Dr. Ryszard Stroynowski, professor of experimental physics at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, admits to being slightly disappointed in his former student Bryson DeChambeau.
Like others at SMU, Stroynowski is happy for DeChambeau’s success as a golfer, the 25-year-old having climbed to fifth in the world ranking, but there’s a twinge of regret about the road not taken.
Dr. Roberto Vega, associate professor of theoretical physics at SMU, agrees.
“He could have been successful in physics,” Vega says. “He’s a serious thinker. He was a serious student. He wanted to know. He wanted to understand.”
Physics’ loss is golf’s gain.
While stretching convention and doing his best to turn the imperfect game of golf into a scientific equation, DeChambeau has propelled himself into arguably the hottest player on the planet, having won four times worldwide since the middle of last August.
Among his many strengths, DeChambeau’s greatest may be his resolute will to play golf his way rather than mold to the way it’s always been done.
Single-length irons, a blocky, full body swing and reducing every shot to a calculation down to the effect of the day’s air density on ball flight, DeChambeau isn’t simply marching to a different beat.
He’s drum major in a one-man band.
He is a scientist.
Give him the time and DeChambeau can explain in detail why he plays golf the way he does. Why all of his irons have 37-inch shafts. Why his grips are oversized. Why it can take him one minute, 20 seconds to hit what looks like an ordinary wedge shot, a tendency that has drawn deserved rebukes from some of his colleagues.
Every detail is important to DeChambeau and it’s all based on data he has accumulated through his years on courses and practice tees and running equations in his mind. Most importantly, it works for him.
Whether the DeChambeau method will work for the masses remains to be seen. It may never take off. But he’s a golf scientist with a heart, a fiery competitor who wants to win by meticulously deconstructing a golf course.
“Whenever you look at somebody, don’t judge them by the cover, right? You got to judge them by the results and the work ethic and the dedication and the perseverance that the person has,” DeChambeau said after winning the Memorial Tournament last year. “So whenever you look at somebody and say, ‘Oh, man, that dude’s weird, why is he doing that? He’s got these dumb one-length clubs that don’t work.’ Yeah, they do.
“They work pretty well for me, I’m confident with it, we kind of came up with it back in 2011, so I know what’s going on with it. Could it be better? Absolutely. And we’re always going to get it better.
“This is just a process that comes about with living life, you’re always trying to get better every single day. So I think that’s a testament to itself of saying, ‘Look, don’t judge anybody by what it looks like on the cover.’ Be able to look at them and say, ‘All right, what is he actually doing, why is he doing this, could this actually be beneficial to me?’ And just take positives from the uniqueness of my game.”
So what does physics – science that deals with the properties of matter and energy – have to do with golf, specifically DeChambeau’s golf?
How does it translate into hitting a 7-iron?
“I’m not sure I know what he is doing,” Stroynowski says. “I know the truth of physics. The world is complicated and the rules of physics are separately applied to various situations. … He puts it together in his mind.
“He is very observant. In principle, if you put enough knowledge into computer simulations you can make some more estimates. But the golf courses are not uniform. You have complications.”
Told that DeChambeau could be overheard calculating the air density on a shot during his victory at the recent Omega Dubai Desert Classic, Stroynowski chuckles and says, “The rules of physics do apply, even in Dubai.”
DeChambeau spent three years at SMU, winning the NCAA Championship and the U.S. Amateur before turning professional. Because of golf, DeChambeau occasionally had to miss classes but his professors say he was diligent about doing his work and immersed himself in the study of physics.
“I didn’t know he was that good (as a golfer). Other people told me,” Vega says. “He was so humble. Very humble. Very respectful. Apologetic when he had to go out to (tournaments).”
In Stroynowski’s class on particle physics, DeChambeau had to deliver a lecture to the class. The subject was how protons decay.
“We know the lifetime of an average proton is longer than the lifetime of the universe,” Stroynowski says. “He did a wonderful presentation.”
That’s not how DeChambeau remembers it.
“(It) was a teaching lesson and I was awful. There were eight or nine people in the class and I just remember completely failing,” he says.
Perhaps it was a matter of perspective.
“People like that are perfectionists,” Vega says. “You can’t be a perfectionist on one thing. You have to be a perfectionist on everything.”
In DeChambeau’s case, it means relating to Albert Einstein.
“Einstein has always intrigued me with not being successful in school and then being incredibly successful after college, and that’s kind of the same thing for me,” he said after his Dubai victory. “Even though I loved SMU, I learned an incredible amount of knowledge, but sometimes school doesn’t really prepare you for the real world and what you’re going to do, and golf is unique, too. It really is a sport that hasn’t been figured out. I wanted to kind of do that. I wanted it to be one of my goals in life.
“For Einstein, general relativity, he wanted to figure that out and he did. It’s pretty amazing what he’s done for the world and his work stands the test of time, and I want something in the game of golf that will do the same.”
In other words, he wants more than courtesy cars and private air travel.
Here is how detailed DeChambeau can be:
In a practice round at Le Golf National Before the Ryder Cup in Paris last fall, DeChambeau carried a TrackMan device with him on the course. He set the machine up when he was hitting shots from the thick rough rather than from the fairway.
“I’m going, ‘That’s kind of weird,’ ” U.S. vice captain Davis Love III said. “After I watched him do it, I thought, ‘I’ve never hit a ball out of the rough with a TrackMan. Why wouldn’t I do that?’ ”
By the Ryder Cup, DeChambeau’s teammates all were familiar with who he is and how he approaches the game. He had just won the first two FedEx Cup playoff events, giving him three victories in the 2017-18 season.
There is such a thing as team chemistry and it would have been easy to question whether DeChambeau and his quirks would work in a room dominated by Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods and stocked with guys who’ve played multiple team events together.
DeChambeau ultimately went 0-3 in the Ryder Cup, pairing with both Woods and Mickelson in foursomes then losing his singles match to Alex Norén. It was a lost week for the Americans but not for DeChambeau in the bigger picture.
“Would he be difficult to pair up? Would guys gravitate toward his way of doing things? It is different,” U.S. vice captain Steve Stricker said.
“That was our biggest concern. As it turned out, he was unbelievably awesome.”
Woods knew that before they arrived in Paris. He played a number of practice rounds with DeChambeau last summer and their relationship blossomed.
He has listened to DeChambeau explain the science behind his golf and Woods says he understands it. They’re speaking a similar language, he says, but using different words.
And, Woods says, there have been times when he’s told DeChambeau to quit talking and just hit the ball.
“It’s a lot of fun to needle him and give him a hard time about it, but I definitely respect what he says because of the fact that he does a lot of research. I mean, he is very into what he’s doing,” Woods says.
DeChambeau is a good listener, too. Love said he was struck by how DeChambeau asked questions and didn’t try to dominate conversations.
In some ways, Woods says, DeChambeau reminds him of his younger self.
“He cherry-picks information that is useful to him. I did the same thing. I asked all the great champions that ever played the game,” Woods says. “A lot of the information I threw out the door because it was not going to work for me but some stuff I took in still works today. He’s not afraid to ask. It’s going to serve him well.”
It already has.
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