Thursday, August 6, 2020

PGA Tour: Presenting the Future?

By Jonathan Lowe

Something has me confused. Ever since the PGA Tour returned, there's been the feeling that an evolution is coming. It isn't the changing technology in the driver. It isn't the sharp degree of the wedges. It isn't the spin rate of the latest golf balls. It comes from the body. As time rolled on, players on the Tour have taken more and better care of their bodies. That seemed to ramp up in the late '90s, due to one particular presence. But back to him later.

Today, workout regiments have become increasingly more important alongside range sessions, short game work, and time on the putting green. Several players aren't just making sure they stay in shape. Some want of bulk up for the grind of a long season of travel, practice, and competition. This brings us to the latest example of someone hitting the gym hard.

As many that follow golf know, Bryson DeChambeau has a uniqueness about him. As his college campaigns morphed into a professional career, people started to take notice of the way he approached the game. One thing that people don't discuss enough in the game of golf is the amount of individuality the sport has. It may not show up in the personalities walking the courses each weekend, but technical aspects do have their own flair. Putting grips, stances, swing motions, even driver head covers ... everybody does their own thing.

DeChambeau was called the "Mad Scientist" for his approach to optimal performance. The physics major from SMU used that background to climb his way up the World Rankings. Over his three full seasons on the Tour, he gathered up 16 top-10 finishes and won five times (including back-to-back wins in FedEx Cup playoff events in 2018). Heck, there were even multiple commercials touting his love of science alongside a famous "student" (there's that guy again). But Bryson seemed to be looking at a coming tide. The Tour continues to get stronger and longer off the tee. So, why not be ahead of the crowd?

Starting about a year ago, DeChambeau started to bulk up ... I mean, really bulk up. Since September, the 26-year-old has put on around 50 pounds of weight. Now, he looks more like a linebacker or small tight end than your typical PGA Tour pro. So far, the transition has inspired positive results. While swinging out of his shoes to hit 350-plus-yard bombs off the tee box, Bryson wrapped around the COVID break by racking up seven top-10 finishes in a row. That culminated in his victory at the Rocket Mortgage Classic. With all of the drives launched into oblivion, commentators are in awe (I've shaken my head a few times, too). Some have even said that he might start the next big trend in golf. That leaves me with one question.

"Huh?"

Long hitters have been around the PGA since its inception. As I said earlier, new technology and better conditioning have steadily made the tee-to-green experience shorter and shorter. Plus, there have always been big boys that shoot for the stakes. The first one from my memory banks is John Daly. He came out of nowhere to pummel his way to a Major victory in 1991. Then, a few years later, Tiger Woods (knew I'd get to him sooner or later) rewrote the game. When he started tearing things up in 1999, more purse money was not the only result. How many venues stretched to a more demanding yardage?

These days, length is all over the leaderboards. Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, Tony Finau, and others hit the ball a country mile. However, on the eve of the rescheduled PGA Championship, one name seems to be a fitting comparison to the DeChambeau evolution.

Have you seen Brooks Koepka lately? The 30-year-old has been a professional four more years than DeChambeau (2012 to 2016). Brooks has one more Tour victory than Bryson (7 to 6). The elder Koepka brother (with younger Chase also playing PGA events) may not be as swole as DeChambeau (205 lbs. to 235, on their official Tour profile pages), but he's no string bean ... and his biceps are the circumference of small tires. In this reinvigorated season, it's DeChambeau that appears to be the new face and future of the pro game.

Problem is, to me, he's looking at a reflection from the wrong side of the mirror. To me, Bryson has merely become the latest version of Brooks Koepka. Since coming out of nowhere to win the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills, Brooks has not only become a contender at major championships. He's usually the favorite. (That's what winning four majors will do for you.) And depending on where you get those sources (for recreational purposes only, of course), he is either the first or second favorite this week at San Francisco's Harding Park. He'll try to do what hasn't been accomplished in the the game's Modern Era ... win three consecutive PGA Championships.

For Bryson to take this route, it kind of signals more of a following of the crowd. He had the unique position as the holder of "physics displayed through the game of golf." Now, he's just gone more to the "grip it and rip it" mentality that others have tried before. But, you know, this could be the week that all changes.

In the era post Tiger's dominance, the top of the heap tends to be a carousel of major victory runs. McIlroy got four in a short span. Jordan Speith got three in a short time. Maybe Koepka's run stalls at four. Maybe DeChambeau builds back on that momentum from a few weeks back and finds a way to lift the Wanamaker Trophy on Sunday. Until those "maybes" turn to recorded history, let's hold off on declaring that Bryson is changing the game. By the way, they haven't "Koepka-proofed" or "Bryson-proofed" a course yet, have they?

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