THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. – Bryson DeChambeau isn’t at Sherwood Country Club this week, yet his big-brained notions are still framing the narrative.
No one debates the merits of hitting the ball far, however, in recent weeks the lines have been etched between competing philosophies.
On one hand, DeChambeau is relentlessly trying to redefine the game with a brand of golf that’s driven by science and launch monitors and protein drinks. On the other are those who contend that the modern professional has outkicked their coverage when it comes to distance.
Earlier this week, Tiger Woods mused that it’s too late for the game’s rules makers to reign in distance and that’s too bad.
“I would like to be able to see [a roll back], as far as our game, but then we go back down the road of, what do you bifurcate, at what level?” Woods said.
The conversation became somewhat personal earlier this month when Matthew Fitzpatrick questioned the new age of big hitters. “It’s not a skill to hit the ball a long way,” he said.
DeChambeau responded like a true professor.
“I would say, it actually takes more skill to do what I'm doing,” DeChambeau said two weeks ago in Las Vegas. “I actually appreciate it, because I would love to have a conversation with him about it and say, 'Hey, man, I would love to help out. Why couldn't you do it, too?’”
If Thursday’s opening round at the Zozo Championship was any indication, Fitzpatrick and the other mid-length players don’t need a lesson or a lecture. They just need a few more venues like Sherwood Country Club.
With just one of the top eight players ranked inside the top 25 in driving distance in attendance, this week’s stop is shaping up to be the exception to the new Tour rules. Sebastian Munoz (32nd in driving distance) leads the event, followed by Tyrrell Hatton (52nd), Justin Thomas (14th), Brian Harman (42nd), Lanto Griffin (31st), Kevin Kisner (67th), Harris English (29th) and Dylan Frittelli (30th). By comparison, six of those top eight players on the leaderboard ranked inside the top 10 in driving accuracy on Day 1.
“It's always nice to hit it far, and I argue the point all the time with people, and that is when I'm hitting a 4-iron and they're hitting a 6-iron, it's still a big advantage,” Kisner said. “I think hitting it straight's very helpful here, but this one's way easier on the short hitters than last week [Shadow Creek], for sure.”
We probably could have seen this one coming. The par 72 measured in at just a shade under 7,000 yards on Thursday (6,969) and the list of winners of the Hero World Challenge, which was played at Sherwood from 2000 to ’13, reads like a mid-length Hall of Fame (Zach Johnson, Graeme McDowell, Jim Furyk, Luke Donald).
“It's super short, 7,000 yards, par 72, ball's flying full distance. It's not really going much further, but [the elevation is] 1,000 feet, so you're getting the most out of your clubs,” said Justin Rose, who shot 67. “You're almost scaling back on par 5s. It's not just bombs away, it's quite a strategic golf course from that point of view.”
Even Fitzpatrick found his slice of mid-length heaven on Day 1 with a 3-under 69 (he was 7 under through 11 holes) and was tied for 26th. He was also 56th for the day in driving distance and he probably isn’t going to take a victory lap.
As welcome as venues like Sherwood are on the bomber’s tour they are very much an endangered species. The Colonials and Harbour Towns of the PGA Tour are respites with the big ballparks looming at Augusta National and beyond.
Thursday’s gloomy proceedings didn’t settle the most-recent distance debate as to whether hitting the ball a long way is a skill, but it did put the hyperbole in context at least for a few days. On the right course, with the right conditions, accuracy still matters. Just don’t tell Bryson.