Analytics has had its teeth sunk into the neck of the sports world for a few years — from Billy Beane’s “Moneyball” approach with the Oakland A’s in the early 2000s to the more recent trend of NFL teams going for it on fourth down instead of punting.
Golf, too, has leaned into the data-driven method in recent years with an emphasis on equipment innovation, swing techniques — and power. One golfer in particular has taken the cerebral approach to a new level, spinning a training web so complex, it would even make Charlotte jealous.
On Wednesday, Sports Illustrated announced that the November 2020 issue — just in time for the Masters — will feature U.S. Open champion Bryson DeChambeau, theball-smashing PGA superstar who is transforming the sport with his impenetrable spatial awareness and analytical skill-set in a way that some say has taken the game way off course.
“He does not view golf as a sport in the way other people do,” said SI senior writer Michael Rosenberg, who sat down with the golfer to pen the cover story, to McClatchy News. “It’s a problem to be solved. He doesn’t play ‘golf’ — play is not the right verb. He thinks golf.”
DeChambeau’s data-driven takes on swing mechanics, equipment and course navigation has made him a breakout player who has his sights set on winning the Masters, Nov. 12-15 in Augusta, Georgia, a news release said. And he’s doing it all while a new generation of golfers are paying close attention.
“There are two perceptions with Bryson,” Rosenberg said. “One is all the weight and muscle he’s gained and now he’s hitting 400 yards in the air. And the other is that he’s this science genius. The real story to me was a third story about his personality and how his brain works more than how smart he is.”
DeChambeau, a former physics major at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, added 40 pounds to his physique, managed to flip the golf world on its back as he now slices the ball through the air at speeds approaching 200 mph, which could have to do with his newfound NFL linebacker-like build.
“If I could get to 260 pounds and swing it upward of 210 miles an hour and control the ball, that would be amazing,” DeChambeau told The New York Times in June.
While the change in his body is just one piece of his success, it’s his compulsive need to figure out the perfect shot using analytics that drives the 27-year-old.
“During the pandemic, he would spend three or four hours a day on the range and he would work out every day,” Rosenberg said about DeChambeau, when meeting him at the Dallas National Golf Club on Oct. 13. “The range where he would hit balls and the practice putting green are about 70 or so steps apart and not once did he practice putting.”
Putting, the writer said, is the easiest thing for a golfer to practice to kill time since it can be calming. But not to DeChambeau.
“He doesn’t get any joy out of it, he didn’t see any point of it. He was trying to solve his swing. That’s not just discipline, that’s compulsion. He has OCD tenancies — he just wants to figure out how to hit the perfect shot.”
Nestled in the world of math is DeChambeau’s safe space. The golfer’s mind can calculate exactly what the wind direction is to the vectors on the green to the thickness of the grass density, Rosenberg mentions. And even on video, the golfer can be heard thinking out loud,, analyzing the elements to determine how to best attack — and defeat — each hole.
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“All of this is comforting for him to know,” Rosenberg said. “For someone like Tiger Woods or Justin Thomas, they just want to go out there and play. They’re still calculating the wind and conditions, they’re just not doing it to that extent because that’s just not how their minds think.”
In sports, there is always something that elevates some athletes into a class of their own. With LeBron James, it’s not just his power, speed and skill — it’s his brain, his vision and his seemingly photographic memory. With DeChambeau, his creativity and his affinity for numbers.
He leads the 2020-21 PGA Tour in driving distance, averaging 344 yards, and is also first scoring average (66.7) and earnings ($2.4 million). On the flipside, he’s 205th in driving accuracy, 157th in putts per round and 65th in greens hit in regulation.
“The question for him for the next 10 years comes down to this: is the traditionally creative part of the game another puzzle that he can solve or does he need to have tools that he does not naturally have?” Rosenberg asks. “Can you take this puzzle solving ability, this mathematical ability and apply it to a 30-yard chip or bump and run and be an elite player in that area — if he can do that, which he believes he can, he will be the best player in the world and win a handful of majors.”
There is also a wide-eyed innocence to his wonder at his own accomplishments — and his has nothing to do with conceit, Rosenberg says, especially when he nails the golf ball 400-plus yards.
DeChambeau’s combination of metrics, nutrition, weight training and even his quirky yet charismatic personality is shaking up the golf world, but there is one thing Rosenberg objects to when it comes to the wunderkind — his nickname.
“Everyone calls him ‘The Scientist,’” Rosenberg said of the nickname given to Bryson early in his career. “To me, it’s ‘The Mathematician.’”