MAMARONECK, N.Y. – When Bryson DeChambeau was asked on Sunday at Winged Foot how it felt to be champion of the 120th U.S. Open, one word came to mind: "Surreal."
That word is the perfect choice to describe the whole experience of a U.S. Open that had to be moved from June to September and staged without fans because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Opens at brutally tough Winged Foot have been notable for the carnage they produced, but this one turned into the stage for a game-changing performance by an emerging star who relies on science to challenge the conventional wisdom in the game to help him drive longer and putt better.
There is something almost karmic that the winner, who shot a record 6-under par for the six U.S. Opens at Winged Foot and won by six strokes, blinded his competitors with science. Because it was the USGA’s reliance on science that ultimately allowed them to keep their premier event at Winged Foot instead of moving it to December at Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles.
"We were that close," USGA chief executive Mike Davis said, holding his right thumb and forefinger a hairsbreadth apart.
The R&A, which had planned to move the British Open to September, decided to cancel it entirely. When the date opened up, the USGA leaped at the chance to remain at Winged Foot. They were hoping to have limited spectators, but Davis said, "We just realized there was no way to do this in a safe manner."
At the time, New York and Westchester County were at the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak. "We had some wonderful medical advisers who said, ‘Be patient because what is a hotspot now may not be a hotspot later in the year,’" said John Bodenhamer, the USGA managing director of championships. "We followed that, and it paid off."
Had the normal raucous New York crowd of 50,000 daily spectators been permitted, the cheers might still be echoing. Instead just a few fans gathered in the backyards of homes lining the course and maybe a few hundred volunteers, club members USGA officials, television crews and media members wandered the course.
Describing the feeling when he made a long birdie putt at the eighth hole on Saturday followed by an eagle at the ninth, Xander Schauffele said, "It was awkward. Those are the shots that really get your tournament going around and fires up the crowd, and I mean, you hear crickets chirping. It was lonely out there…It’s so quiet, it’s eerie, it’s weird. It’s not like anything anyone has experienced."
Still, it was a demanding and utterly fair U.S. Open setup that, coming into the event, everyone predicted would play over par. As Bodenhamer said, "Our U.S. Open DNA is about placing a premium on accuracy off the teeing area…It’s about getting the ball in the fairway."
As it turned out, DeChambeau’s DNA represented a new breed of golfer. He has turned himself into the longest driver in golf, and in hitting only 23 of 56 fairways on the driving holes, he proved the depth of the rough didn’t matter because he was so close to the holes that he could rely on his deft touch with wedges to hit the greens.
"I’m just trying to figure out this very complex, multivariable and multidimensional game," DeChambeau said. "It’s very, very difficult, but it’s a fun journey for me. I hope that inspires people to say, ‘Hey, maybe there is a different way to do it.’"
DeChambeau has consulted some of the top long-drive competitors to develop his powerful swing. Next, he’s going to experiment with a 48-inch shaft, which would increase his swing arc and, hence, his clubhead speed. By the time he reaches the Masters in November at Augusta, he hopes to be driving 360-370 yards instead of the 325 he averaged and often exceeded at Winged Foot.
The world is living through a surreal time because of the pandemic, but DeChambeau said he views this not as a lost season but as an opportunity to improve his health and his game.
"I hope it inspires everybody to do the same," DeChambeau said. "When you have time, don’t squander it. Make yourself better. That’s what I think I did this year, and I’m going to keep trying to do that."