It's been easy to turn Bryson DeChambeau into a caricature. Last summer, as he was on his way to becoming just the fifth person to win the NCAA Championship and U.S. Amateur in the same year, the SMU physics major with the funny clubs and the quirky swing was portrayed as Victor Frankenstein with a sharp short game. It's true that DeChambeau is a disciple of Homer Kelley's The Golfing Machine, the dense, scholarly tome that scientifically breaks down the swing into 24 components with endless variables. And it took tremendous mechanical know-how and extensive testing to perfect DeChambeau's one-of a-kind set of Edel irons, each of which is the same weight and length (37.5", a typical 7-iron). But to call DeChambeau a mad scientist ignores the artist within. On the wall of his bedroom in his family's home in Fresno, Calif., hangs a stippled drawing depicting Ben Hogan's famous 1-iron at Merion; it took DeChambeau four months to create it. He brings the same creativity to the links, having shaped a dazzling array of shots last summer en route to the historic double-dip that had previously been achieved only by Jack Nicklaus, Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods and Ryan Moore.
Beyond DeChambeau's penchant for blending art and engineering lies the X factor that augurs superstardom: a work ethic that would have left even his hero Ben Hogan begging for mercy. DeChambeau left SMU last fall to prep for a pro career that will begin after this year's Masters. He calls it an "internship," but in a handful of cameos he's been playing like a boss, including finishing second at the Australian Masters. When DeChambeau is not at a tournament, his home base is the Mike Schy Golf Performance Institute, a fancy name for a tattered vinyl tent perched on the range at Dragonfly Golf Course, a humble public track marooned in an expanse of agricultural land just north of Fresno. DeChambeau is there every morning at 8 a.m. and closes it down after sunset, hitting 500 or so balls and as many chips and putts. I visited on a raw December afternoon. I wore a T-shirt, wool sweater, fleece jacket and down parka -- and I was freezing. DeChambeau was chipper. I asked him if it was necessary to put in such long hours given his big-time talent.
Beyond DeChambeau's approach to the swing lies the X factor that augurs superstardom: a work ethic that would have left Hogan begging for mercy.
"Ah, talent," he said, placing a just-shoot-me finger to his temple. "I hate that word. It's meaningless. No one is born with any intrinsic talent for anything. No child would ever walk if they weren't taught to do so and had people to model. It's the same with sports. What people call talent is really just a skill that has been mastered through hard work."
DeChambeau's unique worldview dovetails perfectly with that of Schy, a no-nonsense lifelong teaching pro prone to muttering amusing asides. "This whole thing is an experiment gone wrong," he says of his prized pupil's success.
Schy has been a Golf Machiner (his term) since the 1970s, but he let DeChambeau find it on his own. Bryson read the book when he was 15 and was thunderstruck by the concepts. "Why haven't you been teaching me this?" he'd asked Schy. "Of course I had been," his coach says today. "Just by a different name." It's instructive to note that neither Schy nor DeChambeau can pinpoint their first lesson together. "I've known him since he was 8, when he was hanging around on the range and we had a few conversations," Schy says. "It evolved over time."
Adds DeChambeau, "People have said to me, "You could have any coach you want now -- why don't you go to someone famous?" I'm sure the other guys are fine, but what Mike and I have is unique. It's a special bond. He understands me, and he lets me be me. We've built this together." Quite literally. The tent is filled with makeshift contraptions, disfigured clubs and cartoonishly large grips, all sacrificed in the name of progress.
During my afternoon at Dragonfly, a dozen promising junior and col-lege players passed through the tent, with DeChambeau dispensing encouragement and wisecracks in equal measure. He thrives on the camaraderie. After sunset, he was finally alone with Schy, hitting balls, illuminated only by a spotlight at his feet. They spoke in an easy shorthand that bordered on a secret language. Over and over, the reigning U.S. Amateur champion's sweet, simple action sent balls sizzling into the darkness. It's impossible to know where DeChambeau will go from here, but there's no doubt where home will always be.