par-4. pic.twitter.com/s70FSBuUst— Cavalier Golf Photos (@LinksGems) January 27, 2019
The Road Hole at Chicago Golf Club is a 440-yard par-4 anchoring the middle of one of the toughest three-hole starts in golf. Mounds and bunkers are scattered about on both sides of the fairway, while the angled green is likewise well-defended and canted steeply back-to-front. pic.twitter.com/18meMlAUAN— Cavalier Golf Photos (@LinksGems) January 26, 2019
• Tour players and caddies find out about their pairings/tee times via an automated text message from the Tour. You can imagine the excitement when Ben Silverman’s caddie saw this pop up on his phone
• Apparel companies continue to push the envelope, trying to make golf clothes cooler and less stodgy. This week we saw two examples of this, one good and one bad.
The good: this ensemble from Tony Finau.
The bad: this untucked attempt from Rickie Fowler.
I understand what he’s going for—cool, young, un-country club—and maybe I’m old fashioned, but I still prefer golfers tuck in their shirts.