AUGUSTA, Ga. — On Friday, golf’s most digital player found himself lost on golf’s most analog course. Bryson DeChambeau, who relies as much on fact as feel, stood some 20 yards in front of the green on No. 10 and shot his hands into the air. “What the hell?” he pleaded.
DeChambeau entered the second round of the Masters tied for the lead at six–under par. He finished it with a Friday score of 75, a tie for 16th place and what appeared to be a headache. The day began well: He birdied No. 2 and spent most of the front nine at seven under. After he nailed a 314-yard drive on No. 9, he began envisioning the leaderboard: DeChambeau, 10–under par. DeChambeau, 11–under par.
Then his approach sailed 11 yards past the pin. DeChambeau stared, openmouthed, at the flagstick, then at the 8-iron in his hand. His chip shot sputtered out halfway to the hole. He put a 18-foot putt two feet past the hole. At last, he made bogey and stalked off, shaking his head.
“Mind-blowing,” he said afterward. “I execute everything I want to and the result doesn’t show.”
It got worse from there. His drive on No. 10 was true, but the ball picked up mud on the fairway. He tried to cut it up the slope. Instead it hooked into the left rough. He pulled out a wedge and tried to account for six or so degrees of upslope. He needed 33 yards. He ended up with 40.
“It shoots over the green and goes like 60 yards,” he said. “I don’t get it.”
Augusta National is an uncomfortable fit for DeChambeau. This place sometimes stands opposed to progress and stifles individualism. There are no television screens or electronic scoreboards. The club has banned running, crossing the street without specific instructions to do so, the words fan and rough (in favor of patron, preferably capitalized, and second cut) and shouts it deems unsportsmanlike. (These reportedly include “dilly dilly,” which actually seems like a reasonable policy.) The members might as well distribute abacuses along with tickets. Golfers are not permitted to use laser rangefinders, TrackMan devices or even the decidedly low-tech green-reading books, even during practice rounds.
On Thursday, Gary Player, who won here twice, endorsed that particular restriction. “If you can’t read a green, you should be selling beans,” he said. “It’s part of the game.”
It’s not that black and white for DeChambeau. The degree to which he is an iconoclast is sometimes overstated—with exceptions like Justin Thomas, who last summer said that he had no idea which shafts are in his irons, many of these guys are equipment geeks—but DeChambeau enjoys losing himself in the science of his sport. Asked what went wrong on No. 9, he launched into what he surely considered a helpful explanation:
“I think what happened there was that I didn’t catch the proper spin rate. I caught a lower spin rate with a lower trajectory and it just flew right over the green and just kept ascending. Normally we think on a downhill slope to an uphill flag it’s going to go shorter, it’s going to play even more uphill. Clearly the wind must have shifted just a little bit off of the right and not into us, and I drew it with the wind and it actually probably helped it, and then I had a lower spin rate, and it just said, 'See ya later.' Just because of the downslope. Sometimes if I catch it just right it will deflect properly and it will go through the turf with a lot of spin and then if I, if it—well, actually, excuse me. If it deflects, it comes out with a lot of spin. If it doesn’t deflect, I can hit it high on the face and it just seems like it just launches off of that. It’s like I’m hitting a 6-iron off of that.”
If you didn’t understand that, get in line, probably behind some members of the Masters field. At the age of 17, DeChambeau developed his own set of single-length irons. He has calculated, based on what he calls the COR—that’s coefficient of restitution—which flagsticks he should leave in on the green and which he should have removed. And he uses a system called vector putting, which involves using his green-reading book to determine slope percentage, distance from hole and green speed. Only when he has crunched those numbers does he address the ball.
At the Masters, the only tools he is permitted on the green are his eyes. He insisted on Tuesday that he liked the challenge. “It’s kind of fun,” he said, and suggested that developing that skill would make him “really deadly” at other tournaments where the book is allowed. But by Friday he had realized that he has not quite developed it yet. He averaged 1.67 putts per hole (tied for No. 46 in the field) and called his putting “atrocious.”
“It’s not me,” he said of his struggles. “It’s just stuff that we don’t understand. We can adjust for it. Guys who have played well here have the experience of what to do, and I don’t yet.”
This venue, in particular, demands experience. The fairways are wide, but it sometimes seems as if there is not a single flat lie in its 7,475 yards. The greens demand precision and creativity. Phil Mickelson played his 100th round here Friday, but he said he still learns about this course every time he walks it. “You always pick something up here,” he said.
DeChambeau still has plenty to pick up about Augusta National, and about how his own game fits here. Friday’s was his 10th round here. After he finished it, he headed to the practice area, where he spent an hour working on tee shots and putting. He left only when the weather horn sounded and forced everyone indoors, but he vowed as he left to keep practicing at home. This would not be out of character for him: He spent 14 hours at Dallas National last Wednesday adjusting his “spin loft curve,” hitting only 125 balls and observing each one carefully. Back at Augusta National, he paused between shots to evaluate his work. Sometimes, as the course demands, he focused on how he felt. And sometimes, as he prefers, he asked an associate to film him on a smartphone.