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Taking the long view on golf's power craze

World Golf Championships - Mexico
Bryson DeChambeau (left) and Tiger Woods, pictured last year at the WGC Mexico Championship, represent 2 distinct eras in the PGA Tour’s power game.

Bryson DeChambeau drives the game to new heights, but it’s not much different than what Tiger Woods did a couple of decades ago … just a bit longer

Fire, electricity, flight. All were epic changes to society that made the world a different place.

In the golf world, the last monumental change arguably came when Titleist introduced the Pro V1 ball at the PGA Tour’s Invensys Classic in Las Vegas in October 2000. A solid-core ball has been replicated by every other ball manufacturer to compete against a product that clearly flew farther than the previous wound, liquid-core ball.

It’s possible to point to metal drivers, improved composite shafts and even launch monitors as reasons for the renewed focus on distance, but the ball always has been the focus of why golf-course designs are falling behind technology.

Neither the R&A nor the USGA, golf’s governing bodies, has made any substantive moves to rein in technology. After their most recent distance study, the Distance Insights project, was released Feb. 4, project results have been shelved because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Ultimately, golf’s governing bodies have concluded that the game will best thrive over the next decades and beyond if this continuing cycle of ever-increasing hitting distances and course lengths is brought to an end. Longer distances, longer courses, playing from longer tees and longer round times take golf in the wrong direction. None is necessary to make golf challenging, enjoyable or sustainable.

Yet, Martin Slumbers, the R&A’s chief executive, said in an interview last week with London’s Daily Mail online edition that he is fascinated by the length of Bryson DeChambeau, who leads the PGA Tour at 323 yards per drive.

Slumbers is not fascinated enough to ignore what he believes is the core of golf: the balance of skill and technology.

“I'm not sure I can remember another sportsman, in any sport, so fundamentally changing their physical shape,” said Slumbers, alluding to how the 6-foot-1-inch American added 45 pounds during the recent three-month hiatus, bulking up to 240 pounds. “But what is extraordinary is that Bryson isn't the first one to put on muscle in golf. How he's able to control the ball, with that extra power, is extraordinary. All credit to him. He's a true athlete.”

There was a time when the words athlete and golfer were not used in the same sentence. Tiger Woods went a long way toward changing that perception when he turned professional in the summer of 1996.

In winning three consecutive U.S. Amateur titles, Woods seemingly could do more with a golf ball than anybody else, professional or amateur. He was billed as an athlete when the discussion turned toward the game’s length and high ball flight.

“Hard not to grow up at my age and Tiger not being a big influence on my golf,” 28-year-old Patrick Cantlay said Tuesday at Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio, where he will begin defense of his Memorial Tournament title on Thursday. Cantlay will be paired with DeChambeau and last week’s winner, Collin Morikawa (tee times). “His mindset, more than anything. He has so many intangibles that I really didn't have growing up, how much farther he hit it than everybody else. He hit it much higher than everybody else. He's so much more of a competitor than we've seen in golf before and so much more intense than people we've seen before.”

Woods made working out and creating muscle mass a positive for golfers, with the goal of generating strength and speed.

Woods transitioned his game to new equipment, with the solid-core ball, large titanium driver heads and composite shafts. He struggled at times with injuries because of his desire to gain distance. His body was unable to handle the added speed created by his newly chiseled body.

Woods was longer than his competitors, but the occasional foul ball would cost him. His competitive nature and sterling short game often would compensate, helping Woods amass 82 Tour victories, which ties Sam Snead for the all-time mark.

He sees a similar milepost in the game with DeChambeau.

“He's gotten stronger, faster, bigger, and has created more speed,” Woods said. “But more importantly, he's hitting it farther, but let's look at the fact that he's hitting it as straight as he is. That's part of the most difficult thing to do. The farther you hit it, the more the tangent goes more crooked. So, the fact that he's figured that out and has been able to rein in the foul balls, to me, has been equally as impressive as his gains off the tee distance-wise.”

Woods points to the fact that beyond getting bigger, DeChambeau has gotten longer because of the advent of launch monitors.

Woods recalls that during his early days on Tour, players were learning how to bend clubs on their knee to try and take loft off of a driver.

“Now, you have all these different launch-monitor technologies, and you can send up a whole bunch of balls, figure out the shafts, the conditions that you want to optimize carry.”

DeChambeau has been known to use multiple launch monitors, on the range and also in practice rounds. He found that one monitor provided better feedback for certain statistics and that the additional device was better for reporting other numbers.

For DeChambeau, who studied physics in college at Southern Methodist, numbers and facts matter.

“It's a lot of work on my end, too, to gain strength and to swing it hard, to train,” DeChambeau said. “It's been working out for at least an hour every single day for the past five, six months, fixing my body when it breaks down. I've got to go fix my body and work out and train in the right way to be able to tolerate all these forces going through my body and out of my body.”

DeChambeau said he is trying to maximize his athletic ability.

Which takes us back to Slumbers and his admiration for DeChambeau. Yet, oddly, the R&A and USGA profess a desire to roll back not only the ball but other equipment. Any rollback would not necessarily affect today’s players but future ones.

Cantlay said as much when he said that he didn’t know whether players on the PGA Tour would go to DeChambeau-like lengths to chase distance, but future generations might do it.

“I do think that there's a lot of young kids watching that are maybe in high school or even in college or junior golf that are thinking to themselves, Well, if I can hit it really, really far, there's a definite advantage,” Cantlay said. “So, we might see distance be even more of a factor in five or 10 years, just because of the influence that may have on the younger generation of guys coming up that are in their teenage years right now.”

These words make the columns shake in Far Hills and St. Andrews, with DeChambeau serving as the poster child for change.

DeChambeau plans to dismantle Muirfield Village this week at the Memorial Tournament, reaching places never seen off the tee. He hasn’t needed anything more than an 8-iron since the season restart to reach a par 4. That reality doesn’t seem to faze Muirfield Village’s architect and this week’s tournament host.

“Bryson's golf swing is not a fluid golf swing that really whips the club into the ball,” Jack Nicklaus said during his annual pre-tournament news conference. “Bryson's golf swing is pretty much pretty firm going back and firm coming through, with a lot of body rotation. It's a little different than a lot of guys. And can you believe the power he's getting from that? I mean, it's unbelievable.”

Athletic and unbelievable. DeChambeau has captured golf’s focus for the past five weeks of the season restart.

If his play continues, DeChambeau, who won two weeks ago in Detroit for his fourth consecutive finish of eighth or better, will force the hand of the governing bodies. Any attempt to roll back technology will face opposition from the PGA and European tours.

“We look at it over a longer-term horizon, not in a short-term horizon,” PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan said Wednesday at Muirfield Village. “So, if you look at our data right now, average driving distance is up slightly year to date; it's down relative to two years ago. The USGA and the R&A said that they're going to work with their industry partners, including us, to identify solutions. That process has obviously stalled. When it takes itself back up, we're going to be a part of that conversation and make certain ultimately that we represent what we think is in the best interest of the PGA Tour, our players and our fans.”

DeChambeau took a week off after the Rocket Mortgage Classic, his sixth career victory, and worked on his wedge game. He figures to hit plenty of short irons this week.

“Any time you get to play Muirfield Village and play in front of Jack, it's a special honor,” said DeChambeau, who won the 2018 Memorial but with a bit less pop off the tee. “I think this golf course – albeit it's a golf course I won on – it's going to play a little differently for me this year, and I'm looking forward to the challenge. It's definitely a challenge no matter how you look at it with this added length, and I appreciate it, and look forward to using it to my advantage hopefully a few times this week.”

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