“He always had the brain of a scientist,” said Jodi Cooley, the director of the undergraduate physics program at Southern Methodist University when DeChambeau was a student there.
“He and I used to joke that he had taught himself quantum mechanics,” said Emily Cobb, an academic adviser in SMU’s athletic department.
DeChambeau, 27, is the winner of the most recent major in this discombobulated golf season, the U.S. Open in September at Winged Foot. That accomplishment makes him the betting favorite heading into the first November Masters in history, even though he has never finished in the top 20 in three previous tries at Augusta.
It says something about his position in the sport that, entering a major in which Tiger Woods is the defending champion, DeChambeau is the most intriguing character. That’s less about what he has done — which counts — than how he is doing it, which is trying to reinvent the best way to succeed. There is a physical element to DeChambeau’s approach to the game that is anchored in his extra 2020 poundage and the 48-inch driver he’s threatening to use at Augusta. He putts with a locked-arm style that looks not only awkward but vaguely painful.
But those physical aspects only came about because of how DeChambeau uses his most important muscle, his brain. That starts with focus. Singular, unrelenting focus.
“At orientation, the first time I met him, he was with his mother,” said Cobb, who counts DeChambeau as the first athlete she advised at SMU, back in 2012. “He came in with his plan already set: ‘I want to pursue a physics degree, and I want to play golf, and I want to be a professional golfer.’ ”
Put aside, for the moment, how much physics DeChambeau incorporates into his golf game — which is a lot. Rather, consider that college athletes don’t typically take on a major with the workload of physics. Their weeks are consumed by practice and competition and travel. Studying can become something that’s wedged into the rest. Loading on the most challenging academics — complete with additional lab work — can be both a logistical nightmare and an intellectual overload.
When DeChambeau first laid out his thoughts to Cobb, she thought: “This is going to be interesting.”
“What I found out was that he was more interested in the physics courses he was taking,” Cobb said, “and we had to focus on building in the other classes that are needed for graduation.”
So the physics DeChambeau uses isn’t for show. It underpinned his academic and athletic career in college. And it underpins his pursuit of greatness now. He used a geometric compass in competition to try to pinpoint “true hole locations” on greens, which the U.S. Golf Association determined was illegal. He has said his tendency to leave the pin in the hole on putts is based on the coefficient of restitution of a fiberglass flagstick, making it better to bounce the ball off — and in. It was at SMU that he first formulated his plan to make all his clubs the same length — rather than the traditional longer shafts for lower-trajectory, longer shots and shorter shafts for higher-pitched, shorter shots — so he could more easily repeat the exact same swing plane.
“I found that pretty fascinating,” Cobb said. “He had a passion for using physics in the game of golf.”
All of that can get overshadowed by the physicality of what he’s trying to do now, which is essentially overpower the game. The extra weight means extra clubhead speed, which means extra distance. Watch DeChambeau swing the club, and his aggression is obvious. Fred Couples and Ernie Els can have their old-school, languid — and beautiful — passes at the ball. Bryson is trying to kill it off the tee every single time, and it’s obvious.
But what’s not as obvious are the calculations behind the ferocity of his swing. Does he risk losing accuracy for distance? Sure. But that all comes out in the math. The advantages of taking a 48-inch driver — the maximum allowed by the Rules of Golf (capital letters assigned by the haughty rulers of the game, not by me) — far outweigh risk of being slightly offline.
So go back to SMU and to how DeChambeau would determine his course load. Some labs would be off-limits during the height of golf season. Some courses he’d have to take essentially on his own.
“He kind of used an analytic mind to not just get upset that he couldn’t do something,” Cooley said. “Instead, he’d think about the problem and figure out a way to solve it.”
After DeChambeau had finished at SMU — with his physics degree — Cooley developed a one-off honors course that focused on the physics of sports. It’s one DeChambeau might have taught himself. What he’s doing on the PGA Tour and what he will try at the Masters this week might seem sacrilegious to the game’s old guard. But to others, it’s an inspiration. Cooley remembers a young woman who came to SMU as a prospective student and member of the women’s golf team.
“She looked at Bryson as someone who could be a mentor, somebody you could look up to,” Cooley said. “She wanted to know: What was his program? He seemed to have inspired her to think about a science degree in addition to golf.”
DeChambeau plays golf impossibly slowly, given how many elements he’s considering on a given shot. His analysis can seem overwrought, even contrived. But his college experience shows: His unorthodox process is anchored not in some sort of look-at-me showmanship but in the science he has studied and pursued for much of his life.
The Masters often brings with it purple prose to accompany the azaleas of spring and a golfer with a creative mind knowing exactly where to land shots to his advantage. This November, courtesy of a global pandemic, the most interesting player in the field will try to decipher it with a protractor and a calculator. Who’s to say one approach is right and the other is wrong?