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Game Change

Today’s sports sections overflowed with analysis of yesterday’s US Open at Winged Foot in Westchester Country, New York. The tournament’s final leaderboard reflects the course’s difficulty, which might have been coverage enough. However, because Bryson DeChambeau won, the golf world is currently more a flutter than usual claiming that DeChambeau has changed the game. I agree he is doing amazing things with his approach to golf, but remain unconvinced of the widespread applicability (i.e., game changing) nature of it.

Bryson Who?

Golf clubs of uniform length.

You’d be forgiven for not readily knowing his name. That is the fate of many golfers. What you need to know is that “The Scientist,” as he is called on the tour, loves applying every equation from his physics background to every variable in golf. He made news a few years ago hypothesizing that clubs of varying length, and the modifications to his swing to accommodate each club, was problematic. His solution was to make all his clubs uniform in length, maintain the exact same swing with each (and thereby reduce the potential for mistakes), and simply modify the club head’s design to replicate what a traditional set of clubs would do. He altered the loft of each club face, made them more upright, and had shafts made from a custom carbon graphite. The clubs and his robot-like repetitiveness led to seven wins on the PGA tour.

Not satisfied, DeChambeua challenged traditional thinking again. He spent much of this year’s COVID-19 quarantine packing on approximately 40 pounds of muscle through a strict adherence to a super-sized, protein-laden diet and zealous strength training. Why? Because Force = Mass x Acceleration, and bombing it off the tee will land the ball closer to the hole in fewer strokes and victories will follow. DeChambeau also went through a significant conditioning for his shoulders, wrists, and other key pressure points because of the added force they were bound to experience from his experiment. The payoff came this weekend as he hoisted the US Open trophy.

Hypothesis proven?

Delta Delta Delta

DeChambeau is on to something, no question. And as a certified geek, I truly applaud his scientific approach to the game. But does his Paul Bunyan strategy constitute a game change? I’m not so sure. How much is he creating a change, or a delta in scientific terms, between where golf is and where it will go?

But game changing elements have to be widely adoptable. Tiger Woods came on to the scene in the late 90s with his explosive, wrench-your-back swing and a level of fitness that was not shared by the wider PGA tour. But it was relatively replicable. Golfers would tweak their respective swings to match Tiger, and they did. And twenty years later, the game shows it. There’s a lot more of Tiger Woods than Sam Sneed on professional and municipal courses.

But it’s not just golf. How much MJ mugging have we seen since that immortal, mid-air layup in which he switched – just as he was about to fall back to Earth – from his right hand to his left? Dunks have become more outlandish spectacles, and everyone wants to “be like Mike.”

Furthermore, just look at how quickly baseball adopted sabermetrics after the “Moneyball” Oakland Athletics relied on stone cold metrics to make personnel decisions. (My beloved Chicago Cubs are still grateful for it.)

For DeChambeau’s regimen to truly change the game, golfers everywhere will have to consume an over-charged keto diet and adopt a religious devotion to strength training. But there is no guarantee this will produce the same results. As I and every tall, lanky person knows well, substantive muscle gain is not always guaranteed regardless of how much iron is pumped or calories consumed. (I’m very aware of how little sympathy anyone has for me on that score.) If anything, Dechambeau’s tinkering with same-length clubs might be more impactful if widely adopted.

Is this the same golfer? (Hint: Yes.)

Further, to be a game changer, you have to win. A lot. DeChambeau did that this weekend, but he needs to be consistent. Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan changed golf and basketball, respectively, because they racked up the hardware time and again. As a result, their approaches to their respective games caught on. Therefore, for DeChambeau to ripple through the sport in an equal way, he’ll have to start racking up the majors the way Tiger has. The Master’s Championship, normally played in April but moved to November this year because of COVID-19, will be Bryson’s next big chance to flex and prove he’s on to something. It’s obviously not his only chance. Other majors will follow, as will victories on smaller-but-still-significant stages. But still, one-offs do not a game change make.

So What?

I enjoy watching DeChambeau play. I wish I had a shred of his golf talent. And while he is pushing his own physical boundaries and bringing the results to the links, let’s be careful with the game changer moniker. I enjoy the hype of a crushed drive off the tee as much as the next person, but let’s be careful with the “game change” moniker and be aware that maybe we’re just desperate for a headline that is not either the current pandemic or presidential election.

And I am not saying DeChambeau is not having impact. I believe his scientific and methodical approach to the game is somewhat revolutionary and people will start paying more attention to that aspect of the game. But it may only go so far. It is one thing to excitedly learn how to replicate tiger’s “stinger” shot, but perhaps less enthusiasm to understand club loft as (5/7 f v sin q). It may be a long time before the links are stretched by hundreds of yards to accommodate an army of hulks. But if they are, I’ll be the first to invest in a new set of uniform irons and a gym membership.



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