Since taking the money and running to the LIV Golf tour, life on the course has not been particularly kind to Bryson DeChambeau.
He hasn’t won a tournament there, hasn’t even finished in the top five and ranks 28th in the tour’s standings, behind such golf luminaries as Eugenio Chacarra, Danny Lee and Scott Vincent.
Nothing against those three, but when LIV signed DeChambeau to a nine-figure contract, it was with the expectation that he’d serve as a linchpin for the breakaway tour — a high-profile golfer in the prime of his career taking his talents away from the PGA Tour.
Instead, what’s happened is DeChambeau has morphed into a back marker, with an average LIV finish of 20th. A month ago, in one of only four shots he’ll get this year against his old PGA Tour foes, he didn’t even make the cut at the Masters.
And yet, here he is, after the first round of the 2023 PGA Championship, with the lead after firing a 4-under 66 on Thursday.
There was a time when DeChambeau leading a major would not have been surprising, but that time was three years ago. When he won the U.S. Open as a hulking monster in 2020, DeChambeau silenced the jokes and overcame the side glances aimed at his mad scientist approach. Sure, he may be a little different — just watch him huff and puff before he hits every drive — but results don’t lie, especially a U.S. Open victory.
But he hasn’t backed that win up with much of anything. He won the Arnold Palmer Invitational in 2021, but that’s it. He hasn’t won anywhere since, has missed the cut in the last two Masters and the rest of his major finishes are T46, T38, T26, T33, T56 and T8. One top 10 in his last eight majors.
It has been a slog for DeChambeau, one he says has actually been going on for five years, searching and searching for a fix to his swing that had become very unpredictable. He blames that on a hand injury. But there was also the weight gain.
During the early part of the pandemic, DeChambeau spent a lot of his time in the weight room. By the time he arrived at Winged Foot for that 2020 U.S. Open, he'd put on some 50 pounds. It was a shocking transformation and one, again, that went unquestioned when he went out and trounced the field by six strokes.
But, it turns out, it wasn't all muscle. A lot of it was water weight. If you thought he looked bloated, well, he was. He started cutting certain things out of his diet — corn, wheat, gluten, dairy — that he found out he was allergic to. He says he lost 18 pounds in 24 days.
"It was crazy. It wasn't fat. It was all water weight," he explained. "You know how I looked before. I was not skinny."
The start of his PGA Championship didn't portend that anything had changed, particularly when he flared his approach on 17 — his eighth hole of the day after starting on the back nine — some 30-40 yards wide of his intended target. He missed the green so badly he plunked fellow player Kenny Pigman, who was standing on the 18th tee.
But after that shot led to a bogey, he followed with a birdie on 18, followed by another at 1 that vaulted him up the leaderboard. He followed with two more at Nos. 4 and 6.
Oak Hill, which has hosted plenty of majors before in western New York, was proving to be only so gettable. There are easy birdies out there, like the 317-yard, par-4 14th, but mostly it was about keeping the ball in play, not making big mistakes, making pars and taking advantage of the birdie opportunities when they came.
A total of 156 players teed off Thursday. Only 15 were under par when DeChambeau tapped in for his 66.
"It's been a while," he said after his round. "So nice to come back and start to finally figure out what's going on with my golf swing. As I've told you guys before, I've struggled with my driving. You see me out there on the range. That's something I don't want to do. I don't want to be out there all night, but I've had to figure out what I did so well in 2018 and what made me so successful then.
"I feel like I'm catching on and trending that direction."
It's one round, but it's the kind of round he hasn't had at a major championship when it matters in a long, long time.
Is Bryson DeChambeau back? He's got three more days to prove that he is.