OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Dinnertime had long since descended upon Caves Valley Golf Club on Sunday evening when the galleries at the BMW Championship scurried and scampered from the 18th green to the 17th hole. There was more golf ahead. Bryson DeChambeau remained behind.
When a putt slides by for DeChambeau, be it for a win in a playoff approaching prime time or on a Thursday morning with neither a fan nor a camera in sight, an explanation is demanded. That explanation must have something to do with some unexpected, external force because DeChambeau has quantified every quantifiable aspect. So a miss is somehow unfair, a slight. For DeChambeau, it never seems to be distilled to: Dude, it’s golf. It’s just how it works.
For 5½ hours over 24 riveting holes Sunday, DeChambeau and Patrick Cantlay treated Maryland — and a sports-watching nation — to sublime competition, some gamesmanship, perhaps even mutual distaste. With the August light fading, Cantlay rolled in an 18-foot birdie putt for a birdie and pumped his fist, rare emotion to punctuate what became a deserved victory.
The takeaway, though, is that as talented and complete a player as Cantlay is and as beautiful as their golf was — a combined 48 holes played Sunday, with all of three bogeys between them — DeChambeau, when he’s in the mix, dominates the story line just as he tries to strangle the golf course. It’s not just what he does and how he does it with a golf club, which is astonishing to see in person. It’s what he says and what he leaves unsaid. It’s what he does and what he doesn’t do. Despise him or adore him, he is a walking headline. The Ryder Cup is less than a month away. Good lord, where does DeChambeau fit in?
He pulls you in so many different directions, this guy. His reputation is as a scientist, and the most intriguing brand of golf invokes artistry — or, in Cantlay’s case Sunday, pure steeliness. He has thoughts on every aspect of the game yet has stopped talking to reporters who cover the sport, other than cursory post-round television interviews, and he walked away from being half of an enthralling two-man show Sunday without uttering a word in public. It’s not a crime. It’s just not helping himself.
He missed the Olympics last month in Tokyo after testing positive for the coronavirus yet has declined to be vaccinated, coming up with a laughable attempt to sound like a humanitarian: “I don’t think taking the vaccine away from someone who needs it is a good thing.” For someone who studies a 10-foot putt as if it’s a final exam in a graduate-level quantum physics course, that’s a remarkably ignorant take.
So dig through Bryson’s greatest hits, and there are gems that get to how he views his own DNA. Take the following, from a podcast hosted by PGA Tour veteran Pat Perez, last year.
“You just got to keep going your way,” DeChambeau told Perez. “You look at Einstein, you look at Newton, you look at all these big-time names in the science field, there’s been a lot of people that have been called crazy. Decades later, they’re like: ‘Wow, that person was actually pretty interesting. He did a lot of amazing things.’
“I’m not saying that’s what I’m going to do, but, shoot, I hope so one day. That’d be fun.”
Einstein, Newton, DeChambeau.
On to Sunday, which was just so, so fun, matching 66s before a playoff that Cantlay closed with two birdies. As well as Cantlay played, the energy just seems to run through DeChambeau. It seems by his own doing.
At 14, Cantlay and DeChambeau stood tied, part of a collective slaying of Caves Valley, left defenseless by so much recent rain. Cantlay had already played his approach. DeChambeau had 129 yards up the hill. With DeChambeau over his ball, Cantlay moved.
“Patrick,” DeChambeau said. “Can you stop walking?”
It’s always something. It’s. Always. Something.
“I’m not always the fastest walker,” Cantlay said. “I was just trying to move ahead and do my part.”
Moving on. At the par-5 16th, DeChambeau faced an uphill 254-yard second shot, pulled out a 6-iron (a 6-iron?!), which he expected to be enough to carry a bunker and reach the green, and somehow left it 27 yards short. His look: utter astonishment. His tee shot at the par-3 17th came up short, after which he said, twice, “That was a really good shot,” as if saying it would will the result into existence.
This is the entire on-course Bryson experience, and it’s unrelenting. It’s not just the times he asks for relief because there are ants near his ball — which he has done. It’s the tiny trickles of drama that fill in what should be dead space.
In regulation Sunday, DeChambeau held a one-shot lead over Cantlay at 17. When Cantlay’s tee shot bounced in the right rough, then trickled into the greenside water, DeChambeau all but skipped down the hill, even as Cantlay stood back on the tee, staring in disbelief. It’s possible that’s not the best golf etiquette. At 18, with Cantlay facing a 22-foot birdie putt that would require DeChambeau to make his own 15-footer for a birdie to win, DeChambeau stood just to the side of the green, almost directly in Cantlay’s line of sight, rather than behind him.
Subtle? Sure. Meaningful? Unlikely. Intentional? Well, it would be great to be able to ask, but at the moment, he’s not answering. It all just makes you wonder whether there’s a chip missing or a small wire that doesn’t quite connect.
DeChambeau’s best chance to win came on the second playoff hole, when the pair played 18 for the third straight time. He had eight feet for a birdie, straight up the hill. Cantlay said later that it was the only moment he thought he would lose because DeChambeau would surely make it.
He missed, and it led to that astonished stare. When DeChambeau remained on the green, Cantlay moved on.
“He didn’t make it,” Cantlay said. “That’s golf.”
That’s golf. At some point, for players of all ages and abilities, it is the best explanation for what happens in this sport. For Bryson DeChambeau, it never seems to be enough. It’s one of the reasons the eye is always drawn to him, whether because of his deeds, his words or all the other tiny dramas he creates around him.
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