Sunday 18 November 2018

The 'mad scientist' of the Ryder Cup

American star DeChambeau proving a special talent by taking eccentric route to success

Bryson DeChambeau: ‘You can say what I do is crazy but at the end of the week I’m the one with the trophy’. Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images
Bryson DeChambeau: ‘You can say what I do is crazy but at the end of the week I’m the one with the trophy’. Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Brian Keogh

The Ryder Cup can be as cruel as the school playground, but if you think Bryson DeChambeau will crumble under the inevitable heckling he'll get for his eccentricities you might be in for a disappointment.

It's easy to dismiss the Californian (25) as golf's equivalent of the 'mad scientist', but in sport's ultimate number game, this former Southern Methodist University (SMU) physics major has proved beyond all doubt that he's a special talent who is unafraid to march to the beat of his own drum.

He's one of just five players - Jack Nicklaus, Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods and Ryan Moore are the others - to win the NCAA individual title and the US Amateur Championship in the same year.

He's also won four times on the PGA Tour since July last year, including back to back-to-back wins in the first two FedExCup events, locking up a Ryder Cup wildcard.

Such claims to fame would be enough for most but that's just the tip of the iceberg when to comes to a player who beat Paul Dunne 3 and 2 in the quarter-finals of that 2015 US Amatur at Olympia Fields outside Chicago with a relentless display of ball-striking and good putting.

He did it using a set of irons that all had 37.5-inch, six-iron shafts marked with lofts rather than numbers.

A close up of Bryson DeChambeau’s irons which are named rather than numbered along with their degree of loft. L-R: They are named Azalea, Keiser, Bad Fitty, Jackie and Tin Cup. Photo: Scott Halleran/Getty Images
A close up of Bryson DeChambeau’s irons which are named rather than numbered along with their degree of loft. L-R: They are named Azalea, Keiser, Bad Fitty, Jackie and Tin Cup. Photo: Scott Halleran/Getty Images

He has a new set now, the King Forged-One Length irons, made for him by Cobra Puma Golf for his debut in the Masters.

They don't have numbers but names, and the wedges are stamped with mathematical formulas.

His three-iron? That's the Gamma, the third letter in the Greek alphabet. The seven-iron? "34-degree, three plus four is seven, OK, and it has Tin Cup because that was Tin Cup's favourite club."

And so on.

Mr Innovator: Bryson DeChambeau putts during the Tour Championship with his straight-arm style. Photo: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports
Mr Innovator: Bryson DeChambeau putts during the Tour Championship with his straight-arm style. Photo: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

He built his first set of single-length clubs when he was 17 after his coach, Mike Schy, gave him a copy of "The Golfing Machine" by Homer Kelley, which is one of two books that have become the centre of his belief system. The other is Vector Putting by H.A. Templeton.

He devoured Kelley's book - a cult classic for golfing eccentrics like Mac O'Grady - with the section on "Zero Shifting Motion" in Chapter 10, particularly "the first variation, component A", his inspiration for playing with irons that are all one length.

All the clubs had to have the same swing weights (278 grams), so he had the pitching wedge ground down and added lead tape to other clubs to make them match up, each with 72-degree lie angles, 10 degrees more upright than standard.

The list of what makes him different is growing daily from the Hogan-style flat cap (sponsored by Kangol), his ability to sign his autograph backwards with his left hand - "if I wanted to learn Arabic or Russian, I could," he told Golf Digest. "Or tie my shoes in a new way, I could. Why? Dedication."

DeChambeau’s irons, which are all the same length, by comparison to his driver
DeChambeau’s irons, which are all the same length, by comparison to his driver

According to the growing list of DeChambeau-isms, he didn't want to ask his parents for $200 for a textbook but copied out all 180 pages by hand to help him better understand it.

He's been pulled up twice by the USGA for pushing the envelope when it comes to the rules of the game; early in 2017 because his centre-shafted side-saddle putter was ruled non-conforming; then last July, when the USGA barred his use of a protractor (compass) to accurately pinpoint the pin positions on his greens book as a violation of Rule 14-3a referring to "unusual equipment."

He sheepishly confessed during that 2015 US Amateur to mimicking Ben Hogan by floating golf balls in Epsom salts to work out which ones had been manufactured with the perfect centre of gravity.

Just last week he was having a helper spray water on his golf balls as he tested on the driving range at East Lake to simulate morning dew.

Like our own Pádraig Harrington, lazily pigeon-holed as bonkers because there's no gadget, drill or technique he won't try no matter how silly it might make him look, DeChambeau's self-belief remains unshaken, even if his confidence and occasional missteps are perceived as arrogance.

That was clear after he stuck to his guns during a fraught, 38-event period from his fourth-place finish on his professional debut in the 2016 RBC Heritage to his first PGA Tour win in the 2017 John Deere Classic, he missed 20 cuts, withdrew twice and won a Web.com Tour event.

"Crazy is a relative term, you know," the world No 8 said after his win in the Northern Trust last month. "You can say what I do is crazy, but at the end of the day, I'm the one with the trophy this week."

Harrington has watched DeChambeau's progress with interest and what he sees is not merely a tinkerer whose work ethic and single-minded determination matches his own, but a player who's been forced to build up huge mental strength, which is nothing but a bonus.

"There's no doubt when you do something different, everybody's watching," Harrington told Golf Channel last year. "I won't say they're hoping you fail, but they're certainly watching and putting pressure and expectation on somebody who's out there changing things or changing the game.

"So clearly he's dealt with that for a long period of time, and it must make you very self-confident. That's the biggest key to being a good player.

"Your technique makes very little difference to how you play golf. Your technique defines what your potential is. Your mental game defines what use you make of it.

"I don't see anything better about his technique or worse than anybody else. But I'm saying that because he's different technically, he must be strong mentally.

"And that's the biggest bonus of being different."

Irish Independent

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