Like all life’s faiths, wars and ideological battlegrounds, division can usually be traced back to a book. The instruction manuals that attempt to distil our meaning to an exact purpose, a perfect way to live, a divine solution, if you will. In golf, there are no shortage of bibles; an infinity of swing variations, step-by-step manuals and self-help guides, for when it all inevitably implodes. None, though, have had such a profound and controversial effect as The Golfing Machine.
First published in 1969, presented a little like an arcane physics dissertation, it systematically strips away the art and individualism of the swing and replaces it with excruciatingly detailed, robotised mechanics. “Why trust instinct when there is a science,” wrote its enigmatic author, Homer Kelley. And depending on who you speak to, it is either the product of futuristic genius or dystopian madness, which has incrementally or insidiously influenced golf for over half a century. “There are traces back to it everywhere,” says Ian Clark, one of The Golfing Machine’s authorised instructors. “It’s a family tree and its roots run all over, but a lot of people don’t want to admit it because of the stigma it carries with it.”
Tiger Woods’s former coach, Butch Harmon, claimed even an MIT student would struggle to understand it. But atop the heaving shoulders of Bryson DeChambeau, golf’s new standard-bearer - or pall-bearer, if you prefer - The Golfing Machine has been thrust back into the mainstream. The world’s most exciting and alienating player, US Open champion and favourite this week at Augusta, DeChambeau first studied the book’s thousands of variations as a 15-year-old. Together with his longtime coach, Mike Schy, it inspired the single-length irons and one-plane swing that are now stretching the fabric of the sport. “The Golfing Machine is a recipe book,” DeChambeau said himself in 2018. “There are a bunch of ingredients that are there, but ultimately it tells you how to make the cake.”
The result has been an almost computerised swing, working off data to the nearest minutiae, minimising grace in favour of maximising averages. “Bryson is a unique individual. He’s a mad scientist, he’s his own experiment, his own laboratory,” says David Leadbetter, a hall-of-fame instructor. “His swing goes up and down like it’s on a wheel, there’s not a lot of wrist set compared to other players, it’s a Golf Machine approach.”
It is, largely, why DeChambeau is such a polarising figure. In a sport that prides itself on the myths of art and feel, he has taken the scientific principles of The Golfing Machine and applied them to the game’s every facet. It is an assault on its very traditions, and whether it’s measuring particle pressure in the air; analysing breathing patterns; an electroencephalogram sensor wired to his brain to test stress responses; a pocket compass to decode yardage books or even a high-powered laser to hone his vector putting technique, DeChambeau’s data-driven outlook has found success in uncharted, new-age extremes.
“If you reduce the number of moving parts, then you can repeat the same swing using simple geometry and physics,” says Sandy Lambert, a former professional on the Ladies European Tour and an authorised instructor. “It can seem like it’s making it more complicated, but actually it’s simplifying it. If you take away the variables, there are far fewer factors that can influence the mental side, and you can just pull the trigger.”
“People always talk about feel,” Clark adds. “But in everything else you do in life, you have a system to go back to. If I’m on a plane, I’d rather have a pilot flying with a system rather than by feel.”
DeChambeau’s now-notorious decision to add over 20lbs of muscle during the coronavirus lockdown, with the help of former NBA and NFL strength and conditioning coach Greg Roskopf, was another calculated expression of that approach, as opposed to the radical binge it is often painted to be. It is a process of shifting the paradigm - a lock-armed putting grip with subtle distance control, a 48” driver with astonishing swing speed that’s still capable of shaping the ball - forging a bridge from art to science rather than an outright extinction of the the former.
“Most people think that I'm so technical that I don't have a feel aspect or a rhythm aspect of it, but that's just the opposite,” DeChambeau said. “I need to get into my momentum and my rhythm in regards to being technical and analytical, and also being that artist.”
“It’s still largely an artform,” Leadbetter agrees. “Golf is not an exact science. You’re never standing in a controlled environment trying to make a perfect swing like a robot. You’ll never see a robot be a good bunker player, hitting out of a wet downhill lie with the ball plugged like a fried egg.”
The apprehension, then, lies in the fear of the unknown. DeChambeau has already reduced Winged Foot, once famed for its ‘massacre’ of the field in 1974, to a drive and a wedge in June. At Augusta, his length - averaging 344.4 yards off the tee this season - and high carry will provide an even greater advantage on the soft autumn ground. If he’s able to “bash his way to victory by six or eight shots”, as Leadbetter suggests, it could in time be proven just as seminal a victory as Woods’s own dismantling of The Masters in 1997.
Will a generation of hulking Moneyball scientists muscle out the artists of old? Could a 51-year-old book begin to produce a factory line of homogenous professionals that overwrite the future? They are the most pertinent, and to some concerning questions facing the sport. "My goal is to inspire a new generation of golfers to think differently and just go out there and bomb it,” DeChambeau recently told the New York Times.
“The capacity to take all the information on board is a consideration," says Lambert, with countless professionals, such as Bubba Watson, enjoying enormous success with a polar opposite approach. "But there will still be a lot of people who are able to utilise it to the nth degree like Bryson has.”
“I don’t think there’s any danger of one technique taking over the world. In the end, so much of it is based around how a person’s mind is geared,” Leadbetter agrees. “[But] it could be a crucial week in determining what’s going to happen in the future. Whether Bryson is an outlier or sign of things to come, only time will tell.” The answer, one expects, may well arrive in the late hours of Sunday evening.
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