AUGUSTA—A cold wind was blowing through 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 further west. The sun had set an hour earlier, but as usual Bryson DeChambeau was chasing perfection into the dark, working on his game in a raggedy vinyl tent perched on the driving range of Dragonfly Golf Course, a humble public course. He had started his day nine hours earlier. Now, having hit 500 or so balls and just as many putts, DeChambeau allowed just a moment for reflection. The Masters was still three months away, but already it consumed his thoughts.
“I know it’s going to be an amazing experience,” said the reigning U.S. Amateur champ. “As someone who loves and venerates Bobby Jones, a lifelong amateur, it will be an honor just to be there and walk among so much history. But honestly, I’m not going as a tourist. I’m going there to win.”
With that, DeChambeau slid on his earbuds, cranked up the music, picked up one of his funny clubs and went back to grooving his quirky swing.
Were it not for the man he played with during the first two rounds at this Masters—Jordan Spieth—DeChambeau would be the most self-possessed 22-year-old on the planet. That was not bluster in the tent at Dragonfly; DeChambeau has willed himself into contention at the 80th Masters. On Thursday he thoroughly outplayed Spieth tee-to-green, often outdriving him by 30 yards, but DeChambeau could not master the pace of the greens, making 16 pars against one bogey and a lone birdie.
“If you weren’t really paying attention, you’d think Bryson shot 66 and Jordan 72,” said one of his mentors, Casey Reamer, the head pro at Cypress Point Club.
Afterward, DeChambeau said all the right things to reporters, but his lifelong swing coach, Mike Schy, standing nearby, wasn’t fooled: “Most amateurs would kill to shoot 72, but look at him, he’s disappointed.”
During the second round DeChambeau found his touch on the greens and for 17 holes was easily the best player on the course. On the toughest opening hole in championship golf he chipped in for birdie. On the toughest hole at Augusta National, the 11th, he took on a back-left pin guarded by water and stiffed his approach for a birdie. On the scariest hole, the 12th, he hit it to two feet for his fifth birdie of the day. On the most dangerous hole at Augusta National, the 15th, he put a delicate chip stone-dead for yet another birdie. He was four under par for the tournament and alone in second place, two back of Spieth, who wasn’t the least bit surprised.
The day before the defending champ had said, “I think Bryson DeChambeau played, to his standards, an off-round and shot even par in the tough conditions at the Masters. Watch out for him.”
Both players three-putted the 16th hole, with its tough pin placement. On the 18th tee DeChambeau went to his go-to shot, a butter-cut, even though he wasn’t feeling comfortable in a strong left-to-right wind. He almost never misses left, but this time he did, into maybe the thickest forest at Augusta National. His ball settled in a depression at the base of a tree. It was a horrendous lie with no avenue for escape, so DeChambeau declared it unplayable. Since there was nowhere decent within two club lengths for a drop, he trudged back up the fairway to re-tee. This one also dove left into the trees. Because a restroom was obstructing his next shot he was forced to take a free drop farther left, onto a steep downslope.
From there DeChambeau could have easily made a 10, but he played a remarkable shot, a high cut over the trees to just short of the greenside bunker. A pitch and two putts later he had a triple bogey, for a 72. He still moved up 14 spots, into a tie for eighth, just four strokes behind Spieth. Afterward, DeChambeau was greeted by a pack of somber reporters, but he offered some needed perspective: “First off, I made the weekend as an amateur – c’mon guys, that isn’t too bad!” DeChambeau believes in a higher power even more than he believes in himself. Within minutes of signing his scorecard he was already at peace with his triple bogey. “It’s just a good opportunity to show my character and my grace,” he said.
Spieth referenced DeChambeau’s composure in the post-mortem afterward. “It was really a shame the way that went on 18 because [he] was just one swing from being possibly in the final group,” Spieth said. “He’s not scared of the moment. Doesn’t matter what the moment is. Look for him on the weekend.”
Even though it had been a long, hard day, DeChambeau hit balls at the range until it was nearly dark. Whether it’s Dragonfly or Augusta National, he has a bedrock belief that the secret can always be found in the dirt. DeChambeau has always done things his own way, whether it’s his unique single-length set—every iron is exactly 37.5 inches and weighs 282 grams—or his adherence to The Golfing Machine, a dense, scholarly tome in which the swing is scientifically broken down into 24 components by a mad genius named Homer Kelley. Even at the highest level, self-doubt can be a killer. DeChambeau draws strength from his unorthodox approach; he believes he has found a better way to do it, and not even a gutting triple bogey can convince him otherwise.
Across two brutal days at this Masters, DeChambeau has learned a ton about the golf course, but nothing really new about himself. On Friday evening he was asked what it meant to look up at Augusta National’s towering leader boards and see his name. “I belong,” said DeChambeau. But he already knew that.