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It’s hard to think of a sports venue that clings to tradition and history — while often resisting change — more than Augusta National.
It’s the most famous setting in a sport already known for its old-school, sometimes stuffy nature.
But as the golf world zeroes in on Augusta this week for the Masters, a revolution arrives with it — the data revolution.
And it comes in the form of a 6-foot-1, 240-pound, protein-shake-filled trailblazer named Bryson DeChambeau. Like it or not, he’s changing the game thanks largely to his devotion to the data. Think of it as golf’s version of the Moneyball era in baseball.
Old-school fans and players may scoff at the idea of math invading their beautiful game, but they can no longer roll their eyes at the man who leans into the numbers more than anyone. DeChambeau marches into Augusta as a U.S. Open champion after he took his first major title at Winged Foot in September.
While both DeChambeau and analytics have been around the sport for a few years, fans and golfers alike will have to take his approach more seriously now that he’s a major champion.
“I think people would realize that hitting it farther is definitely an easier way to play the game,” he said of his U.S. Open win. “No matter what, athletics are always going to be the top of mind in sport, and no matter what sport you're in.”
Justin Ray, head of content at 15th Club, a golf analytics company based in England, says the data invasion has already begun in golf but DeChambeau will only speed it up.
“Bryson has certainly brought more attention to the idea that an approach to the game steered by data can bring better results,” Ray said. “Often, Tiger is credited with getting more golfers into the gym a generation ago. I won’t predict that Bryson will get every tour pro to read a physics book, but he’s brought a data-centric approach to the sport more into the mainstream.”
Data can help golfers improve their game in many different ways: course management, putting technique and emphasizing the approach game. But DeChambeau has focused most of his energy on driving distance.
He spent the entire three-month COVID-19 PGA shutdown working out and changing his diet to add 20 pounds of muscle. When he returned, he was launching it down the fairway farther than any player in history. Last season, he led the tour with an average distance of 322.1 yards off the tee. He’s already upped that to 344.4 this season, nearly 13 yards ahead of second place.
And he wants to continue to push the limits, teasing the potential use of a 48-inch driver (maximum allowable length) this week.
And this isn’t simply about bragging rights for him. In 11 tournaments he’s played since his bulked-up return to the tour in June, he has seven top-10 finishes, four top 5s and two wins, including the U.S. Open. The results are backing up his process.
“I think people are starting to understand that it's not just about me being quirky and doing things in my own way but it's about the process of trying to be better each and every day,” DeChambeau said Tuesday.
All that winning certainly has the attention of some of the world’s best players.
Tiger Woods was once the big hitter on tour, and he’s known for bringing weight lifting and an emphasis on physical fitness to the sport when he burst onto the scene 20-some years ago. Yet even he admits DeChambeau has taken that to another level.
“What he’s done in the gym has been incredible and what he’s done on the range and what he’s done with his entire team,” Woods said. “To be able to optimize that one club and transform his game and the ability to hit the ball as far as he has in as short of span as he has, it’s never been done before.”
There’s a reason DeChambeau has put so much energy on maximizing power.
As Ben Wackett of 15th Club data analytics puts it, we need to rethink the old golf adage of “drive for show, putt for dough.”
From a statistical perspective, Wackett says that’s “completely wrong.” One data point from 15th Club shows DeChambeau is averaging 1.1 strokes gained off the tee per round since the season restarted in June.
In other words, he’s gets more than a one-shot advantage over the field by simply out-driving everybody. It doesn’t even matter if it’s straight.
“He’s just bombing it down there, recognizing that he’d rather hit a sand wedge from the rough than a 6-iron from the fairway,” Wackett said.
The players agree. After playing a 9-hole practice round with DeChambeau on Monday at Augusta, Justin Thomas admitted to a bit a jealousy.
“He obviously still has to execute and hit the shots, make the putts. But I sure would like to be hitting from his tee shots as opposed to mine, distance-wise,” Thomas said.
That’s coming from the No. 3 golfer in the world who is no slouch off the tee himself.
Just about every golfer this week was asked about DeChambeau in press conferences. He’s the talk of the tourney. His success has people talking about swing speed, ball speed and spin rate more than ever before.
Can he launch it at 200 mph? Can he carry it 400 yards?
Golf legend Jack Nicklaus raised eyebrows by suggesting the U.S. Open champ could drive the green on the first hole at Augusta, which is a par 4 listed at 445 yards. CBS commentator Nick Faldo said he’ll run round the course naked if it happens.
DeChambeau’s response? “If the fairways firm up … I could definitely roll it up there close to the green.”
Welcome to the new era in golf, where apparently anything is possible.
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