DUBLIN — Tiger Woods and Bryson DeChambeau pounded shots along the front nine of Muirfield Village, a nine-hole practice round Wednesday that no doubt would have attracted a capacity crowd if spectators were allowed at the Memorial.
They are gobbling up most of the attention in golf, for entirely different reasons.
One of them because he’s Woods.
The other because he’s unlike anyone else in the game.
DeChambeau has everyone talking, whether it’s his super-sized physique, how hard he swings the driver, how far he is hitting the golf ball or his beliefs — which can sound like boasts — that he’s changing the way the game is played.
Even the tournament host is curious.
“Bryson’s golf swing is not a fluid golf swing,” Jack Nicklaus said. “Bryson’s golf swing is pretty much pretty firm going back and firm coming through with a lot of body rotation. It’s a little different than a lot of guys. And can you believe the power he’s getting from that? I mean, it’s unbelievable.
“I, for one, I want to watch him play a little bit,” Nicklaus added. “I’d like to see what he does and how he’s actually doing that because he’s obviously doing something right. The ball is going a long way. And he’s playing well with it.”
DeChambeau faces a stacked field at the Memorial — nine of the top 10 in the world, 43 out of the top 50 — while coming off a victory two weeks ago when he pummeled Detroit Golf Club with his driver. He has seven straight top-10 finishes dating to March, before COVID-19 shut down the tour. Since its return, DeChambeau has hit 29 tee shots of 350 yards or longer.
Woods is 44 and still has plenty of pop.
“There was a couple holes he hit 320, 325,” said DeChambeau, 26. “I’m like, ‘That’s pretty good for his age.’”
Wednesday wasn’t the first time they have practiced together. Woods is intrigued by a different way of playing, which is why a generation ago he used to practice early with Bubba Watson to see not just his length but the shape in his shots. DeChambeau brings an element of physics to his approach, taking into account air density and ground force.
A year ago, they were playing together in the Memorial when DeChambeau was given a bad time for taking too long over a shot. He was furious, and later claimed the PGA Tour was going about it the wrong way. He said it should take into account how fast a player walks to the ball.
How quickly the conversation has changed. Now it’s not about slow play as much as it is muscle mass, a ball speed approaching 200 mph and whether this is the way everyone should play.
Dustin Johnson, who won the last time he played at the Travelers Championship, has ample power. Asked what would happen if he swung as hard as DeChambeau, he replied: “I’d probably hurt something. And I would find half of them.”
He’s not about to change.
“I hit it far enough,” Johnson said. “And until I feel like I need to hit it further to compete or beat these guys, then that’s what I’ll do. But for right now, I feel like if I’m playing my game, he can hit it as far as he wants to, and I don’t think he’s going to beat me.”
Woods has always been about power, and so much more. It’s why he has won 82 times on the PGA Tour and has a chance at the Memorial — where he has won five times — to break the career victory record he shares with Sam Snead.
When he started, Woods and John Daly were the biggest hitters. Technology has changed all that, starting with launch monitors that have led to sonar devices that allow players to optimize everything. What amazed Woods was not so much the distance but the accuracy that goes with it.
“Let’s look at the fact that he’s hitting it as straight as he is,” Woods said. “That’s part of the most difficult thing to do. The further you hit it, the more the tangent goes more crooked. So the fact that he’s figured that out and has been able to rein in the foul balls to me has been equally as impressive as his gains off the tee.”
The next question is whether that will work at Muirfield Village, which figures to be the toughest test since golf resumed at shorter courses with minimal rough and softer greens. This is the second straight tournament at the course Nicklaus built. Greens are being replaced after this week, so there’s no fear of getting them super slick to the point of dying. The rough is thicker. There are more hazards.
DeChambeau believes other players will figure out his equation soon enough — swinging it hard, hitting it straight. He still thinks future generations will copy the single-length shafts (each the length of a 7-iron) that he brought to the PGA Tour.
Rory McIlroy, who played with DeChambeau in the final round at Colonial, isn’t about to devour protein shakes and put on 40 pounds of mass. But with no pun intended, he said of DeChambeau, “More power to him.”
“He’s making golf interesting, and he’s certainly getting people to talk about him,” McIlroy said. “He’s won already, and he’s played some good events and been in contention, so it’s working for him.”