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How Bryson DeChambeau Saved Long Drive Golf

In August 2021, the long trip was on the verge of collapse. The niche sport, in which competitors drive golf balls as far as humanly possible, often more than 400 yards, had endured a difficult year, interrupted by the pandemic, and entries for the long shot world championship were lousy

That’s when Bryson DeChambeau, the 2020 US Open winner and a member of the 2018 and 2021 US Ryder Cup teams, entered the competition, generating widespread interest and dozens of new entries.

“He saved us, that’s for sure,” said Kyle Berkshire, a two-time long-running world champion.

DeChambeau’s involvement wasn’t a total surprise: In recent years, more and more established pros, increasingly obsessed with driving distance, have become unabashed fans of long driving, with PGA Tour winners such as Justin Thomas , Tony Finau and Cameron Champ expressing their support. Berkshire has become a training partner and sounding board for many of these professionals, sharing tips on swing technique, stretching, exercise routines and more.

“When I was in college, everyone thought long-haul guys were the clowns of the golf world,” Berkshire said. “That whole perception is changing.”

DeChambeau has played a big part in that, and after finishing seventh in the 2021 competition, he will be back for this year’s world championships, which starts on Tuesday.

DeChambeau made headlines in 2020 by bulking up and drastically changing his swing, increasing his average driving distance by nearly 20 yards to lead the PGA Tour. He ultimately won the US Open that year, and hasn’t been shy about attributing much of his success to long drive, particularly his emphasis on swing speed.

“I actually watched the 2019 long-running world championship, and that’s what inspired me and got me thinking,” DeChambeau said in a recent phone interview. “These guys were swinging the club 40 or 50 miles faster than me, so I thought, what if I could just add 15 percent to my swing speed and use it on tour? That’s how it started, and then I got addicted to hitting him further and further.”

With the help of Berkshire and other long drivers, DeChambeau adopted a common method of long drive practice: speeding training, in which competitors hit the driver as hard as possible, regardless of accuracy, in hopes that it also improves the speed of its more typical and controlled oscillations.

The method worked incredibly well for DeChambeau, so much so that now, he and Berkshire said, it has become a standard training routine for many professional golfers.

“It’s kind of a new revolution,” Berkshire said. “At this point, it’s almost mandatory for professional golfers, since everyone does it.”

According to Mark Broadie, a Columbia University professor and golf researcher who helped coach DeChambeau in 2020, the adoption of the long drive within the golf world is the next logical step. Years ago, Broadie invented the “gained shots” metric, which analyzes the impact of each shot throughout a round of golf relative to the rest of the course. His analysis ultimately found that even marginal gains in driving distance could have a major effect on scores.

“It’s true for every player: If you drive it 20 yards further, even with a little less accuracy, you can win a shot a round,” Broadie said. “So it feels like a natural evolution for long trips to be more accepted. If you want to get the ball as far as possible then clearly you want to talk to the long drivers, the guys who have optimized that throughout their careers.

Long drive has been around, in one form or another, since 1949, when a driving competition was held in conjunction with that year’s PGA Championship. A more formal long drive world championship would form in 1976, and since the 1990s a number of professional leagues have formed.

One of the most recent iterations of a long drive league, the Golf Channel-sponsored World Long Drive Association essentially disbanded in 2020 after canceling its season due to the pandemic. In its wake came a spiritual successor, the Professional Long Drivers Association, which has organized a number of tournaments, including the 2021 long drive world championships.

While the association’s trustees are happy to gain recognition in golf circles, they are also hopeful that it will translate into mainstream acceptance.

“This year, we’re getting a great response from players who want to compete, and more fans are coming to see our events,” said Bobby Peterson, managing partner and majority owner of the association. A former long drive competitor, Peterson has been a part of the sport since 1992, and said there has never been as much excitement around him as this year, including interest from potential corporate partners.

“This is not just hyperbole,” Berkshire said. “Based on the conversations I’ve been involved in, this sport is in the best position it’s ever been in.”

The recent long drive boom comes at a time when golf is facing major disruption in the form of the LIV Golf Series, whose main shareholder is Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund. In its first season, LIV Golf selected some high-profile golfers from the PGA Tour, including DeChambeau, and implemented innovations aimed at improving the fan experience and changing the way viewers view golf, including shorter tournament structures and a team format.

David Carter, a sports business professor at the University of Southern California, said the long drive could ultimately be an intriguing acquisition or partner with the PGA Tour or LIV Golf as both look to add content in the coming years.

“It’s about this next generation of consumers: younger people who want short-form, digestible content,” Carter said. “Something like a long trip could be selected in many different ways, whether it’s online, through social media, or in conjunction with tournaments.”

As the drivers geared up for this year’s world championship, Berkshire thanked DeChambeau for his continued support. He said he almost had to pinch himself when he thought of how far the trip had come in such a short time.

“Just a year ago, I’ve never seen a sport in such a bad position,” Berkshire said. “Now, I have never seen one prepared for such a bright future. It’s an exciting time overall.”

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