NASSAU, Bahamas – It’s 6 o’clock at Albany Golf Club, and the beautiful orange sky has given way to the black of night. It’s been dark for half an hour, and 17 of 18 players in the elite field at the Hero World Challenge long since have left for the day. One remains.
Casting a tall shadow on the practice tee 15 yards in front of the bright headlights of a golf cart, Bryson DeChambeau is still hard at work. He’s hitting golf balls that nobody really can see, but he feels them, and every single one has a purpose. Those that he doesn’t strike just right get a complete and thorough analyzation before the club is drawn back again.
Every. Single. Shot.
DeChambeau was here at the Hero a year ago, but he was ranked 99th in the world and shuffling through the soft sandy pathways off the sides of holes as a member of Tiger Woods’ gallery. There was purpose in that, too. He already was thinking about making this year's field.
“There’s a reason why I’ve gone to certain places at certain times in my life: to gain experience, to understand what it’s like to be a top player in the world, to do these things to allow me to eventually be in these positions of high esteem,” DeChambeau said. “So, the reason I went to the Ryder Cup in 2016 [at Hazeltine National in Minnesota] was that I wanted to be on the Ryder Cup in 2018. The reason I went here last year was because I want to be here this year.
“So, getting experience, understanding these positions and angles, there’s a reason why I do these things. It’s not all haphazard.”
Nothing about his life comes without some sort of deeply thought-out road map. DeChambeau is back at Albany again, this time on the "other" side of those thin green and yellow gallery ropes. He comes to Hero at No. 5 in the world, a gargantuan leap from a year ago, having won four events in 2018: Memorial, Northern Trust and Dell Technologies last season, and the Shriners in Las Vegas to start anew in this season's fall wraparound schedule. He has won three of his past five starts. That's Tiger-like.
DeChambeau had won (John Deere) in his first full season, in 2016-17, but more often than not, his game was a mess. He said he got to chasing rabbits down rabbit holes. He made 31 starts as a rookie and missed the cut more than half the time (16). A terrific learner, and incredibly driven, DeChambeau became so much more consistent in 2017-18. He made 26 starts and missed two cuts.
“Some people call it sauce, right?” DeChambeau, two months past his 25th birthday, says with a grin. “That secret recipe, that perfect sauce that highlights your game.”
Much has been made about DeChambeau’s eccentric and scientific ways. The Mad Scientist, right? He’s a physics major out of Southern Methodist who is highly intelligent, and it’s clear on the golf course that his mind never takes a break. His practice session in the dark on Thursday after his opening-round 70 at Albany (scores) includes a barrage of thoughts, theories and adjustments. On this night, he is tinkering with the position of his right wrist shortly after takeaway and into impact, hoping to stabilize it to keep his right elbow from “floating.”
“When I change the path,” he said to himself, looking into the black of sky, his brain spinning to solve the swing puzzle, “I don’t get the same sensation of input.”
Whereas most players just get through a bucket at the end of the day – or maybe don't hit balls at all – DeChambeau rides the highs and lows of every swing, trying to chase perfection in a game that simply doesn’t allow for it.
Some of his phrases, which he sprinkles as he converses with caddie Tim Tucker, are right out of a science lab. They include “depth of radius” and “critical failure.” In truth, DeChambeau is striking the ball so effectively since breaking through in a playoff at Memorial last summer (a week when he did not hit it great, but putted magnificently) that a 315-yard drive that wanders just 15 yards right, to him, feels like a huge miss.
When he hits a bad shot, whether he’s on the practice tee or in the middle of his round, he runs through a long mental checklist to figure out why the ball traveled where it did.
“It’s deep, and those are my secrets,” he said. “After a bad shot, I’ll go, What happened? What are the one or two things that happened for that bad shot? Is it a chunk and the ball started left and it had a hook on it? From those 3D dynamics, I know how to move my body and how to stabilize it.”
He realizes that all of this stuff sounds like a foreign language to the mortals around us who delight in trying to crack 90 on a good day. (At one point, he turns, smiles, and says, "You probably think this is all hocus locus.") But he has huge aspirations. With five PGA Tour victories already under his belt, as well as a first Ryder Cup appearance, he aspires to be great. Certainly, he doesn’t lack for work ethic and desire. Goals for 2019 include making Tiger Woods’ Presidents Cup team and preparing better for the majors. At the biggest stages, he simply wants to shine.
As complicated and scientific as he can make the game appear to be, he also is able to boil things down to the simple basics. Like the rest of us, he said he becomes “a mental midget” when he’s not neurologically comfortable over golf shots.
It’s all about how he applies force to the club, he says. Asked to elaborate, he won’t. It’s part of the secret sauce that has built him into another uber-talented 20-something to watch closely in 2019.
Zooming from No. 99 to 5 in the Official World Golf Ranking in a year’s time makes him proud, as it should. And being No. 1 one day soon is something he thinks about a lot.
He’s not over the top about it. For all of his success, he does a nice job of staying humble.
“It makes me realize how far I have come from really nothing, a kid from Fresno, Calif., just working my butt off to be the absolute best, not knowing if I could do it,” DeChambeau said. “That’s where that passion and drive come from, because I understand where I’ve been.”
It’s all part of the secret sauce. Just don't ask.
Jeff Babineau is a former president of the Golf Writers Association of America who has covered golf since 1994, writing for such publications as The Orlando Sentinel, Golfweek and Golf World. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @jeffbabz62