On September 20th, 2020, Bryson DeChambeau strode up to the 16th tee at the US Open at the Winged Foot course in New York state. With three holes to play in the fourth and final round, he was four shots clear of the field. All he needed for his first major tournament win was three straightforward pars. On the tee, he settled into his unusual, stiff stance. He held his driver at full stretch and paused for a beat. Then he pulled the club back so the head was parallel with his left ear, and, with a bend of his left knee and a swivel of his right hip, pushed the club through an almighty arc. As the club hit the ball at more than 120 miles an hour, it made a shrieking metallic whistle. The ball shot out of sight.
The 16th hole, christened Hells Bells, is just under 500 yards long. It is designed to be played in four shots. The first 250 yards of fairway are straight, fringed with trees. An average male professional golfer ought to be able to hit this far from the tee. The fairway then turns left, at an angle of around 45 degrees. The green is 200 yards ahead, protected by sand bunkers. The biggest tree on the hole obscures the left-hand side of the green. The typical pro would aim to hit his second short to the fairway just in front of the green. The third shot, known as the approach, would knock the ball onto the green, as close to the hole as possible. The fourth, the putt, would roll the ball into the hole. Four shots, level par.
Although the situation suggested playing steadily, DeChambeau took a different approach. He hit his tee shot an enormous 365 yards and ensured it was high enough to clear the trees, some more than 100ft tall, on the bend. It landed on the right-hand side of the fairway, giving him a clear path to the flag and a chance for a birdie. By taking on the course, DeChambeau disarmed one of Winged Foot’s trickiest holes. “Oh my goodness,” murmured one of the commentators as the ball flew over the trees. “It’s just a different game,” marvelled the other as it rolled into the perfect position. Half an hour later, DeChambeau was the US Open champion.
But DeChambeau was not a popular winner. A month after the US Open, fellow pro Matt Fitzpatrick found himself trailing DeChambeau in another tournament and complained to reporters, “It’s not a skill to hit the ball a long way. The skill in my opinion is to hit the ball straight. He is taking the skill out of it.” Rory McIlroy grumbled, “He’s found a way to do it. Whether that’s good or bad for the game, I don’t know, but it’s just not the way I saw this tournament being played.” Fitzpatrick and McIlroy were referencing an age-old debate in golf that had been reignited by DeChambeau’s performance at Winged Foot. For decades, golfers have been learning to hit the ball further. Advances in equipment technology, diet and fitness and data analysis have added a hundred yards to the average driving distance of elite male players over the last hundred years. Golf course designers have responded by making holes longer, fairways narrower and rough thicker. But, as DeChambeau’s buccaneering at the US Open showed, they are running out of options. Are golf’s most famous courses at risk of being overpowered? And if so, what can be done about it?
The golf world has worried about how far its players can hit the ball for years. “When golf architecture tries to combat distance with distance… it falls prey to the very thing it seeks to control. Golf courses of extreme length reward only players of extreme length,” wrote Alister MacKenzie, one of the most highly regarded golf course designers in the world. These are the same sentiments as expressed by Fitzpatrick, but MacKenzie was writing in 1931. In that year, the average length of a course on the US PGA Tour was around 6,500 yards. Ninety years later, this average is north of 7,200 yards. It appears that golf has fallen into the very trap that MacKenzie warned about.
Golf has followed the same path as any other sport you can think of. It has used developments in science, technology, fitness and nutrition to produce better outcomes. Some of these changes are focused on the players themselves, who are bigger and stronger than their 1930s counterparts. Part of the reason why Usain Bolt could outrun Jesse Owens is because he has a longer stride and is in better physical condition. Likewise, it is a fair bet that Rory McIlroy is a better athlete than Byron Nelson was. Bolt and McIlroy also have the advantages bestowed by more advanced equipment. Bolt sprints on synthetic rubber tracks wearing very light shoes. Owens ran on cinder and wore heavy leather boots. McIlroy benefits from the research and development of a golf equipment industry worth $9 billion (£6.5bn) a year, which continues to design lighter and more energy efficient clubs and more aerodynamic balls. Athletes across all sports also now have access to data that measures the impact on their performance of even minuscule changes to their technique, to help them achieve marginal gains. From these innovations, sport gathers momentum. All sports, but particularly individual endeavours such as golf, would lose much of their grit and competitive edge if players were not getting better.
And so it has fallen to golf course designers to try to rein players in by setting them ever stiffer challenges. Tom Doak, who has designed courses all over the world, says designers and equipment manufacturers are “natural rivals”. “We’re the ones playing defence, and the companies are on the offence. Our job has become trying to keep the game challenging enough to be interesting. If it got to the point where elite golfers are hitting a wedge to ten feet from the hole all the time, then no-one is going to want to watch,” he says.
There is a playfulness to this rivalry. In 2002 the equipment firm Titleist ran a television advert featuring John Cleese as a beleaguered course designer who had to resort to barbed wire around the greens and eight-foot-high rough because Titleist’s new balls gave players so much distance. But without these tricks at their disposal, designers have fallen back on making holes longer and longer. Take the third course at the prestigious Medinah Country Club in Illinois. It has hosted three US Opens, as well as several PGA Championships and the 2012 Ryder Cup. At the first of its US Opens, in 1975, the course was just under 7,000 yards long and a score of three over par was enough to top the leaderboard. In the days of persimmon drivers and wound balls, hitting long tee shots very straight was “one of the toughest skills to master”, according to Andy Johnson, host of the popular golf podcast Fried Egg. In 1990 the US Open returned to Medinah. The course had been lengthened by 200 yards and players were using drivers with metal heads. Hale Irwin won the tournament at eight under par. In 1999 Medinah hosted the PGA Championship and the tees went back again, to almost 7,500 yards. But Tiger Woods shrugged off the extra distance and won with a score of 11 under.
Prior to hosting the 2006 PGA Championship, the course was redesigned again, stretching it to 7,560 yards. The fairways were also narrowed, the bunkers deepened. Johnson described it as “nearly unplayable for the average golfer”, but admits that it “checks all the boxes for what tournament selection committees usually look for in a ‘championship venue’”. The extra yardage didn’t bother Woods. He won the tournament with a score of 18 under. Since then, Medinah’s owners have added still more distance, but the course record has continued to tumble. Justin Thomas won a big tournament in 2019 with the absurd score of 25 under, including 11 under in a single round. Adding yards to the course has narrowed the field of potential winners to those with the biggest drives, but the extra length on its own has not been enough to tax the big hitters.
But golf’s distance battle is not just about the manufacturers versus course designers. There is a third party that has powerful sway: the governing bodies. Golf’s stewardship is complicated: the R&A, a spin-off from the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews, manages the rules and regulations worldwide, with the exception of the US, which is overseen by the US Golf Association (USGA). The R&A and the USGA work closely together on an agreed set of principles. These have diverged in the past – as recently as the 1980s very different balls were used in Europe and the US – but they are currently in lockstep. And, in recent years, they have become much more interested in the distance debate.
In 2020 they published Distance Insights, a report two years in the making that is both deeply researched and refreshingly forthright. The R&A’s data shows a steady upward trend in driving distances, caused by the long-term improvement in players’ athleticism and technique, punctuated by regular, much steeper periods of increase that coincide with innovations in equipment, such as drivers with titanium faces or golf balls with solid cores. The language of the report is strident: the R&A wants to “break the cycle” of continuous length increases. The report’s lead author, Steve Otto, says that the authorities are striving to “balance skill and technology” in order to “maintain the integrity of the sport”. He argues that “long driving is a skill, but it shouldn’t become dominant and replace others, like approach shots onto greens or putting”. The R&A believes that if it doesn’t act now, there is a risk that many of golf’s historical courses, including St Andrews, become obsolete. It is also mindful that ever-longer courses are more expensive to build and maintain and have a greater environmental impact. It is threatening new regulations on equipment that would stop drives getting longer and remove the imperative for architects to design 8,000-yard courses. But will it dare?
DeChambeau is one of a group of contemporary golfers who have been described as advocates of “bombing and gouging”. This slightly pejorative term means the strategy of prioritising distance off the tee over where the ball ends up. The bombing is the tee shot, hit hard, the gouging refers to the divots hacked out of the course once the drive has missed the fairway. It is this approach that got up the noses of Fitzpatrick and McIlroy, especially when DeChambeau practiced it at the US Open, a tournament with a reputation for narrow fairways and thick rough, elements that ought to encourage the sensible targeting of fairways.
But bombing and gouging is a little more sophisticated than simply belting the ball as hard as possible off the tee. For one thing, we know that DeChambeau and the other bombers are keeping something in reserve. Long-driving champions – whose goal is simply to hit the ball as far as possible onto an enormous, very forgiving grid – regularly hit the ball 400 yards using the same equipment, but DeChambeau’s average drive in the 2020 season was 322 yards. So some caution is being applied, even when attempting to clear the trees at Winged Foot.
It might seem reckless, but there is evidence that bombing and gouging works. Mark Broadie is a professor at Columbia Business School specialising in financial markets. He also likes golf. Several years ago, he designed a statistical measure – strokes gained – which assesses how good a shot is compared with the rest of the field. Using an enormous database of strokes and his new metric, Broadie calculated that an extra 20 yards off the tee gives a player an advantage equivalent to one-tenth of a stroke. (In 2020, DeChambeau’s 322-yard average drive was actually 26 yards above the average of everyone else, so his advantage is actually a bit more than this.) Over a single round, a big hitter like DeChambeau shaves off the equivalent of 1.4 shots as a result of his greater distance alone.
The other side of the equation is that hitting the ball harder ought to result in some decline in accuracy. The wisdom of bombing and gouging is “really about the trade-off between driving distance and driving accuracy,” says Broadie. If you hit the ball harder, you have less control over where the ball ends up. Broadie calculated that missing a fairway resulted in a disadvantage of around 0.3 strokes per hole, a larger penalty than the advantage conferred by going 20 yards further. But here’s the kicker: he found that bombers, including DeChambeau and another major champion, Dustin Johnson, were not much worse than the rest of the field at hitting fairways. They only tended to end up on one fewer fairway per round. This meant that the balance of bombing and gouging was a net advantage of 1.1 strokes per round.
DeChambeau is a details guy. A physics graduate, he thinks widely about how to win and is willing to experiment. In the past he has played with a side-on putter and taken a protractor onto the course. At the end of 2019 he told the press he would “look like a different person” the following year. True to his word, he emerged from lockdown between ten and 20 kilograms heavier, adding 20 yards to his average drive and becoming the biggest hitter on the Tour. “[DeChambeau] has put all of his energy towards becoming the longest player because he saw how much of an advantage distance brought at certain venues, oftentimes major championship venues,” says Johnson of Fried Egg. “I think it’s important to not discount how incredible Bryson’s transformation has been. He has been able to add a tonne of speed and distance without sacrificing much accuracy.” It shouldn’t surprise us that the golfer with the greatest attention to detail spotted that the trends in equipment manufacturing and golf course design has created an opportunity for the biggest hitters on the tour, and that he had the determination to exploit it.
The question is how long this advantage will last. After presenting the Distance Insights report, the R&A announced that it would consult with the rest of the golf world on introducing a “local rule” that would allow tournament organisers to choose what equipment was permitted at their events, giving them the option of outlawing the balls or drivers that go the furthest. It also announced a review of existing equipment specifications. The manufacturers are wary. Paul Wood, vice-president of engineering at PING, admits that the debate “has been building for a long time and we are at a big decision point”. He wants “clear regulation that enables us to continue to pursue innovation. Golf is having a boom right now” – after a period of decline, rounds played in the US were up by 20 per cent in the summer of 2020 – “and we don’t want to make it harder for people to get into the game”. Among the architects, Doak believes that more regulation is inevitable: “Sooner or later, I think there will be some steps back for the elite players. And I think a lot of them would actually be in favour of that, if it wasn’t for that big cheque from the equipment company telling them, ‘Don’t say that’.” Any major shake-up of rules will take time – players and manufacturers will need years of notice to adapt – but a tightening of regulations is beginning to look inevitable.
But until then, bombing and gouging will continue to dominate. As players prepared for the first major of the 2021 season, the Masters at Augusta in early April, DeChambeau played at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Florida. The 555-yard sixth hole is a par five that curves around a lake. The tee and the green face each other on opposite sides. Everyone plays the hole anticlockwise, taking two or three iron shots around the lake, an approach to the green and a putt. As soon as DeChambeau stood on the tee, the crowd clocked what he was about to try. He rotated the tee by 90° and smacked a 377-yard drive over the water onto the fairway on the opposite side, ending up 90 yards from the hole. On seeing that he cleared the lake, he thrust both arms into the air. The masked crowd whooped. His playing partner, Lee Westwood, took the conventional route. With a single swing, DeChambeau had gained 170 yards. Another course had been tamed.
More great stories from WIRED
💊 A dying child, a mother’s love and the drug that changed medicine
😷 Coronavirus vaccines are making some long Covid sufferers feel better
🎧 Upgrading your listening on a budget? We tested all of Amazon’s cheapest headphones