Fifteen years ago, while I was flying with Jack Nicklaus from Calgary to Palm Beach, Fla., on the legend’s private jet, we hit turbulence at 40,000 feet. Looking distressed as a thunderstorm lit up the sky, Nicklaus grabbed his armrests and held on for dear life.
Lightning, he explained, “scares the crap out of me.”
I remember being stunned, and a bit unnerved, that the indomitable Jack Nicklaus would be afraid of anything.
With his massive thighs and piercing blue eyes, the Golden Bear was quite a sight when he pounded his golf ball into oblivion. His more charismatic rival, Arnold Palmer, also tried to land his ball on the far side of the moon with his blacksmith arms. They won a combined 10 Masters long before Tiger Woods changed the game with even greater power and speed — inspiring a younger, more athletic generation to attack the golf course with an all-out blitz.
“And we’re going to keep going after it,” promised the most imposing member of that generation, Bryson James Aldrich DeChambeau, after winning last September’s U.S. Open.
You know the 6-foot-1, 245-pound DeChambeau as the quirky hulk in the Hogan cap, the guy who had packed on 40 pounds of muscle while trying to hit 400-yard drives, trying to generate a ball speed of 220 mph and, he told GQ, trying to live to 130 or 140 years of age.
“I want humans to be better,” DeChambeau said. “I want them to succeed.”
He is golf’s answer to an interstellar space probe, exploring new worlds.
Why would anyone ever root against that?
We want our great athletes to be fearless, to extend the boundaries of human possibility, and no player in the Augusta National field this week represents that approach like the 27-year-old DeChambeau, once known for his brain and now known for his brawn. He was the former college physics major who drove opponents and galleries mad with his analytical pace — at least until he morphed into a bench-pressing, protein-shake-guzzling monster whose top priority is to thrill the fans.
“They’ve always kind of been my little edge … for helping improve my performance on the golf course,” DeChambeau said.
While winning last month’s Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, DeChambeau surrendered to fan demand on the 555-yard sixth hole by defying the dogleg and blasting his drive over a large lake. He thrust his arms toward the sky as the ball traveled more than 370 yards and touched down safely on dry land. DeChambeau said the conquest — and the wild fan response to it — made him feel like a kid again.
He won the Bay Hill tournament named after the King, before visiting the home of Palmer’s daughter Amy, with her son Sam. They talked about what Arnie had meant to the game, and DeChambeau called it a moment he’d remember for the rest of his life.
Bryson has some of Arnie’s swagger, and all of his swing-for-the-fences philosophy when it comes to playing to, and for, the fans. Palmer would have been proud of him at the U.S. Open, where DeChambeau defanged a beast of a course. Storied Winged Foot is the sport’s Yankee Stadium, and guests the likes of Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle had belted their fair share of homers there. Just none quite like the 385-yard blast DeChambeau hit on Winged Foot’s first hole.
He would nail down his first major victory by half a dozen strokes. Two months later, after suffering dizzy spells, DeChambeau finished a humbling 18 shots behind Masters winner Dustin Johnson and a humbling one shot behind 63-year-old Bernhard Langer. Some felt he had that face plant coming after he spent his summer reprimanding a cameraman for filming his lousy bunker shot and arguing with a rules official over, among other things, whether fire ants qualify as dangerous animals.
DeChambeau can be a pain in the rump, no question. But for most of his career, Tiger Woods wasn’t a springtime walk in the park either. You don’t need to be familiar with Leo Durocher’s dogma to know that the best of the best are rarely the nicest of people.
And that’s OK. The Masters is not a nice-guy contest. It’s a bare-knuckle battle of wills seized by the tough, the strong and the fearless.
Bryson DeChambeau is the most fearless man in the game. He is willing to try anything to gain a competitive edge and, in the process, to make humanity five yards better while making himself and the fans feel like kids again.
Do you really want to root against that at the Masters?