Bryson DeChambeau, a Custom Clubmaker and a Teaching Pro Might Be the Start of a Revolution
An industrial office park on the outskirts of Liberty Hill, Texas, is an unlikely place for a revolution, but one is being manufactured there, next door to EcoWater Systems, around the corner from a street sign that reads REPORT POACHING TO GAME WARDEN. This is the humble home of Edel Golf. Inside the sweltering, 4,000-square-foot metal box it is a riot of clanking machinery. The place has the vibe of a mad scientist's lab, which is how company founder David Edel likes it. Over here is a wedge with no grooves, over there a driver head made using a 3-D printer. Want an $8,000 set of irons with a gorgeous, hand-carved ivy design on the back of each clubhead? Yeah, he's got those too, not to mention a hybrid head made of padauk, a rainforest wood.
Founded in 1996, Edel Golf has always been known for highly customized putters, and it enjoys a cult following on Tour and among gearheads who don't mind paying up to $600 for a magic wand. For that much money the artisans at Edel will, if you so desire, twist the neck over and over into a corkscrew, or torch the carbon steel until it's purple, or add all manner of cosmetic customizations. In his free time Edel designs watches, belt buckles, knives and fly-fishing wheels. Aesthetics are deeply important to him; all of his creations are as striking to look at as the red Maserati m128 in which he roars around Liberty Hill (pop. 1,071). But Edel's putters are also grounded in science. After a failed playing career, he cut his teeth at Henry-Griffitts, the boutique clubmaker that was doing sophisticated custom fittings at least a decade before they became trendy. Edel has brought that same systematic approach to his putters. Each of his custom blades is hand-built to the quirks of the customer; 110 trained and licensed fitters around the country come up with the specs that take into account minute alterations in geometric head shape, hosel design, offset, weight, sight-line configuration, lie angle, loft and length.
During his four years on the mini-tours, Edel was a solid ball striker with a shaky short game. Ruminating on his own struggles led him to create in 2009 a line of hand-ground wedges, notable for their especially high bounce and amusing names (Sweeper, Picker, Nipper, Pincher, Trapper, Driver, Digger). The typical 60° wedge has 8 or 10 degrees of bounce; Edel's boast 22, which he believes is essential for counteracting the angle of attack and the lean of the shaft so as to better get the ball in the air. Why do other companies use so much less bounce? "I think they do it because that's how it's always been done and they're afraid of change," he says.
The wedges were so well-received that Edel Golf expanded into irons in 2010, the sole of each club notably featuring not the number but the degree of loft. A persnickety perfectionist like Nick Faldo was impressed enough to want an equity stake, and Edel came to believe that the star power of a six-time major champion could put the company on the map. But the alliance ultimately fell apart after a year, undone by business disputes and two stubborn personalities. Edel soldiered on, sustained by the bedrock belief that he was doing things a better way. Yet for 18 straight years Edel Golf failed to turn a profit, staying afloat only because the founder sold two family hotels in his native Oregon and then a chunk of the company to a hedge fund.
"I always wanted to be important to the game," Edel says. "I couldn't do it as a player. I came to believe I could do it in other ways." All that was missing was a way to introduce his know-how, and unique toys, to the larger golf world.
A raggedy vinyl tent on the edge of a beat-up driving range is an unlikely place for a revolution, but one has long been brewing at Dragonfly Golf Course, a public track surrounded by farmland in Madera, Calif. The 1,600-square-foot tent is the home of the Mike Schy Golf Performance Institute, and even the eponymous founder chuckles at how discordant the grandiose name is with its humble setting. The tent is stuffed with disfigured golf clubs that have been sacrificed in the name of progress, as well as all manner of jerry-rigged teaching contraptions. Schy, 55, is a big sweetheart who tries to put on a gruff exterior for his two dozen young pupils. The trappings of the tent are of a piece with Madera, a tiny blue-collar town marooned in the Central Valley, a hardscrabble swath of California that would've been the perfect setting for John Steinbeck's novels if he hadn't wound up just a little farther west.
Schy grew up down the road in Fresno and played golf for Fresno State. A couple of his frequent playing partners were students of Ben Doyle, the foremost disciple of Homer Kelley's The Golfing Machine, published in 1969, and one day the 15-year-old Schy tagged along for the three-hour drive to Carmel Valley, where Doyle taught. There he was greeted by a short, brusque man with a customized cart cluttered with rakes, beach balls and assorted other gizmos he used to make his points.
Schy was entranced by Doyle and his prized pupil, Bobby Clampett, then a teenage amateur but already a deity in certain circles for the purity of his ball striking. "Ben had the first video camera I'd ever seen," says Schy. "He had a Polaroid camera, with which he'd take pictures, then scratch them up with illustrations, using the one fingernail he kept long just for that purpose. He had all these amazing homemade training aids. Then you had Bobby floating around—everyone was calling him the next Nicklaus. I thought it was the coolest thing I had ever seen." Schy went home and delved into The Golfing Machine, a dense tome in which the swing is scientifically broken down into 24 components. Despite being dyslexic, he memorized large chunks of it, and he returned over and over to pick Doyle's brain.
Schy got married during his senior year of college and upon graduation became one of the youngest head pros in the country, at Fresno's Belmont Country Club. He set up his own TV and video camera on the range and taught his members the fundamentals of The Golfing Machine, avoiding its esoteric jargon and more abstract concepts, knowing those would scare them away. Still, it was all a bit much. "They asked me to stop teaching and just stay in the shop," Schy says with a hard laugh.
He became intrigued with custom fitting and developed a relationship with Henry-Griffitts, which is how in the early '90s, Schy forged a close friendship with another Golf Machiner, David Edel. "He had just starting making his putters, and I thought he was a genius," says Schy. "But it was a struggle. It seemed like every week we'd have these long conversations where David would say, ‘I can't go on like this. No one gets what I'm doing; I want to quit.' I talked him off the ledge many times." Schy became the second licensed fitter for Edel putters. (The first was Chuck Cook, the celebrated swing coach whose pupils have included Payne Stewart, Keegan Bradley, Jason Dufner and Luke Donald.) Schy and Edel were iconoclasts united in the belief that much of the conventional wisdom about the swing and equipment was outdated, if not flat-out wrong. Schy concluded that the only way to change the orthodoxy was to focus exclusively on those who didn't know any better. In 2003 he pitched his tent and began ministering to juniors and a few collegians. The man who set him up at Dragonfly—then known as Riverbend—was the director of operations, Jon DeChambeau, a onetime Tour player who had a lot of experience with youth sports thanks to two athletic sons, Bryson and Garrett. "He's the best teacher I've ever been around," Jon says of Schy. "He's a nonconformist, in a good way. He's a unique thinker. But he has an incredible ability to listen to what a player wants and take that and translate it into a swing. And he loves kids and he loves the game, and that energy is contagious."
Schy wanted his pupils to dig the secrets of the swing out of the dirt, so he refused to answer their questions directly, usually parrying with a trademark, "That depends." He set up a grinding wheel so the kids could learn to tweak their own gear. He hung a wall-sized mural depicting the tenets of the Machine. Like most Machiners, Schy despaired over what he considered the inaccurate and unfair popular perception of his bible. Kelley and Doyle were certainly eccentric, and the ramblings of their wing-nut student Mac O'Grady helped cement the notion that the ideas in The Golfing Machine were not for the well-adjusted. Clampett had parted ways with Doyle and never fulfilled his promise, and the shorthand was that he had been broken by the Machine. Through it all, Schy continued to have a bedrock belief in the concepts. He introduced The Golfing Machine to all of his students, but the accrued wisdom came with a price. "We're used to being laughed at, criticized, called weirdos," says Schy. He pined for a transformational figure who could make the golf world believe in these unique ideas.
Bellaire Avenue, in Clovis, Calif., is an unlikely place for a revolution, but one was born there, amid the tidy middle-class homes that form a landscape of beige stucco and palm trees. Bryson DeChambeau grew up in Modesto, Calif., and at an early age distinguished himself as a goalkeeper in soccer and as a hard-driving shooting guard in basketball. His family moved to Clovis, which abuts Fresno and is 100 miles south of Modesto, when he was eight, about the time he was beginning to focus his considerable intensity on golf. "Team sports didn't work for Bryson," says Jon. "He simply couldn't understand why his teammates didn't give maximum effort at all times, like he did. It drove him crazy."
The lone-wolf ethos of golf solved that problem, though DeChambeau had a strong mentor in his father, who along with wife Jan raised Bryson to be a golfing gentleman. Jon was a good enough player to have finished ninth at the 1982 Phoenix Open, but Bryson wanted his own identity. While working at Dragonfly, Jon was on the Titleist staff and had access to top-of-the-line gear, but his son insisted on playing TaylorMade.
When Bryson was 11, something happened that a decade later would have sweeping ramifications for the $5 billion golf-equipment industry: Edel came to town to see his buddy Schy. A putter-fitting was subsequently arranged in the garage of the house on Bellaire Avenue. Bryson sat on the floor, munching pizza and watching intently as Edel fit four or five other enthusiasts. Bryson was always a whiz kid in math and later would be a physics major at SMU, but as a youngster his brain couldn't compute the black art of putting; he couldn't see the line, in part because he was locked in on the path of the putter head. When it was Bryson's turn for a fitting, Edel's solution was to give him putters with no toplines or markings, freeing the youngster's eyes and clearing his mind. "I had tried so many putters but could never find one that worked," says DeChambeau. "That was a revelation to me, that a technological fix could make such a profound difference."
Thinking back on that first encounter, Edel says, "In that situation, some kids are nervous, some are shy, some are goofy. Bryson had this strength about him. A certainty. He already knew who he was and where he was going and how he wanted to get there. He asked some incredibly perceptive questions." Bryson decided he couldn't live without a Vari Loft putter, an ingenious design with removable faceplates that allowed for different lofts. Edel had just finished the first production run, but there were only 35 such putters on the planet. They retailed for $800, but for the earnest kid standing before him, Edel said he'd part with one for a couple hundred bucks. Jon, ever the Titleist loyalist, refused to pony up, so Bryson spent the next two months cutting lawns, doing extra chores and pocketing his lunch money. Finally the putter arrived, and "that changed everything," says Jon. "That was the defining moment in Bryson being his own person. He felt very proud, very excited about having something that was for him only. That it was coming from a craftsman like David made it even more meaningful."
The DeChambeaus didn't have the money for Bryson to play on the AJGA circuit, so he concentrated his efforts on playing local events and, especially, daily skull sessions in Schy's tent. "What Mike and I have is unique," says DeChambeau. "He understands me, and he lets me be me."
Says Schy, "I learned a long time ago not to try to win an argument with Bryson. He needs to work things out on his own. He'll try something until he's convinced it won't work. So when he finally finds something that does, he has no doubt it's the right way."
As a teen Bryson was conversant in some of the tenets of the Machine, but he had never read the book. When he was 15, his coach finally slid him his own well-thumbed copy. "Mind blown," says DeChambeau. He carried the book everywhere and eventually memorized pretty much every word. One sentence changed DeChambeau forever. Chapter 10, section 7 covers what Kelley termed "customized" swing planes. With his quirky punctuation, Kelley wrote about a Zero Shift swing: ". . . one Basic Plane Angle is to be used throughout the stroke without ‘a Variation'—that is, No Shift." Those 18 words raced through Bryson's mind for days. Was it possible to have a one-plane swing? He queried Schy, who said that concept was intended for chipping and pitching. Unsatisfied with that answer, Bryson tried to implement the action in his full swing. Typically he overdid it, adopting an exaggerated Moe Norman setup in which his hands hung very low; the club was at such an acute angle his irons had to be bent a whopping 8° flat. During a high school match his back began to ache, and after a heart-to-heart with Schy in the parking lot Bryson decided to scrap the swing on the spot. The next day he adopted a setup in which his arms were fully extended and the club was almost vertical. "I'm not one for moderation," DeChambeau says.
He continued to try to unlock the secrets of the one-plane swing throughout the summer of 2011, before his senior year at Clovis East High. DeChambeau glumly concluded that, in fact, he had 13 planes, owing to the varying length of each club. Schy was dismissive, saying his posture should be close to the same throughout the bag. DeChambeau disagreed and promptly filmed himself with each club in his bag and diagrammed the different planes for his teacher, who was happy to be proved wrong. "That was a great day," Schy says.
Having been raised as a golfer to think untraditionally, DeChambeau came up with a solution that seemed blindingly obvious to him: Make every iron the same length with the same weight, the same shaft flex and the same lie angle (72°), allowing the same swing plane to be repeated over and over. (He would continue to use a traditional-length hybrid, 3-wood and driver.) Schy was supportive of the experiment, of course, so a few stray Henry-Griffitts clubs were chopped up and transformed. The weighting wasn't right, but the two were encouraged enough to go to work on an entire set. Lying around in Schy's tent were some old Nike VR heads—"We always get the throwaways"—so in each they put a 371⁄2-inch shaft, which is the length of a traditional 6- or 7-iron. In any set the heads of the wedges are chunkier and heavier than those of the long irons. After running a series of calculations in the supercomputer that doubles as his brain, DeChambeau determined that an ideal uniform weight for the heads in a single-length set would be 282 grams. Lead tape was used to make the heads on the longer irons heavier; the extra mass made up for a shorter swing arc. To shed weight on the wedges, holes were drilled in the back of the head and chunks of metal were gouged out of the backline of the sole; losing that mass was counteracted by the increased swing speed that came with the longer shaft.
When the work was complete, DeChambeau raced to the 1st fairway at Dragonfly. From 160 yards he selected an 8-iron. The club felt a little long and light but not overly so. He hit a lovely draw pin-high. On the 2nd hole he dropped a ball 210 yards from the flag and reached for his reconstituted 5-iron. This was the moment of truth: If the shorter, heavier long irons worked, the underlying theory of the single-length set was sound.
He flushed the shot. "It was in the air for what felt like forever," he says. The suspense was awful. Was the ball going to be 20 yards short? Twenty yards long? It landed three feet from the flag. The revolution was accelerating.
DeChambeau put the sticks in play for his senior year, complicating the college recruiting process. "A lot of coaches were scared away," says Jon. "Cal and Stanford had been very interested, and they just disappeared." Dad could relate to the coaches' apprehension: "I tried to be extremely supportive of everything Bryson was doing, but there were times I was completely disturbed, where I felt there's no way this is gonna work, that he's screwing up his opportunities."
Bryson took all the doubt and criticism and refined it into a kind of rocket fuel. He had always been a hard worker, but the quest to master the one-plane swing with the single-length set stirred something deep within him. He began practicing with an almost religious zeal. "Ah, talent," he says, placing a finger on his temple and pretending to blow his brains out. "I hate that word. No one is born with any intrinsic talent for anything. What people call talent is just a skill that has been mastered through hard work. My goal is to be the best ball striker in the world. That's not a talent I was born with. That's achieved through work."
DeChambeau upgraded his clubs in early 2012. Schy was friendly with Tim Hewitt, who oversees the Kingdom—TaylorMade's research and development facility—so DeChambeau journeyed to Carlsbad, Calif. He settled on a set with TaylorMade MC heads. The funny sticks first created a stir when DeChambeau made the match-play portion of the 2012 U.S. Amateur. He had just matriculated to SMU. By DeChambeau's sophomore year the grooves on his irons were wearing out, so TaylorMade sent him a new single-length set, this time with Rocketballz heads. He struggled mightily with the change. Somewhat desperate, DeChambeau reached out to Edel, who had recently settled in Liberty Hill, about 30 miles north of Austin. "We hadn't seen each other since the putter-fitting in my garage," says DeChambeau. "We embraced like old friends."
One or two weekends a month DeChambeau would make the 170-mile drive from Dallas to Liberty Hill, staying with Edel and his family. Edel spent 40 hours building a set of clubs for DeChambeau, using some old "Faldo by Edel" heads. ("More throwaways," says Schy.) That summer DeChambeau advanced to the round of 16 or better at the U.S. Amateur, the U.S. Publinks and the Western Amateur. It was all coming together, yet his résumé was light on victories; he had won only one college event in his first two years.
DeChambeau began to ruminate on the mental side of golf. One figure loomed large: Mac O'Grady. DeChambeau has seen him hit only one shot, at a U.S. Open qualifier when DeChambeau was 17. It was at Pasatiempo, and on the 18th hole, a downhill 169-yard par-3, O'Grady pulled out his persimmon driver, aimed 50 yards left of the green and hit a massive slice that stopped a few feet from the hole. The shot was pure genius, a reminder that there are plenty of folks who consider O'Grady one of the greatest ball strikers of all time. Yet he won only two PGA Tour events, and for DeChambeau he is the ultimate cautionary tale: "He was a highly intelligent person, but he couldn't perform in tournament golf. When you're building clubs, you're sort of like a scientist, but that's where it has to stop. Playing is not about swing theory. When you're on the course, you have to be an artist."
DeChambeau can sign his name lefthanded, in cursive, upside down. On his bedroom wall is a stippling drawing of his hero, Ben Hogan, that took him four months to create. In 2015 he finally brought this same artistic flair between the ropes, winning the NCAA Championship and the U.S. Amateur. Only four other players can claim this double-dip in the same year: Jack Nicklaus, Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods and Ryan Moore. As DeChambeau played his way into the history books, it was impossible not to notice the simplicity of his action and the purity of the strike, leaving armchair swing theorists everywhere to reconsider the value of The Golfing Machine, just as equipment wonks were compelled to ponder the merits of a single-length set.
Jon DeChambeau still remembers a drive home from the course when his son was 16. "Bryson said, ‘I think I can change the game,' " recalls Jon. "I was startled, to be honest. Not just by the words but by his conviction. And then during the Amateur, [Fox analyst] Brad Faxon said, ‘I think this kid can change the game.' That floored me."
Those stirrings were felt in Liberty Hill. "Every day during the Amateur," says Edel, "my phone was ringing off the hook. And it hasn't stopped ringing since."
The revolution had been televised.
On a raw January day in Madera, Edel peered out of the tent and marveled at the towering trees. "Man," he said, "the last time I was here, I could almost touch the top of them." That was in 2004, for the seminal putter-fitting on Bellaire Avenue. Now he was back in town to meet with representatives from the Legacy Agency to talk details about an endorsement deal between DeChambeau and Edel Golf. Last fall SMU was slapped with NCAA sanctions for infractions that had occurred years earlier. DeChambeau, 22, elected to leave school and become what he calls "an intern"—he is preparing for a pro career while remaining an amateur to preserve the invitation to the Masters that came with winning the U.S. Am. He played a series of tournaments Down Under in December, achieving a tie for second at the Australian Masters, and he led after the first round of last week's European tour event in Abu Dhabi before finishing 54th. He also has spent plenty of time in Carlsbad shuttling between TaylorMade and Callaway, working on a ball deal and testing drivers and 3-woods.
At long last Edel Golf has traction in the marketplace: Sales in 2015 were up 105%, putting the company in the black for the first time. This was largely due to the success of the Torque Balanced line of putters, the design of which moves weight from the toe, keeping the putter face squarer throughout the stroke, according to Edel. Thanks to all the TV time during the U.S. Amateur, DeChambeau's Torque Balanced putter has a cult following—it's big and rectangular and nicknamed the Brick. It hasn't come to market, but the smaller, rounder versions in the line sell for $330, about half the cost of the top-end custom Edel Golf putter. It wasn't easy for the company founder to embrace a line of mass-produced putters. "David is a perfectionist who wants to be hands-on with everything," says Neil Oster, one of Edel Golf's longest-tenured employees. "He's finally accepted that to reach a larger audience not everything can be so highly customized."
Edel has found a middle ground with the fitting system for single-length irons he is introducing at this week's PGA Show in Orlando. This will be the delivery system for bringing DeChambeau's clubs to the masses. Each kit will have 30 shafts weighing between 80 and 135 grams, in 4-, 6- and 8-iron lengths. There will be three heads and a dozen grips. Edel and Schy will start beta-testing the system after the show, in hopes of delivering to consumers their own sets as early as April. The tentative price is $225 a club. Edel hopes to train an army of qualified fitters, but for now he is moving cautiously. In the 1980s, Tommy Armour Golf peddled a line of single-length clubs called the E.Q.L., but they were a flop, largely because there was not a fitting system. "I don't want to squash the movement because of a poor application of ideas," Edel says. "It's important that we don't hurt what Bryson has accomplished."
Every year equipment companies tout their latest innovations, but these changes are incremental and don't fundamentally alter how the game is played. Single-length sets have the chance to be transformational for golfers who struggle to transition from short, heavy clubs to long, light ones, along the way having to stand taller and farther from the ball, or squat and get closer. "It's such a hard game to learn, and we lose so many beginners from sheer frustration," says DeChambeau. "If you can take out one huge variable—the length of the club—I believe we could cut in half the time it takes for people to learn to play. There's so much potential in growing golf, making people love golf and keeping them playing. That's what I meant when I said I wanted to change the game."
DeChambeau's influence was obvious on a recent afternoon inside the tent. A half-dozen of Schy's pupils came and went, and with each of them, DeChambeau dispensed counsel and wisecracks in equal measure. All of these players were Golf Machiners with interesting clubs. J.J. Adams, 11, is most likely the only kid in the world with a custom set of single-length clubs, as Schy built him a 5-, 6- and 8-iron as well as a pitching wedge and sand wedge with 331⁄2-inch shafts. On the practice green J.J. was putting sidesaddle. DeChambeau employed that stroke during the summer of 2013, winning the Trans-Mississippi Amateur along the way, and he still practices it with Schy. He went away from it because he was wary of the constant scrutiny, but he vows to return to sidesaddle "once my Tour card is secure." He adds, "Everything about my game is different; my putting might as well be too."
After J.J. finished on the practice green, he and DeChambeau spent half an hour in a bunker, working on bad lies and awkward stances. It was hard to tell who was having more fun, and it was pitch black when they finally stopped. J.J. was asked if he believed a single-length set and sidesaddle putting were superior methods. "Mmmmm, I guess so," he replied. Then he added a thought that may reshape the sport: "Really, I just do it because I want to be like Bryson."