The Long and Short of Winning the Masters
Contributor: Dennis Richardson
DeChambeau Hopes to Duplicate His Success At U.S. Open By Overpowering Augusta National
ORLANDO, FL (Nov. 09, 2020)
Sometime on Thursday, Nov. 12, during the first round of the 2020 Masters Tournament, Bryson DeChambeau will step up to the first tee at Augusta National Golf Club. The hole measures 455 yards, with a 17-foot uphill change in elevation.
The U.S. Open champion will pull his new, 48-inch driver out of his golf bag, steady himself over the shot, and then take a Bunyan-esque rip at his “Bridgestone Tour B X” ball to send it screaming up the fairway. What happens next could have a profound impact on the Masters and Augusta National, a place where tradition is sacred and time seems to stand still.
No less an expert on the Masters than Hall of Famer Jack Nicklaus, who has won six green jackets, thinks that DeChambeau might do what many golfers have thought to be almost impossible: drive the first green. Under the right conditions, if the fairway is firm and the wind is blowing in a favorable direction, Nicklaus told Michael Bamberger of golf.com that DeChambeau could reach the putting surface with his tee shot.
A golfer driving a 450-yard hole, uphill? Augusta National may never be the same. Even if he comes up short, one of golf’s most exalted venues may be changed forever after the 84th edition of this major finishes. Just as Augusta was “Tiger-proofed” almost 20 years ago to combat Tiger Woods’ length, so too may the club need to address the “Bomb and Gouge” style of play that is gaining popularity in the game.
In “Bomb and Gouge” distance trumps accuracy. A player hits the ball as far as possible with little regard for the consequences and then “gouges” it out of the rough and onto the green. The idea is that hitting the ball far enough will negate any penalty for missing the fairway. “Bomb and Gouge” officially will come to this eastern Georgia course this week, with DeChambeau leading the way.
“What (DeChambeau) has done is amazing,” Nicklaus told Bamberger. “He has figured out that distance is more important than accuracy. Even at a U.S. Open. I give the guy great kudos. You develop skills that give you an advantage and that’s what he’s figured out.”
For DeChambeau that advantage is his prodigious length. With an average drive of 344 yards, he is the longest hitter in the history of the PGA Tour. When he tees off Thursday, he will look to do to Augusta National what he did to Winged Foot at the U.S. Open a couple months ago: pound it into submission by launching shots to distances this fabled course has never seen.
Skeptics said that Winged Foot couldn’t be overpowered, not with its narrow fairways and severely penalizing rough. Then, DeChambeau proved them wrong by being the only golfer in the field to break par over four rounds, and winning by six strokes. Now he’s set his sights on Augusta, which at 7,485 yards will play close to Winged Foot’s length, but has wider fairways and no rough. After his Open success, far fewer people doubt him these days – he’s the favorite to win and the leading story heading into this third and final major of the year (the British Open was canceled due to the pandemic).
The Masters has trademarked the slogan, “A tradition like no other.” This year’s event promises to be “A Masters like no other.” Because of COVID-19, this will be the first time the pandemic-delayed tournament has been held in November, and only the third time outside of its traditional April date. (The Masters also was canceled in 1943-45 due to World War II). Plus, because of health and social distancing guidelines, fans will not be in attendance – there will be no roars from thousands of spectators echoing through the Georgia pines as a player makes a charge on the back nine during Sunday’s final round. In addition, for the first two rounds golfers will begin play on both the first and 10th holes – meaning that half of the field each of those two days will face the unpleasant task of having to negotiate treacherous Amen Corner after their first couple holes.
The Advantage of Being Long
The late Horton Smith, who won two of the first three Masters, once said Augusta “is one of the few courses that really presents two games on almost every hole; a game to reach the greens and another to figure out the ever-changing contours after reaching the greens.”
Long hitters always have had an advantage at Augusta National, which is very much a second-shot golf course, where one’s drive sets up the all-important approach shot to the green. Long hitters have an easier time reaching positions in (and occasionally off) the fairways that will enable them to hit shorter irons into the lightning-fast and heavily contoured greens – and thus set up better opportunities for birdie putts. It can mean the difference between hitting a 6-iron or a pitching wedge into the putting surface, and the difference between making a par or a birdie. In essence, going long can help make short work of the Masters.
Like on No. 1. “If you can carry that bunker [on the right side of the fairway], it’s a sand wedge in, and you’re thinking birdie,” Phil Mickelson told Adam Schupak in a golfweek.com article on Nov. 4. “If you have to hit a 3-wood off of the tee and go to the side, or if you can’t carry it and you have to play more to the left, it’s a 6- or 7-iron into the green, so you’re thinking par.”
And, should he drive the green on No. 1, as Nicklaus suggests of DeChambeau, then a rare eagle on that hole becomes a possibility – which would be like gaining one or two strokes on the field.
If a golfer can “fly the ball 315-320 (yards) minimum, you have a chance to take advantage of some of those holes,” said Mickelson, who plans to use the 47.5-inch driver he unveiled in winning a PGA Champions Tour event last month. Which DeChambeau can do -- and then some.
Accuracy is good at Augusta National; distance is better. Take Tiger Woods, for instance. For years he has made a living out of bailing out to the right on the 11th fairway, launching his tee shot over and to the right of the trees on that side. What at first appeared to be a wayward shot actually gave him a shorter and better path to the pin and took the pond guarding the left front of the green out of play. Hard to argue with that strategy – Tiger’s won five Masters, and is the defending champion.
This is what the late Gene Sarazen, the 1935 Masters champion and one of five players to win the Grand Slam, said decades ago about the key to success at Augusta: “If you hit it long and straight and throw it up in the air high and putt well, you'll do well here. That's always been the formula at this golf course, and I don’t think that it’s changed.”
It hasn’t. Just look at Nicklaus in the 1960s and 70s, Tiger in the 1990s and early 2000s, and Mickelson and Bubba Watson later in the 2000s – they all hit the ball long and high, and all have won multiple Masters.
DeChambeau is following in their footsteps – he’s just walking farther down the fairways to his drive. Watson averaged around 315 yards off the tee in the two years he won. Tiger was around 323 yards when he won his first in 1997, and Jack was around 270 yards a drive – albeit without the advantage of today’s more sophisticated equipment, technology and bio-metrics – when he was reeling off those six Masters wins. DeChambeau is anywhere from 20 to 70 yards past that trio.
Apparently, there’s long, and then there’s Bryson long. For instance, at Nicklaus’ Memorial Tournament this year, DeChambeau came within 30 yards of driving the 470-yard, opening hole. Plus, he’s getting longer. He says the new, 48-inch driver (the maximum length allowed by the Rules of Golf) he plans to unveil at the Masters could gain him an additional 30 yards off the tee.
Adding 15 to 20 yards off the tee is a big deal; at Augusta, an extra 30 yards can be a game changer. In a recent article on cbssports.com, golfer writer Kyle Porter looked at how DeChambeau might play Augusta if he hits to his average drive of 344 yards. Porter speculates that only twice would Bryson need a 5-iron and only once would he require an 8-iron to reach the green on any of the par-fours and par-fives; on all the other holes (aside from par-3s) he’d be hitting 9-irons and wedges.
In his three previous trips here, DeChambeau has had middling results. His best finish is tied for 21st, when he was low amateur in 2016. In 2018, he placed 38th, and last year tied for 29th. He hopes that by driving the ball far enough to take mid- and long-irons out of the equation he will lower his score.
There has been talk for years that someday golfers who hit as far as long driving champions – cranking out 425-yard bombs -- and have the touch and feel to execute short irons and excel at putting will begin to make their way onto the PGA Tour. Those days may be near. Thus far in the 2020-21 Tour season, an astounding 115 players are averaging at least 300 yards a drive. In the 2019-2020 campaign, that number was 72. Five years ago it was 43. DeChambeau is just a glimpse of what is to come.
In Search of 400
The Masters will be Bryson’s first PGA Tour event since the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open in Las Vegas in early October. In addition to the new driver, he hopes to have added another 10 pounds since Winged Foot (bringing his weight to 245 pounds – 50 more than he weighed at the end of the 2019 Tour season). Both in the interest of being able to swing harder and faster, and to hit the ball farther.
His holy grail is to consistently drive the ball over 400 yards and reach ball speeds of 200 miles per hour. The player they call “The Scientist” on Tour feels he is making progress. DeChambeau recently posted on social media that during a practice session he hit one shot that carried more than 403 yards.
A new driver untested in tournament play, weight gain, a diet that includes as many as six protein shakes a day, and no competitive rounds played in five weeks – it’s an unconventional way to prepare for a major. Then again, Bryson always has marched to a different drummer on the golf course. He started using single-length clubs at age 15. He has experimented with using oversized golf grips on his clubs, side-saddle putting, using a compass to help determine yardage (which the Tour banned because it was “unusual equipment”), and once said that he based his decision about whether to leave the pin in the cup while putting on “the flagstick’s coefficient of restitution.”
DeChambeau, who graduated from SMU with a bachelor’s degree in physics, views a golf course as an expansive, green science laboratory. For this 27-year-old Texas resident, golf is not so much a game as a series of 18 science problems to be solved. Golf clubs and golf balls merely are tools with which to reach the correct solution.
He nicknamed the 45.5-inch driver he used to conquer the Open “Kraken,” after a sea monster in Greek mythology. What will he call the new 48-inch monster he’ll unleash on Augusta: Kraken 2.0, the Big Kraken, the Ultimate Kraken, King Kraken?
After Tiger’s victory in the 2001 Masters, Augusta National “Tiger-proofed” the course by adding 500 yards and planting trees in strategic locations to combat the long-hitting Woods. Tiger averaged 297 yards off the tee that year. DeChambeau is hitting it 47 yards farther than Tiger did then.
So, will Augusta National eventually need to Bryson-ize the course to neutralize the even longer-hitting DeChambeau and others? If he has the success he hopes to with bombing drives to never-before-reached spots, the famed club may have to. The problem, though, is how does a course defend against a golfer who might drive a 450-yard, uphill hole?
Dennis Richardson is a writer/editor with Words Matter. He has an extensive background as a reporter, copy editor, sportswriter, sports copy editor, and Senior Special Sections Writer with newspapers in Missouri and Florida. He lives outside of Orlando, FL.