PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Almost everything about Bryson DeChambeau is incongruous. He’s basically a nerd who loves being a showboat; a deeply thoughtful man who is wanting for self-awareness; a golfer with power sufficient to raze any course but whose mind leans to the exactness of the scalpel when it comes to problem solving.
If he’s to win the Players Championship on Sunday, it will require another exercise in contradiction: disappointing his fans by largely denying them what they’ve come to see.
The 20% crowd capacity here at TPC Sawgrass is almost 100% focused on DeChambeau, and they ain’t clamoring for protein shake recipes. They only want to see him pulverize his driver. Unfortunately, they’re following him around a course where he won’t need to deploy his heavy artillery all that often.
DeChambeau knows when he is disappointing fans by the reaction when he reaches into his bag. “It’s always like, ‘aww’ with an iron. Driver, it’s like, ‘yeah!’,” he said Friday.
So far, the World No. 6’s game plan of occasionally disappointing his fans is working: he has shot a pair of 69s that put himself firmly in the frame to win on the PGA Tour for a second consecutive week. Those 69s also expose the limits of the popular perception of DeChambeau’s strategy: that his aim is only ever to batter a course into submission (with his driver), that his method is simply to overpower any obstacle (with his driver), that its effect is to render obsolete any hazard (with his driver).
All of which is only partially true.
“People mistake that his search for distance is coming from a ‘grip it and rip it’ mentality, but it has its own in-depth analysis and strategy to it,” said Chris Como, DeChambeau’s swing whisperer told me Friday morning. “He only utilizes that when it’s appropriate. It’s not as appropriate here since you hit a lot less drivers.”
Unlike at Winged Foot, where DeChambeau rode the big stick to a six-stroke victory in the U.S. Open last September. “Hitting a ton of drivers at Winged Foot was a thoughtful approach, given the scenario,” the coach explained. “Really narrow fairways, long rough, trying to carry it as far as possible, knowing no one is going to hit a lot of fairways. It’s just a better place to play from on average. Out here, he is definitely taking a precision game plan just because he thinks it’s appropriate for this set-up.”
Through 36 holes, DeChambeau hasn’t really been that precise — he has hit just six fairways each day — but then his definition of precision is like the difference between drone strikes and nuclear missiles: one based on the use of targeted power (but power nonetheless) to eliminate a specific problem.
Take the 18th hole at TPC Sawgrass.
DeChambeau’s announced plan of attack for the closing hole made news three days before a single shot was struck at the Players. He mused aloud on pummeling driver across the lake left of the fairway toward the adjoining 9th hole, leaving himself a shorter approach shot and, depending on the pin position, a more favorable angle. It didn’t take long for the PGA Tour to declare his targeted landing area internal out of bounds, negating his out-of-the-box plan.
I asked Como if all the chatter about the plan to annex the 9th distracted from DeChambeau’s nuanced strategy to win at TPC Sawgrass, a course where he has had two middling finishes in his prior starts.
“I don’t know if that was by design. I think sometimes he just talks very freely, which is part of his charm, right?” he replied with a laugh. “People obviously reacted to that line of thinking, but I don’t think there was any metagame to it.”
Somewhat lost in the kerfuffle about DeChambeau’s length and his making a mockery of architectural conventions, is that the controversial plan for the 18th illuminated the 27-year-old’s essence: he is not so much a brute who relies upon one club than he is a determined problem solver, fastened on engineering solutions to pesky deficiencies in his game. That 18th was a brainteaser for him.
In eight previous rounds at TPC Sawgrass, DeChambeau was 7-over par on the 18th and had never hit the green in regulation. So when his initial solution to this quandary was deep-sixed by Tour officials bearing white stakes, he was forced to devise another, because — as he admitted Friday — he doesn’t have a driver play on the 18th, at least not if he’s denied air rights over the lake toward the 9th.
“No. Not with my dispersion,” he said. “I’d be trying to hit a rope hook down the same kind of curve of the fairway.”
“If I overdraw it, it’s in the water. If I hit it just a little straight it’s in the trees. There’s nothing. I’ve got nothing there,” he explained. “That’s why I was thinking about going down 9. Dangit.”
His Plan B has been successful: both days he roped 4-iron down the right side of the fairway leaving a short iron to the green. He hit it in regulation and made two routine pars.
“It’s what is the lowest score on average he feels like he can make on a hole.” Como said of the strategic mindset DeChambeau has adopted. “That may be an over-par score depending on the set-up. Every hole is looked at with a thorough strategy aspect to it.”
Of course, distance provides DeChambeau that luxury of flexibility, enabling him to hit irons while most of his competitors must assume greater risk by hitting driver. Precision based on power. While fans bray for him to hit driver, DeChambeau is artfully dismantling TPC Sawgrass with irons, a seductive and effective marriage of power and planning, born of an obsessive will to decode the vagaries of the game.
“I’m a perfectionist, and I’ll continue to be so until the day I die and until the day I stop playing this game,” he said. “That’s just the way I am. I love it about me, that’s what makes me work hard and fight for every shot out there, but at the same time it makes me worry about stuff a lot.”
Halfway home at the Players, he doesn’t have much cause for worry. The same might not be said of his opponents.