Sunday 18 August 2019

'Mad scientist' DeChambeau frustrated by own shortcomings

After a leaderboard-topping 66 on Thursday, DeChambeau’s second round disintegrated between holes seven and 12 with three bogeys and a double-bogey at the 10th. Photo: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson
After a leaderboard-topping 66 on Thursday, DeChambeau’s second round disintegrated between holes seven and 12 with three bogeys and a double-bogey at the 10th. Photo: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson

Paul Hayward

Described by Augusta as "an outlier by accomplishment and choice," Bryson DeChambeau is a hell of a lot more eccentric than that euphemism suggests.

Take, for example, his account of practising on the eve of the Masters: "I stayed there for 14 hours on Wednesday hitting 125 shots on this system trying to figure out what was happening with the wedges, and we knew it was something in regards to the spin loft curve and us being on the wrong side of the spin loft curve."

Or take his thoughts on slow play: "One piece of information that a lot of people miss is the walk to the ball. There's a three-minute walk, a 2ƒ-minute walk. You can gain a lot more time by walking 15 seconds quicker to the ball than you can by five seconds over a shot."

Or consider his rumination on leaving the flag in the hole when putting: "If the flag isn't sitting in the cup all the way and it has some wiggle room and it's blowing towards you, there will be certain times where I will pull the flag out just because the geometry doesn't work at that point and the physics don't work at that point."

By now you will see where the nickname 'the mad scientist' came from. Not that golf is a perfect-ible activity. After a leaderboard-topping 66 on Thursday, DeChambeau's second round disintegrated between holes seven and 12 with three bogeys and a double-bogey at the 10th.

But eccentrics have prospered at August of late. Bubba Watson, who has never had a golf lesson and is so prone to lachrymosity that 'Blubba' seems a better moniker, won the Green Jacket in 2012 and 2014. Patrick Reed, the defending champion, is also hardly a conformist. Danny Willett (2016) and Sergio Garcia (2017) are also unconventional sorts.

DeChambeau, meanwhile, is what Nasa would come up with if asked to build a golfer.

The 'low' (or leading) amateur at the 2016 Masters, DeChambeau was easy to dismiss as a refugee from The Great Gatsby. Certainly his name and wardrobe choices suggested a dilettante. But five wins fired him from No 62 to six in the world rankings and on Thursday night he led the Masters field with Brooks Koepka. Amusingly, DeChambeau was denied an eagle on 18 that day when his second shot bounced off the flagpole, one of the many things in golf he fixates about.

These are not trivial issues for the 25-year-old, who was pressed this week on the advantages of leaving the flag pole in.

He said: "I think there's a visual benefit to it. You think about if anyone ever put a coffee mug on a green and they are putting to it. It seems that you can almost hit that coffee mug all day long, if it's above ground. As soon as you put something into the ground, it's like, I've got to hit it softer and let it fall in. So there's also the psychological and visual aspect that's a benefit, as well as the geometry."

Probably no other elite golfer thinks this way. And DeChambeau's biggest scientific twist - irons of equal length - is endlessly fascinating to golf anoraks. He made the change in 2011.

"I developed something called the one-plane swing," he said. "I mean, a lot of people have talked about a one-plane swing, but in my one-plane swing we look at a camera perfectly on that plane and see if it's travelling up and down. We saw that when I switched from pitching wedge to nine-iron, eight-iron, seven-iron, six-iron, the line changed, obviously. And so the plane had to change."

So DeChambeau tried to make every club feel like a seven-iron. His career took off. This week he fiddled again with his wedges at a course that denies players green maps.

"I have to practise a lot more hitting breaking putts because I can't just bring out my compass and go, 'oh, it's three percent and here it is'," he said. "I have to look at it and walk around and go, 'OK, I'm acclimated to three per cent.'"

This will sound crackers to all but the most obsessive, techy golf fan. DeChambeau even sprays salt on his practice balls to see how they respond to being wet from the rain.

"That's going to affect the way the ball reacts on the face," he reasoned. "You know, there's a percentage to that, and we have to account for that. If you don't, you're going to hit it to 30, 40 feet, instead of 10 feet."

The more he talks this way, the more compelling it becomes, and the more you wonder whether a golf science professorship might be a better occupation for him.

But he seems happy in his world, until things go wrong.

In February he attacked a bunker with his wedge and later damaged a practice green at the WGC-Mexico. Physics does not have all the answers, as his second round here demonstrated. His own errors made the scientist mad. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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