Swing of the pen­du­lum

Bryson DeCham­beau has raced up the US men’s golf leader­board with a sin­gle­minded drive to sim­plify the game.

New Zealand Listener - - THIS LIFE - by Paul Thomas

Ath­letes of­ten talk about the im­por­tance of “keep­ing it sim­ple” or hav­ing “an un­clut­tered mind”. Un­char­i­ta­ble souls might sug­gest that, for most sports­peo­ple, not “over­think­ing” is just do­ing what comes nat­u­rally. “Foot­ball play­ers are sim­ple folk,” wrote Don DeLillo in End Zone, per­haps the most no­table ex­am­ple of the darkly funny grid­iron/ nu­clear war­fare sub-sub-genre. “The foot­ball player trav­els the straight­est of lines. His thoughts are whole­somely com­mon­place, his ac­tions un­com­pli­cated by history, enigma, holo­caust or dream.”

US golfer Bryson DeCham­beau may look like an all-Amer­i­can jock but he doesn’t con­form to that stereo­type. Sin­gle-minded to the point of ob­ses­sive­ness and am­bi­tious to the point of hubris, he as­pires to noth­ing less than mak­ing golf’s holy grail – con­sis­tency – more eas­ily at­tain­able.

It would be easy to dis­miss DeCham­beau as proof that a lit­tle knowl­edge is a dan­ger­ous thing, or sim­ply some­one try­ing too hard to be dif­fer­ent – and not ev­ery golf writer has re­sisted the temp­ta­tion. The 25-year-old Cal­i­for­nian is a physics ma­jor who en­joys straplin­ing – walking on thin straps of tubu­lar web­bing stretched be­tween trees like a tightrope – to en­hance his pro­pri­o­cep­tion, the sense of one’s body po­si­tion and move­ments. He taught him­self to write his name back­wards left handed. Why? Be­cause he could.

“It’s not tal­ent,” he says. “It’s just

prac­tice. I’m not re­ally smart but I’m ded­i­cated. I can be good at any­thing if I love it and ded­i­cate my­self.” Be warned: his loves in­clude history, mu­sic and sci­ence.

DeCham­beau ex­celled at bas­ket­ball, soc­cer and volleyball but aban­doned team sports be­cause his high-school team­mates didn’t share his work ethic. In golf, he found the per­fect out­let for his quest­ing na­ture and sci­en­tific ap­proach to the tech­ni­cal side of sport. When he was 15, his coach di­rected him to what Golf Di­gest de­scribed as “ar­cane, sci­ence­based golf tomes” – The Golf­ing Ma­chine by Homer Kel­ley and Vec­tor Putting by HA Tem­ple­ton.

DeCham­beau em­braced the phi­los­o­phy im­plicit in the ti­tle of Kel­ley’s book and set about putting it into prac­tice. All his irons are the

same length – that of the stan­dard six iron – with the same weight heads and same shaft flex and lie an­gle.

This drive for uni­for­mity led him to adopt an ex­ag­ger­ated, pen­du­lum­style swing; the aim is to re­duce the vari­ables, to cre­ate a “one size fits all” so­lu­tion to the range of ball-strik­ing chal­lenges the golfer en­coun­ters over 18 holes.

The re­sults speak for them­selves. DeCham­beau is one of only five play­ers to have won both the Na­tional Col­le­giate and US Am­a­teur cham­pi­onships, putting him in the ex­alted com­pany of the two great­est play­ers of the modern era, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. In the past 14 months, he has won four times on the PGA tour, pro­pel­ling him­self from 99th in the world at the start of the year to eighth. Only Woods, who has gone from 656th to 21st in that time, has had a more dizzy­ing as­cent. Next week in At­lanta, he will go into the fi­nal event of the PGA sea­son lead­ing the race for the FedEx Cup, the $15 mil­lion re­ward for the player who can top off a con­sis­tent sea­son with com­mand­ing per­for­mances in the four play­off tour­na­ments. (DeCham­beau won the first two.)

DeCham­beau has at­tracted vari­a­tions on the mad sci­en­tist/nutty pro­fes­sor la­bel be­cause of his back­ground and ten­dency to turn the act of thump­ing a lit­tle white ball into a math­e­mat­i­cal equa­tion. He prefers to see him­self as a man on a mis­sion to make a dif­fi­cult game eas­ier.

The the­ory goes some­thing like this: hit­ting the golf ball straight is harder than it looks, there­fore the more con­trolled, eas­ily repli­cated, in­deed ro­botic, your swing and the less vari­a­tion in your equip­ment, the less there is to go wrong. To put it an­other way: the aim is to re­duce the num­ber of ways your body and mind can let you down.

DeCham­beau is dif­fer­ent but not unique or even a pi­o­neer. Cana­dian golfer Moe Nor­man, who played in the 1960s and 1970s, had a sim­i­lar swing – rigid, ex­tended arms, min­i­mal hand mo­tion – and was known as “Pipe­line Moe” for his straight hit­ting. “Why was Moe Nor­man able to hit it dead straight ev­ery time?” asks DeCham­beau. “It wasn’t that he was think­ing about ev­ery­thing; more like he was think­ing about noth­ing.”

Per­haps DeCham­beau’s ul­ti­mate achieve­ment would be to demon­strate that an ac­tive, com­pli­cated mind can, when the need arises, ef­fec­tively un­clut­ter it­self.

The aim is to re­duce the num­ber of ways your body and mind can let you down.

Un­com­pli­cated: Bryson DeCham­beau.

“Pipe­line” Moe Nor­man (far left) and Jack Nicklaus.

Payback: Colin Kaeper­nick.

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