In the end, Bryson DeChambeau played the hole that won him the U.S. Open just the way he played the 71 that came before it, and thousands that came before that: He banged his drive into the right rough. Biceps bulging, he hit two of his famous single-length irons to reach the green. He scrutinized his green book, seeming to calculate every possible angle. And then he made his putt, to complete the event at 6 under par, and he doffed his pageboy hat.
Like it or not, the most polarizing player in golf has figured out how to win majors his way. After the win, he sat at the dais and sipped chocolate milk. Someone asked him whether the win validated his approach. “Absolutely,” he said. “And I’m not going to stop.”
At Winged Foot this week, DeChambeau overpowered the conventional wisdom and the golf course.
On Wednesday, USGA officials crowed about the course setup. They believed they had created conditions for a traditional U.S. Open, the kind in which players win with precision and patience, the kind in which attempting to bomb and gouge sends you home on Friday night.
“It requires every shot in the bag,” said CEO Mike Davis. “Accuracy. It requires you controlling your trajectory, your being able to recover, your working your way around the golf course from a course management standpoint.” Senior managing director of championships John Bodenhamer added, “Winged Foot is narrow. And our U.S. Open DNA is about placing a premium on accuracy off the teeing area. We think that's important. We think that premium by driving a player to drive his ball into the fairway and hit his approach shot from the fairway onto these magnificent putting green complexes and keeping the ball below the hole is key.”
DeChambeau scoffed at that. “I'm hitting it as far as I possibly can up there,” he promised. “Even if it's in the rough, I can still get it to the front edge or the middle of the greens with pitching wedges or 9-irons. That's the beauty of my length and that advantage.”
He was right. He hit 23 out of 56 fairways (41%) but led the field in strokes gained tee-to-green, with an average of 5.57 per day. He bombed and he gouged, and he won.
For a while, it seemed Sunday might become a mesmerizing match play between two similar players in the last pairing. Matthew Wolff, a 21-year-old who described his strategy as “rip it and see how it goes from there,” opened the day at 5 under par, then bogeyed No. 3, No. 5 and No. 8 to go to 2 under. DeChambeau trailed him by a stroke, then made birdie on No. 4 and bogey on No. 8. On No. 9, DeChambeau knocked his tee shot 375 yards onto the fairway. Wolff knocked his 389 yards. DeChambeau hit a wedge onto the green. Wolff hit a wedge onto the green. DeChambeau sank his 38-foot eagle putt. Wolff sank his 10-foot eagle putt.
But Wolff bogeyed No. 10 and No. 14 to take himself out of it. Meanwhile, DeChambeau made par after par. Coming into the event, he thought of Phil Mickelson, who famously came within a stroke of winning the 2006 U.S. Open, the last time it was held at Winged Foot. Mickelson often says that he had the best short-game week of his career that week. So DeChambeau, figuring he would spend a lot of time in the rough, practiced getting up and down creatively.
Perhaps his favorite example of his more well-rounded approach, he said after the round, came on No. 14, when his approach landed on the slope to the left of the green. “Just hit it off the top of the face, came out dead and rolled down there to 10 feet, and I made it,” he said. “That was huge. If I don't make that and [Wolff] makes his, you know, we've got a fight.”
DeChambeau became the third player in history (Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods) to win an NCAA individual title, a U.S. Amateur title and a U.S. Open. He became the second player in history (Woods 2000, Woods ’02) to be the only man under par in a U.S. Open.
The performance rendered Rory McIlroy nearly speechless. “I don't really know what to say, because that's just the complete opposite of what you think a U.S. Open champion does,” McIlroy said after finishing tied for eighth at 6 over par. “Look, he's found a way to do it. Whether that's good or bad for the game, I don't know, but it's just—it's not the way I saw this golf course being played or this tournament being played. It's kind of hard to really wrap my head around it.” He added, “I played with him at Colonial the first week back out, but I sort of said, O.K., wait until he gets to a proper golf course. He'll have to rein it back in. This is as proper as they come, and look what's happened.”
DeChambeau gets under people’s skin. Sometimes that’s because they are envious of his talent. Sometimes that’s because he can be a pain in the neck. At July’s Rocket Mortgage Classic, which he eventually won, he got into it with a cameraman for filming him during a bogey and “hurting [his] image.” Two weeks later, at the Memorial, he made quintuple bogey amid a demand for a second opinion from a rules official. When he didn’t like that one either, he lamented, “They’re giving me a garbage ruling like usual.” Two weeks after that, he tried to get relief because he saw an ant.
He has feuded publicly with Brooks Koepka, trading barbs over slow play (Koepka told reporters that DeChambeau’s pace “drives him nuts”; DeChambeau complained that Koepka didn’t tell him to his face) and Koepka’s physique (“In [ESPN's] Body Issue he didn't even have any abs, I can tell you that,” DeChambeau said during a Twitch stream. ‘I got some abs”; Koepka tweeted a photo of his four major trophies. “You were right,” he wrote. “I am 2 short of a 6 pack!”).
DeChambeau is also a 27-year-old who has devoted his life to winning his way. In perhaps the most relatable moment of the week, he video chatted with his parents after the round. “Hey, Mom,” he said tearfully. “Hey, Dad. I did it.” Golf’s mad scientist then explained to them how to rotate their camera horizontally.
He is also just the latest in a string of players who have bent the game to their will. DeChambeau is the culmination of decades of evolution that golf either could not or would not stop: He has long focused on length, and he spent the pandemic-induced layoff putting on 30 pounds in an attempt to give himself a few more miles per hour of ball speed. He currently stands at 6’1”, 230 or 235 pounds (“Depending on if I’ve eaten steak or not,” he quipped, then cackled). He hopes to gain another 10 or 15 pounds by the Masters.
“It's a game that we've really never seen before,” said Harris English, who finished fourth, at 3 over par. “I guess John Daly changed it a little bit during his time, Tiger changed it, and I think Bryson is now changing it again.”
He’s not done. DeChambeau had the longest average drive (322.1 yards) on Tour in the 2020 season. (Tour average was 296.4 yards.) That’s the longest average drive back to at least 1980, when the Tour started tracking such things. He’s added about two yards since he put on the weight. He’s been doing that with the standard 45 ½-inch driver. But DeChambeau is never done tinkering. This week, he plans to start working with a 48-inch driver. He believes he can average 370 yards. Are you really going to doubt him?