Golf is a game built on tradition. It’s a sport defined by respect and rules of etiquette that span attire, behavior and care for the course. During a culture-shifting year like 2020, these norms were challenged.
Clubs like Augusta National and professional golfers like Cameron Champ promoted diversity and initiated conversations about making the sport visually represent the United States, but these actions only mark the beginning of a cultural and demographic shift that is overdue.
That’s where the next generation steps in.
This next generation of golfers and golf leaders is already comfortable addressing the status quo in golf. Members of Generation Z, born from the late 1990s through the mid-2010s, are already thinking about how the sport is changing and how they want the game they love to be perceived by future generations.
While all under the age of 30, their insights and experiences speak of where the sport is headed in the areas of distance, traditional fashion and most importantly, diversity.
This is part two of a three-part series analyzing Gen Z’s perception of the changing landscape of golf.
Distance, Bryson and the LPGA
An often-used word in the 2020 season: Distance. Another very popular word: Bryson.
You might have heard, but this year Bryson DeChambeau transformed his body and his game, adding 20 pounds before the Tour’s COVID-19 break in March and another 20 before the June restart. The 2015 U.S. Amateur winner spent two to three hours per day lifting in the gym and consumed 5,000 to 6,000 calories a day to achieve an athletic build unlike anyone in golf.
The plan was questioned for its effectiveness, but the distance DeChambeau achieved proves its brilliance.
In the 2018-19 season, DeChambeau ranked 24th on Tour in Strokes Gained: Off the Tee (.421) and 34th in driving distance (302.5 yards). In the 2019-20 season, he rose to first on the Tour in each category.
Bryson DeChambeau tees off on the ninth hole during the second round of the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open. (Photo: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports)
So far, DeChambeau, who had five Tour titles before his transformation, has been unrepentant of his experimentation and results. That’s what Josh Koch, 2018 and 2019 World Long Drive Championship qualifier and speed and distance coach, loves most about DeChambeau being the face of the distance debate.
“I think when guys get to the top level a lot of times there’s a level of complacency and rightfully so,” Koch said. “A lot of guys are afraid to kind of mess up what got them there and I don’t blame them. There is some truth to that. But his fearlessness of trying to keep pushing the bar and he’s not afraid to mess up or fail. I think that’s the thing I love the most about it: the fearlessness.”
After his 40-pound weight gain, DeChambeau won his first major in September at the U.S. Open at Winged Foot. During his post-round interview, the 27-year-old recognized a few people who inspired him to work to achieve the impressive distance he has this year: World Long Drive competitors Kyle Berkshire, currently No. 1 in the world; Justin James, No. 4; and Koch.
“They all inspired me to try to go harder at (gaining speed and distance),” DeChambeau said of the World Long Drive competitors in September. “They’re the ones breaking the barriers. I can see what is possible so that inspires me to keep pushing the limits.”
Koch is impressed with how DeChambeau has trained his body, gained speed and produced results. But even more, Koch loves what DeChambeau is doing for the sport – loves that DeChambeau’s hard work, sense of adventure and creativity are making the game fun.
It can be intoxicating, especially for young players.
“It’s the sex appeal of golf. It really is,” Koch said. “No matter where you’re at, this is the crazy thing, I don’t feel like anyone really ever feels like they’re fast enough. I’ve never heard someone say they wouldn’t mind gaining a few more miles per hour of speed. With where the stigma was going, it’s like where is the ceiling going to be at? … I think that’s in part to this Bryson Effect and basically, the millennials growing up who are chasing because the reality is speed is longevity. Not only does it keep you more competitive now but it also keeps you playing the game longer.”
In 2019-20, DeChambeau averaged a Tour-best 322.1 yards off the tee. The Tour average was 296.4 yards. In his three appearances this season, which includes two majors, the distance of his average drive jumped to 337.8 yards. In the 2020 season, Cameron Champ was runner-up in distance (322.0) followed by Ryan Brehm (315.3), Rory McIlroy (314.0) and Grayson Murray (313.8), respectively.
While DeChambeau has dominated the distance conversation, it’s a topic on the LPGA, too. Rookie Bianca Pagdanganan led the tour in distance (283.071), with Maria Fassi a close second (282.173). The 23-year-old Pagdanganan is not a protein-shake pounder like DeChambeau. Imagine what she could do if she pulled a Bryson.
Distance is proving to be a big differentiator on the LPGA. All of the top 10 in distance are under 30 years old and only three in the top 20 are 30 or older.
Ryan Ruffels of Australia hits off the 18th tee in the third round of the Utah Championship. (Photo: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
Ryan Ruffels, who currently plays on the PGA Latinoamerica Tour and was 13th on the Korn Ferry Tour in distance last season (318.3), said he’s always played long so emphasizing distance was a part of his game before DeChambeau’s transformation took it to a new level. However, he saw firsthand how important distance is becoming in the LPGA when he caddied for younger sister Gabi, a senior at USC, at the Pelican Women’s Championship in November.
“I told my sister, she’s got a tremendous opportunity to dominate on the LPGA tour because there’s starting to be a few here and there,” Ruffels said. “Obviously Lexi (Thompson), Maria Fassi and people who are starting to bomb it and have some success. If you can be one of those people on the LPGA tour, I think there’s a tremendous opportunity to dominate because I don’t think anyone’s really quite done it yet to the level that let’s say Tiger did it in the early 2000s and Bryson’s doing it now but they just separate themselves completely in that category.”
While Hailey Borja, a sophomore on the University of Michigan’s women’s golf team, and Ruffels agreed that women typically hit the ball straighter than men, the emphasis on distance could propel the women’s game to a place it has never been. Ruffels would obviously like that person to be his sister, who won the 2019 U.S. Women’s Amateur and was runner-up at that event in 2020, but thinks the star who could change the women’s game is just on the horizon.
Borja said she’s primarily focused on hitting the ball straight rather than hitting bombs, but the conversation of gaining more distance is a common one among college golfers.
“It’s definitely being thought about,” she said. “I am one of the more average-to-shorter hitters so me and my coaches have definitely been working on strength and conditioning for me as well as getting my club speed up so I can hit the ball farther.”
Koch, Ruffels and DeChambeau are all unsure about where the game is headed, but they recognize Pandora’s Box has been opened. And they’re not afraid.
Young golfers see the results of DeChambeau and top LPGA stars, and with access to the same technology like TrackMan, pressure plates, biomechanists and trainers, young golfers are willing and able to copy those gains.
“Now that golf’s being viewed as an athletic sport and there are more athletes playing, the reality is if you get more athletes swinging the club, they’re going to be able to swing it faster and then someone else is going to be able to do it,” Koch said. “I think there are a lot of factors … definitely the biggest one is just a testament to where coaching and the technology available has evolved to people under 30.”
The year began with the release of the Distance Insights Report, a joint effort by the USGA and R&A. In a 102-page document which includes data and information from 56 different projects, golf’s governing bodies determined distance is playing an excessive role in the game and causing the sport to go in an unsustainable direction. Those conversations about the future of the game will continue into 2021.
When asked how DeChambeau’s gains impact the tradition of the game, Koch noted golf has been challenged with the approach of a new young star before, and he made the sport better. Woods, who began playing professional events in 1992, long before Borja or Ruffels were alive, ushered in an era of entertainment in golf resulting in the highest annual increase in rounds played in the U.S. (63 million) in 1997, when Woods won his first Masters title. DeChambeau is proving to be a similarly impactful player in that he has changed the narrative for what a player needs to do to be successful.
Tiger Woods celebrates after sinking a 4 feet putt to win the 1997 Masters. (Photo: Stephen Munday /Allsport)
“We’re always going to be trying to get stronger, fitter and more athletic, and Tiger inspired this whole generation to do this and we’re going to keep going after it,” DeChambeau said after the U.S. Open. “I don’t think it’s going to stop. Will they reign it back? I’m sure. I’m sure something might happen. I don’t know what it will be, I just know it’s always going to be an advantage.”
What the governing bodies do, or don’t do, in terms of rolling back the performance of golf balls or dialing back the distance of drivers remains to be seen. These questions were put on hold by the coronavirus pandemic, but the USGA and R&A are expected to release the next phase of their report in late 2021, at the earliest. Any changes that result could not realistically take effect for years.
Koch knows the increased focus on distance is now part of the game. DeChambeau proved this new strategy is possible, and more than that, it’s fun.
“As the game gets younger it has to keep appealing to different demographics. It’s like anything, unfortunately, stuff changes and gravitates over time,” Koch said. “Right now it’s exciting. As far as the purists go, they should, in my opinion, want what’s best for the game and what’s best for the game is that distance and that debate is creating some excitement around the game …
“At the end of the day, if there’s that buzz it’s going to get people watching. If it gets people watching that, essentially it’s going to grow the game for future generations.”