AUGUSTA, Ga. — Bryson DeChambeau was marching to the practice green with a certainty in his step, and a path naturally cleared ahead of him. There aren’t many people at Augusta National this spring, but those who were in DeChambeau’s way stepped aside quickly. They once did the same here for Jack Nicklaus, and for Tiger Woods. Certain golfers have a certain presence, and the reigning U.S. Open champ is one of them.
On the first tee Saturday, only six strokes off the lead, the carnival strongman in the Hogan cap disappointed the fans gathered around the box when he pulled out a 4-iron. A few groaned audibly. The people wanted to see home runs. They didn’t pay their good money to watch DeChambeau drop down a sacrifice bunt.
But more than anything, they wanted to see the man supposedly best equipped to dominate the Masters — as much as it can be dominated — in a post-Tiger world. And instead they saw a player who still has not figured out how to sync up his extreme power and analytical mind with the course tailor made for both.
DeChambeau shot a 3-over 75 to land at 2-over after 54 holes, a whopping 13 strokes behind Hideki Matsuyama. This was moving day at the Masters, and all Bryson did was move toward the basement — falling another seven shots off the pace.
Everyone keeps saying it’s just a matter of time before DeChambeau and Augusta National reach a peace agreement that allows the player to slide his massive torso into a green jacket. He was, after all, introduced at his opening tournament presser this way: “You’re No. 1 in driving distance, you’re No. 1 in strokes gained off the tee, you’re No. 1 in strokes gained tee to green.” That sure sounds like a man who is going to win himself a Masters or three.
People, however, used to say the same things about Greg Norman. They were saying the same things about Rory McIlroy 10 years ago, after he had the tournament by the throat for three-plus rounds at the age of 21, before shooting 43 on his final nine and dissolving into a puddle of tears. McIlroy was going to learn from that experience, most agreed, and ride his unquestioned talent to multiple Masters triumphs before he was through.
Now 31, McIlroy, after missing the cut Friday, is still chasing the final leg of his career Grand Slam. Who knows if it will ever happen for him?
DeChambeau entered this Masters talking about winning low-amateur honors in 2016, and making his first hole-in-one three years later. He was summoning positive memories to counter all the negativity surrounding his face-plant in November, after he had boldly declared the par-72 course was really, for him, a par-67. On cue, he suffered dizzy spells before finishing 18 shots behind Dustin Johnson. DeChambeau said he underwent CT scans, X-rays, ultrasounds of his heart, infection checks, measurements of the blood vessels in his neck, you name it, before discovering he needed to change the way he was breathing to tweak the oxygen supply to his brain.
He was said to be set to attack Augusta this time around after showing the arena some proper respect, upgrading it to a par-74. But then DeChambeau opened with a 76, and a concession that he needed to learn how to hit off downhill slopes into uphill greens, and off uphill slopes into downhill greens. Even after punching back with a second-round 67, the slugger admitted: “I don’t think you can ever figure this place out. There’s so many things going on around here. The wind makes it diabolical.
“I think one of the most amazing things about this place is that it can turn on you real quick when you least expect it.”
Saturday, it turned on DeChambeau when he double-bogeyed the par-3 fourth, and double-bogeyed the par-3 12th, on which his ball dribbled into Rae’s Creek. On the 13th tee, after sending his drive wide right, DeChambeau barked, “That’s so far into Narnia.”
Though he appears headed for a fifth straight finish outside the top 20 at Augusta National, DeChambeau still has time on his side. Twenty-five years ago, Jack Nicklaus said a young Tiger Woods would win more Masters than the 10 Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer had won combined. Tiger’s five were plenty good enough to make the Golden Bear a prophet.
On the other hand, Nicklaus also once predicted that young John Daly would be a perfect match for Augusta National. How did that work out for everyone?
Of course, Daly represents an extreme case. And it’s a mortal lock that DeChambeau will never end up hawking Masters-week gear outside of a bus parked in a Hooters parking lot on Washington Road.
But that doesn’t mean the man with the brains and the brawn to dominate is guaranteed to someday end up in a green jacket, either.