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GAJTKA: For Bryson DeChambeau, Winning Means Something Different



Down the back nine of a remarkably dramatic U.S. Open Sunday, two competitors with quite a bit in common jousted for what would be a career-altering win for both.

Both Bryson DeChambeau and Rory McIlroy were chasing an awaited major follow-up — a validation, if you will.

For the former, could he win an Open on a course that wasn’t as easily overpowered as Winged Foot in 2020? For the latter, could he win any major again after opening the 2010s with four in four years?

Beyond that, though, both men are among the biggest personalities in the game — only first names necessary to identify them — and they’re both among the longest hitters in the sport. They each wield significant charisma in their own ways, so it was thrilling to watch them tussle over one of the most venerable titles in golf.

But I couldn’t help thinking something else as the stakes of each shot rose ever higher in the Sandhills of North Carolina: Trophy or not, DeChambeau already had earned a victory.

Not that a second major wouldn’t burnish Bryson’s burgeoning brand, big time. Of course it would, and it has in the hours since he completed one of the gutsiest up-and-downs we’ll see in our lifetimes. Nothing endears an athlete to the public like raising trophies.

Still, the win before the win has been just as interesting, and important to the sport.

I’m talking about DeChambeau’s reinvention what it means to be a successful touring golf professional. His much-visited YouTube channel is both good, clean fun and a rare look at an elite athlete away from the official arena, yet still performing.

You probably can’t have one without the other, but I’m even more energized by watching Bryson interact with the fans on the actual golf course than I am his latest ‘Break 50’ challenge.

It seems more than ever we’re told that pro athletes must remain calm and ignore so-called distractions in order to play their best. Sounds good in theory, but especially in golf, that means we’re left with an army of nameless gray faces, to borrow from Mike Tomlin.

One of the main reasons that pro golf is a viable entertainment entity is because guys like Arnold Palmer embraced fan support and captivated this sport’s proto audiences. That tradition carried on through the likes of Lee Trevino, Seve Ballesteros and — as DeChambeau noted in his winner’s press conference — Tiger Woods.

(Sure, Tiger wasn’t the most gregarious character on the course, but his obvious burning intensity drew the viewer in like no other golfer in history.)

Of course, you’ve got to win the biggest tournaments to be a star, but to be truly transcendent and to really grow the game as so many claim, you’ve got to capture imaginations, too. We golf fans want to see what the pros are feeling. In this sport where most of those who watch also play regularly, we want to relate to the triumphs and disasters of the golfing gods.

Personal taste aside, DeChambeau’s current arms-wide-open approach is the way to win in ways that go beyond birdies and bogeys. And, ironically, I think it’s actually helping him get outside his own head and simply perform. Instead of going internal to find his ‘flow state,’ as we see so often in pro golf, Bryson is thriving in the external.

Given the current fractured and confusing state of the men’s pro game, golf needs a salesman and a showman now more than ever. It seems that, at some point, we’re going to get the best players back together more often than we have since the advent of LIV Golf two years ago, but these wounds need to be healed.

Funny that a guy who literally sued the PGA Tour (along with a few others) could be one of those best positioned to solder the broken bonds, but the people have spoken. Gradually, the masses have decided that they like what Bryson is putting out there, akin to a modern-day Arnie’s Army at the past two major championships.

Idiosyncratic behavior contains the potential for genius. The thing is, it has to work in competition, or an iconoclast can become an outcast in a hurry.

DeChambeau has seen both sides of that coin and come out on the other side. The past year has been building to the crescendo we witnessed last weekend, and now he has a chance to be a different kind of golf superstar.

He’s still a couple of majors behind Brooks Koepka and McIlroy, and level with the game’s current top player Scottie Scheffler, but Palmer won 11 fewer majors than Jack Nicklaus and I’d wager to say Arnie created countless more golf fans than Jack.

It’s safe to say DeChambeau has more on his mind than simply winning a lot, but delivering on the course like he did at Pinehurst only helps in the quest to be more than just a champion.

A 15-year veteran of sports media, Matt Gajtka (GITE-kah) is the founding editor of PGN. Matt is a lifelong golfer with a passion for all aspects of the sport, from technique to courses to competition. His experience ranges from reporting on Pittsburgh's major-league beats, to broadcasting a variety of sports, to public relations, multimedia production and social media.

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