Is DeChambeau the Tour’s first bodybuilder? Not by a long shotRocket Mortgage Classic winner elicits memories of Frank Stranahan, Gary Player
By Jim McCabe
We have been here before. Honestly, we have. That isn’t to say that Bryson DeChambeau should be casually labeled a sequel, much like it probably isn’t fair to dismiss “The Dark Knight” as just another in a parade of Batman movies.
Most likely, Christian Bale would prefer to stand on his own, disassociated from Batman actors before him. Bale brought a riveting energy to the leading role. Never had Batman jumped out at us like that.
Likewise, at no point during DeChambeau’s three-stroke victory at the Rocket Mortgage Classic did you say to yourself, ‘He reminds me of ol’ Stranny, no?”
“Ol’ Stranny” being the memorable Frank Stranahan and, no, people aren’t comparing DeChambeau to Stranahan – mostly because so few people in today’s world have an inkling about historical perspective.
But it behooves us, in this rush to embrace the transformation of DeChambeau from “a golfing scientist” (his term, by the way) into “the hulk,” to take a deep breath and pay respect to golfers – from Stranahan to Gary Player to Tiger Woods – who blazed this fitness trail in which he now walks.
No question, the 26-year-old Californian is navigating in his own unique way and achieving results with exponentially different numbers, but the essence of what he’s doing has been done before and it recycles a topic that’s been discussed for years in golf.
Is weight-training and adding muscle important for a golfer?
Emphatically, DeChambeau says yes and he worked out three times every day of the pandemic-forced break putting on weight. Three months later, he returned to the first PGA TOUR tournament since March looking thicker than a banyan tree. On social media, fans took guesses at what he weighed, and 300 pounds was a popular pick.
“They were quite a bit off,” laughed DeChambeau, who said he added 20. But if the season’s media guide was correct in reporting his weight at 205 and he was being honest in saying his weight was between 235 and 240 pounds, it means he added 30 to 35 pounds.
Then again, golf fans don’t care about those numbers; they are only focused on those digits he’s spitting out with every drive. DeChambeau is hitting drives 320 meters as nonchalantly as fish swim, and for those who are as “inside golf” as you can get, the ball speed factor of 305-310 kph is basically uncharted waters. (The average PGA Tour player is at about 274 meters.)
“Holy $*&@,” said Rory McIlroy, when he got his first eyewitness account, paired with DeChambeau in the final round of the Charles Schwab Challenge at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas. It was the Tour’s re-entry into competition in this age of COVID testing and no spectators attended. But McIlroy, no slouch off the tee himself, was impressed.
“[DeChambeau] hit a couple drives on Sunday where Harry (Diamond, McIlroy’s caddie) and I just looked at each other and we’re like, ‘That was unbelievable.’”
While it is difficult to fathom that DeChambeau is hitting it 30 meters past someone as powerful as McIlroy, here’s what is easy to comprehend, because the numbers are already in the books. At Colonial CC, DeChambeau dusted McIlroy, 66-74 in Round 4, finished a shot out of a playoff, and concluded four rounds at 14-under.
Throw in the next two tournaments – the RBC Heritage and Travelers Championship, where DeChambeau tied for eighth and tied for sixth, respectively – and his first 12 rounds back have produced 11 efforts in the 60s, a scoring average of 66.5, and a cumulative count of 46-under par.
Thus, has the praise flowed.
Phil Mickelson: “To watch someone hit it that hard and that straight, it’s impressive.”
Justin Rose: “Pretty unique. You can tell . . . he’s obviously trained speed.”
Webb Simpson: “It’s phenomenal what he’s done to be able to put on that much muscle mass and increase swing speed and ball speed but still have great control. Really impressive.”
The results thus far thanks to DeChambeau’s newfound physique? Four top-10 finishes, the July victory in Detroit, fourth place in the FedExCup standings and more than U.S.$2.135 million in earnings.
“It’s a little emotional for me,” DeChambeau said after firing a 7-under 65 to beat Matthew Wolff by three at Detroit Golf Club. “Because I did do something a little different, I changed my body, I changed my mindset in the game, and was able to accomplish a win while playing a completely different style of golf.”
Ah, Bryson. Could you point us to the gym, too?
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For media members and fans who have embraced the uniqueness of DeChambeau since he turned pro in 2016, a year after winning both the NCAA Championship and U.S. Amateur, this muscle-sculptured physique and ball-speed stuff is delectable.
But for those who’ve never really warmed up to a guy who majored in physics in college, talks openly about testing his golf balls in Epsom salt, insists on every iron in his bag being the same length, and tosses “oxygen depletion” into casual conversations, it is further cause for hesitation.
Again, the remedy for both sides is to calm down and enjoy the show. And consider that DeChambeau doesn’t have the market cornered when it comes to, shall we say, eccentric tendencies? Which is a perfect segue into Stranahan, a guy who at 71 was still pumping iron and bodybuilding in 1993 when DeChambeau was born.
“He was very peculiar,” said Jim Gaquin, who was the PGA Tour’s traveling secretary in the 1950s. “But he did think he had some sort of formula to live a long time.”
In fact, Stranahan made no secret of his belief that he was going to live for 120 years. He based that on the devotion he paid to good health; he never drank alcohol or smoked, he woke up at 3 a.m., and ran every morning, then worked out faithfully with weights. It was a regimen he adopted as a kid in Toledo, Ohio, and carried through his entire golf career and into the decades he lived after retiring in 1964 at the age of 42.
Recently, Brooks Koepka got mileage on social media after telling reporters he virtually took his entire gym with him from Florida to Hilton Head Island, but that’s less impressive when you consider Stranahan always took his weights with him – and this was in the 1940s and ’50s when the favored mode of coast-to-coast travel was an automobile.
In the late 1950s, Stranahan befriended a young golfer from South Africa who also showed an interest in weights and keeping in shape. Stranahan was adamant about the benefits to using weights but insisted he had developed a routine that would not ruin his golf swing.
The key, Stranahan told Player, was to not overdevelop the biceps or chest muscles. Player considered Stranahan, who was 13 years older than his South African friend, a mentor and visionary.
“In the early part of my career, people thought I was an absolute nut for training with weights,” Player told ESPN, four years ago, when he turned 80. “But I stuck to my workout routine even during tournaments and it paid off big time.”
Who could argue? Player is one of five golfers (Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus and Woods being the others) who has captured at least one victory in each of the four professional majors – the career Grand Slam, as it is – and he has won more than 160 tournaments around the globe.
Nor could anyone suggest Stranahan’s intense fitness regimen thwarted his golf game. While an amateur, Stranahan won four PGA Tour tournaments, but it was the non-professional stuff that truly mattered to him.
He won a pair of British Amateurs, two Canadian Amateurs, the Mexico Amateur, and as an amateur he finished second in the Open Championship twice and at the Masters in 1947. When he failed in his 11th and final time to win the U.S. Amateur, in 1954, it was a loss to eventual champ Arnold Palmer in the Round of 16 that convinced Stranahan to turn pro.
He did, and from 1955-64, Stranahan played 188 PGA Tour tournaments as a pro, winning twice more, including a top-heavy 1958 Los Angeles Open filled with the world’s best players. Palmer, who considered Stranahan a good friend, called him “Muscles,” but to everyone else he was the “Toledo Strongman.”
Stranahan liked the nickname and surely didn’t mind showing off his attributes; he wore tight polo shirts in competition and often posed shirtless for body-building endorsements. “But he was actually a very kind man, pretty quiet and polite,” said Gaquin.
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Whereas DeChambeau conceded his fitness regimen was intended to provide more strength to keep ahead of the curve in this era of power-hitting, both Stranahan and Player insisted their motivation was for long, healthy lives.
“My fitness and proper diet are the reasons I have been so successful,” Player said to ESPN. “If I didn’t take care of my body with a strict regimen, as well as eating proper food, I might be dead.”
Instead, Player remains vibrant at 84. While Stranahan didn’t fulfill his prediction of living to 120, he was 90 when he died, in 2013, having been a regular at the gym a few days a week right up to his death.
Both mentor and protégé advocated sensible diets.
Stranahan gave up eating meat in his early 20s, choosing a diet of whole grain, fresh fruits and vegetables. He often fasted days at a time, drinking only water. Player emphasizes tree nuts, fruits, vegetables, olive oil, and he eschews bacon passionately.
Different fitness strategies for different fitness freaks because DeChambeau embraces a “two-to-one carb-to-protein ratio” that allows him to pretty much eat what he wants. So, for breakfast “I usually have four eggs, five pieces of bacon, some toast and two protein shakes . . . ”
Likely, we would have lost Player at the “five pieces of bacon,” but therein we come to an intersection on the road to fitness. It probably veers off in five or six directions; just as there are dozens of successful golf swings that don’t look the same, not everyone improves his or her physical fitness in similar fashions.
Davis Love III, for instance, said his father, a heralded golf instructor and former PGA Tour player, “literally pulled me out of organized basketball because they were lifting weights.”
Then there’s Johnny Miller, who has never thought that a lot of weightlifting was good for golfers. “I think he overdid the weight room, personally,” he commented in 2016 about Rory McIlroy, who had squandered a chance to win the Masters with a 77-71 weekend and then missed the cut in the U.S. Open.
“I don’t think that helped him at all. I think (the) same thing with Tiger Woods. You just get carried away with wearing the tight shirts and showing off their sort of muscles. You know, golf is a game of finesse and touch. You need a certain amount of strength. I just think you’ve got a little too much of that.”
No surprise, given the golf public’s adoration of Woods and McIlroy, that Miller was heavily criticized. But he spoke from experience.
After winning his second major, the 1976 Open Championship, Miller chose to return to his ranch in Utah and spend months chopping wood and lifting logs as he cleared his land. He wanted to bulk up and he did; he soon wore shirts with a size-18 collar.
The thing is, in 1977, Miller felt like he had lost his feel. He turned 30 that April and should have been in his prime. Instead, in 1977-80 he played 51 times, didn’t win, and had just seven top 10s. Bigger and stronger, yes; but Miller concedes his game suffered.
Mind you, his 2016 criticism was consistent with strong thoughts Miller had written in 2003. Miller wrote I Call the Shots with Golf Digest’s Guy Yocom (published in 2004), and in it Miller produced a chapter called “The Trouble with Physical Conditioning.”
Players striving for “the big-muscle swing” were putting enormous stress on the back, and he said Woods, who had added 30 pounds of muscle, and David Duval, who was similarly ripped, purposely got into lifting weights to help in that quest. Miller wasn’t an advocate.
To give him his due, it could be said that Miller was on target. Duval never did return to elite form, and while Woods had great success in 2005-09 and was rejuvenated in 2019 in winning the Masters, at 43, there were a series of wasted years as his back and overall health suffered.
Which is not to suggest DeChambeau is facing similar woes. The fact is, his quest for weight, muscle and power has already paid dividends. He’s going to ride the bull market.
“I have really enjoyed the journey to get to this point,” he told reporters. “I am going to continue to work hard and see where it takes me.”
He has his own GPS, not someone else’s road map.