HILTON HEAD, S.C. – With its narrow fairways lined by all those gnarled live oaks and stately pines, Harbour Town has never been particularly kind to the big hitters on the PGA TOUR.
The one notable exception would be five-time RBC Heritage champion Davis Love III, who ranked second on TOUR in driving distance when he won his first plaid jacket in 1987 and 17th or better for the other four.
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Since Love won his fifth title in 2003, though, no winner at Harbour Town has averaged over 300 yards or been ranked inside the top 34 in driving distance at the end of the season. In fact, nine of the last 11 champions have ranked 118th or higher with Brian Gay clocking in at 268.5 yards and 183rd in 2005.
Dustin Johnson tried to buck the trend a year ago, taking the lead into the final round before unraveling with a 41 on the back nine Sunday, shooting 77 and falling back into a tie for 28th. He’s back in the hunt at 8 under through two rounds this year.
The most intriguing name on the leaderboard, though, belongs to Bryson DeChambeau, who spent the last six months working out, inhaling power shakes and adding about 40 pounds of mostly muscle to his frame. His swing speed has increased accordingly and sometimes clocks out over 190. He’s tied for second at 11 under, a shot behind Webb Simpson.
As luck would have it, Love played with DeChambeau in the first two rounds and he came away impressed. Take the 16th hole Thursday where he drove it 282 yards and the man they call the Mad Scientist – a nickname that begs for a change given his dramatic transformation – was 54 yards past.
“Well, now I know how I made some guys feel, I guess,” Love said. “He got me really good at 16. That’s when I realized holy moly, because I hit a good drive at 16 and he just flew it over into the corner. …
“What’s impressive is how straight it’s going. He not only got longer, but he got straighter, and it looks like it’s under control, and it actually looks like it could go farther if he didn’t try to make sure it went straight. “
DeChambeau came to Hilton Head with considerable momentum after a tie for third at the Charles Schwab Challenge where he had a putt on the 18th hole to join the playoff won by Daniel Berger. In five of the six events he’s played in 2020, the SMU product has not finished out of the top 5.
DeChambeau admits he’s been harnessed by Harbour Town this week. On Thursday he said he couldn’t “unleash the Kraken,” and he didn’t use the driver at all in the second round. The 3-wood with a slight draw was trusty, though, and he roared home Friday with six birdies on the front and a 64.
“I can’t,” he explained when asked about hitting the driver. “It’s just this golf course, it’s so difficult to try to fit into these tight areas where, if you miss it offline, like I did last week a couple times on a couple holes, there I’ll be, where last week they were just in the rough and I was still able to get to the green.”
Even when the Kraken is in the bag, though, DeChambeau’s distance gains are evident in other ways. Where he once was hitting 6- and 7-irons, he’s now reaching for a wedge or a 9-iron.
“That’s a huge change for me that’s allowed me to go and attack flags a lot more, be more aggressive, not really have to try and fit it into this little spot down on the fairway out here and really attack those flags,” he said. “So I feel like for me my game after quarantine, the distance has really just made that strokes gained advantage, it’s just put it to a whole new level for me.”
While Simpson has worked hard over the last three years to gain distance and speed, he remains the antithesis to DeChambeau. He’s gained about 20 pounds on his still slender frame and his ball speed has gone up about four or five mph but still isn’t in the upper 170s where he’d like to top out.
Instead of power like DeChambeau, Simpson, who won the Waste Management Phoenix Open earlier this year, relies on distance control and precise iron play. His putter has been particularly strong this week, too and he ranks first in Strokes Gained – Putting at 6.402.
“It’s very satisfying knowing like I’m not near as long as some of these guys and I’m able to kind of use my skills of distance control and shot shape to kind of pick me back up when I’m 40 yards or 30 yards behind these guys,” Simpson said.
“I would like to hit it further. I set out on a journey three years ago to get stronger, hit it further, but do it a lot slower than Bryson, but he’s made it look easy and seamless.”
Simpson isn’t surprised at DeChambeau’s physical transformation as much as he is the way his Presidents Cup and Ryder Cup teammate has adjusted to the new body so quickly.
“I’ve been amazed and impressed with how he’s been able to swing it so well,” Simpson said. “Last week he lost by a shot. This week he’s right there.
“I think that’s the most impressive thing is he’s been able to take this body that he’s never played with before and still play just as good, if not better.”