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The battle for golf's green jacket may ultimately prove to be beyond Bryson DeChambeau this week. But the ongoing battle for golf's soul rages on - and it remains as riveting as ever.
There was much sniggering after a first-round 76 on Thursday left DeChambeau four-over par and in danger of missing the cut at the 2021 Masters. But a much-improved second-round 67 on Friday ensured golf’s current pantomime villain will be around for the weekend.
More than that, the way the Californian bludgeoned his way around the back nine on Friday, climbing steadily back into overall contention, will raise renewed fears he might yet be capable of something extraordinary.
Golf's purists will be on their guard. DeChambeau’s infamous boast last November that Augusta National was a mere “par-67” for him was a line in the sand as far the whole 'power' conversation was concerned. From that moment, the desperation in some quarters for DeChambeau to fail, for his hubris to be exposed, was palpable.
The schadenfreude when he bombed out of contention last November was startling, possibly even a little unfair. Although it has to be said DeChambeau hardly helps himself, churning out social media videos showing him hitting record new swing speeds on the range, and boasting of how far he can whack the ball. When Rory McIlroy admitted he had restructured golf's most beautiful swing partly on the strength of the way DeChambeau dismantled of Winged Foot last summer, it was as if the American had shot Bambi.
So when he faltered again in the first round this week, and it looked as if he was going to be served another healthy dollop of comeuppance rather than a meal of his choosing at the Champions Dinner, there were more than a few of his peers ready to rejoice.
But the 27 year-old with the whacky irons and even whackier attitude fought back in round two as Augusta’s more forgiving fairways and greens allowed him to bring his power game to play.
It was actually fascinating to watch. Beginning the day at four-over par, DeChambeau spent much of the first few holes chuntering away to himself as he tried to get his round going - almost, it seemed, through force of personality, rather than the raw power or dispassionate, machine-like efficiency for which he has become known.
The truth is, for someone who bangs on so much about science and data, DeChambeau is surprisingly human out on course. It is part of what makes him so intriguing; watching him wrestle with his own human frailties as he attempts to prove his thesis, that the game of golf can be reduced to cold hard numbers and the application of science.
It’s a battle he can never win. The Californian may look like a gym bunny and swing like a robot, but he is all too human, too error-prone.
Watching him play you are treated to a curious mix of tics and gestures. After getting the line of his putt wrong at the first, he looked reproachfully in the direction of his caddie. After dropping a shot at the par-four fifth, failing to find the green in two and then leaving a chip on the fringe of the green, he laughed ironically and tapped the offending fringe with his putter as if to suggest its physics must have been wrongly calibrated rather than his own calculations.
DeChambeau took that dropped shot back at the next hole, the par-three sixth, hitting his tee shot to within 10 feet and holing out with his strange ramrod-straight-arms putting stance. But it was back to ‘human’ DeChambeau at the par-five eighth, finding the trees out on the right with his drive and cursing in a very un-robotic way: “Son of a gun! Jesus Christ!”
DeChambeau is more creative than he is given credit for. He escaped from that trip into the woods with a birdie after threading a 200-yard approach through the pines. And he then moved to two-under par for the round, and two-over for the tournament, with another birdie, his third in four holes, at the 470 yard par-four ninth where he left himself a mere 140-yard approach.
The back nine saw DeChambeau really start to click even if he continued to spray it wildly off the tee. Another trip into the trees at 10 yielded a further bout of chuntering and his second bogey of the day. But he immediately cancelled that one out with a gargantuan 358-yard drive at the par-five 13th, smashing the ball so far off the tee that it rolled through a line of surprised patrons seated at the top corner of the dogleg left.
Further birdies at the par-five 15th and the par-four 17th got him back to level par but he saved his best for last, a booming drive on 18 taking out virtually the entire trees, leaving him what looked like a wedge to the green, even if it was still from a thicket. “There were definitely some times when I felt like my power led to an advantage,” he commented afterwards.
Given the quality of the players in front of him, and the unpredictable nature of the course this week, it would be a surprise if DeChambeau got himself into the overall mix from here. But he's certainly keeping things interesting.