Golf, like any sport, is populated with heroes and anti-heroes.
But aren’t those denounced as anti-heroes also heroes to those who choose to admire them?
Maybe it all comes down to your sense of perspective, a commodity about as rare these days as a safely operative vaccine for Covid-19. Our best guess is they’ll find the vaccine quicker. There was a time over the weekend, until his collapse on the back nine, when Patrick Reed seemed the most likely contender to threaten Bryson DeChambeau’s relentless march towards his national title.
This may have posed a dilemma to so many whose sporting allegiances are these days more aligned with their political persuasions, as much as personality preferences.
Who to cheer for when two cartoon villains are going at it down the back nine on a Sunday? Ultimately, the contest didn’t materialise and it was left to Matthew Wolff to represent the perceived side of ‘good’ versus ‘evil’.
Twenty-four years after the first mention of Tiger-proofing golf courses – which spawned more, not fewer, long-hitting behemoths – we may have to take slightly longer than it does for DeChambeau to assess a 25-footer for par to see how that works out, with Augusta’s verdant green awaiting the boom and bombast of the baddest man in golf.
But DeChambeau is not changing golf; golf has always been changing and its curators, whether unable or unwilling, have palpably failed to respond to the accelerating multiplicity of scientific and technological advances.
That said, there has been a marked snobbery – in golf, hardly? – amongst many who sneer at the extensive lengths, literally, DeChambeau has managed to achieve in a game which was, at its best, fairly rudimentary before a global pandemic allowed him, no more than anyone else, to take personal and professional stock.
But he wasn’t the first player in history to add muscle to a lithe frame, nor indeed the first to trust an instinct that playing into greens 100 yards out from the rough might be a little easier than playing from 200 yards out on the fairway. He was not singular in such an outlook; at least six others were, to our mind, given that DeChambeau managed to be just seventh in average driving distance. He was just better.
And armed with putting statistics that comfortably placed him 11th in putts per hole, his courage, talent and remarkable discipline cemented his eminence.
For sure, shock and awe from the tee laid the foundation but without the precision around the greens to augment the power deployed in getting there, DeChambeau would not have managed to deny all-comers.
His durability will determine just where he lies in the pantheon of greatness but now is not the time to make that particular judgment, however easy it is for those to sneer at his idiosyncrasies – or, for those of a churlish disposition, his idiocies. But he is not a one-off game-changer, merely one of many game-changers.
Twenty years after he won this tournament by a barely imaginable 15 shots, Tiger Woods, languished 13 shots behind this year’s US Open winner after just two rounds as he missed the halfway cut on 10-over.
Another extraordinary athlete who married awesome physical power with a perceived personality deficit, Woods was then in the middle of his own game-changing career which owed much to the inability of the game to change with him.
‘Tiger-proofing’ entered the lexicon but the definition was rendered meaningless as the sport’s reaction – merely lengthening courses – had the effect of strengthening Woods’ dominance while eliminating the challenges of so many prospective rivals. Woods’ 15 Majors changed golf but golf didn’t respond then, so it’s difficult to see why it should after DeChambeau wins just one.
Rewind to 1991 and John Daly, so tragically struck down with cancer of late, tamed Crooked Stick with a big stick; we were told his ball-striking was too speedy to be captured in slow-motion and that once he had broken a ball. Myth trumped reality then, too.
From the moment Arnold Palmer “struck the ball so hard it made the earth shake” – he, too, was initially an outsider, before his army of fans took him to their hearts – golf has been in an enduring existential battle.
It will be difficult for some to celebrate the difference of DeChambeau; until then, Rory McIlroy and his rivals should just focus on getting even with the mad scientist.