PALM HARBOR, Fla. – There’s a learning curve for any PGA Tour rookie. New cities. New courses. New lifestyle.
But Bryson DeChambeau is not like any rookie. He’s not like any other professional golfer, really.
No one else is asked at every tournament stop to explain the physics behind his single-length set of irons. (Google it.)
Or to answer if he’s always been an “odd bird.” (Yep.)
Or to name the geekiest thing he’s ever done on the course (“The laminar flow and the air density is moving a little downward,” he once told a bewildered caddie), to discuss his college GPA (got some Cs!) and to ponder whether his peers think he’s a weirdo (take a guess).
No one else has been ripped by a fellow player on Twitter for withdrawing from a tournament; roasted for complaining about the USGA seemingly picking on him; and mocked for “changing the game” one missed cut at a time.
It’s not even spring, and DeChambeau has already endured a trying rookie year.
“It’s matured me, for sure,” he said Friday after rounds of 67-70 lifted him into the top 10 at the Valspar Championship.
“Definitely messed up a couple of things. But I’m 23. I’m going to make mistakes, and everybody is going to view me as the villain. I wasn’t trying to do anything to ruffle any feathers, but right now, I’m learning what to say, how to say things, and getting better at doing it.”
To his credit, DeChambeau usually stands up and answers the same questions every week. It has to get old, but he grins and bears it all. It’s the cost of trying to revolutionize golf.
He’s the first to admit that there have been a few missteps along the way. There was the scheduling error, flying across the country from Demo Day to Torrey Pines. Then there was the p.r. mess, when he said that the USGA was “not a good organization” after they ruled one of his sidesaddle putters was non-conforming. (It likely won’t be his last run-in with the governing bodies).
Rookie mistakes, but he doesn’t have the benefit of anonymity – he’s the only newcomer with a TV commercial.
“There’s a lot of people looking down on me,” he said.
And poor golf has made him an easy target. He has made only three of 10 cuts, with no finish inside the top 30. His normally reliable ball-striking has failed him. His putting has been abysmal. Of course, in typical Bryson fashion, it hasn’t dented his confidence.
“I know I can play with the best of them,” he said. “I know I can be one of the best in the world at one point in time, and I’m looking forward to striving for that.”
For the first time all year, he is moving in the right direction.
It started Wednesday, when his father, Jon, received a kidney after years of waiting. Both of his kidneys failed in 2014. His health was rapidly declining. “It was close,” DeChambeau said.
Bryson called the donor, Ron Bankofier, before the surgery and thanked him for saving his father’s life. Then he called his dad and, as usual, told him to “just keep swimming” – an inside joke in the family, from the movie, “Finding Nemo.”
Lately, Jon DeChambeau has turned that phrase around on his son, as the disappointing results stacked up.
And so Bryson kept working, kept hitting balls, kept searching for a solution. He said his ball-striking is now as sharp as it was in college – when he won the NCAAs and U.S. Amateur in the same summer – and maybe even better. “It’s going to get to a point where it’s just automatic,” he said.
To address his putting, he spent a recent weekend in Orlando working on a Quintec software program that measures the launch of a putt. Sik Golf built him a 44-inch putter that he holds against his left forearm – the style popularized by Matt Kuchar – and he proved a quick learner.
“I was a machine on that system,” he said, “just one after the next.”
Ranked 211th in strokes gained-putting this season (better than only two players on Tour), this week he is currently ranked 20th through two rounds.
“I think he’s finally on to something,” said his new caddie Micah Fugitt, who is on the bag after spending more than five years with Billy Horschel.
But as it usually goes with DeChambeau, questions arose about his new method. Rule 14-1b allows a player to hold the club anywhere below the elbow joint, but at certain angles on television it appeared that it might be above the elbow.
When asked about it Friday, DeChambeau shrugged. “People are just going to try and knock me down everywhere.”
And you checked with the rules officials?, he was asked.
“Yeah, I’m not dumb!” he said with a laugh. “Come on, guys!”
But his new putting stroke underscores two points: (1) He’s willing to push the limits to maximize his performance, and (2) he’s always going to be a target for questioning, because he’s different.
And that’s OK with Bryson.
Six months into his Tour career, he is growing more comfortable in the spotlight, increasingly aware that everything he does – everything he tries, everything he says – will be subject to intense scrutiny.
He’s a rookie in status only.
“It’s definitely different,” he said. “For doing kind of some weird stuff, a lot of guys were looking at me weird. I didn’t really mean for that to happen at all.
“But I’ve got great support. Today I had some guys going, ‘Come on, Bryson!’ So it was great to hear that again. To get that feeling back in the repertoire is nice.”