PGA Championship: Slimmed-down Bryson DeChambeau back in major contention

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Bryson DeChambeau reacts on the 18th green during the first round of the PGA Championship at Oak Hill Country Club on May 18, in Rochester, New York. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/PGA of America/PGA of America via Getty Images)

Since taking the money and running for the LIV Golf Tour, life on the course hasn't been particularly kind to Bryson DeChambeau.

He has not won a tournament there, not even finishing in the top five, and is 28th in the tour standings, behind golf greats such as Eugenio Chakara, 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 would serve as a linchpin for the Breakaway Tour – one in the prime of his career. High-profile golfer who is having his talent taken away. From PGA Tour.

Instead, what happened is that DeChambeau turned into a back marker with an average LIV finish of 20th. A month ago, in just one of four shots against his old PGA Tour foes this year, he didn't even make the cut at the Masters.

And yet, here he is after the first round of the 2023 PGA Championship, carding a 4-under 66 on Thursday.

There was a time when DeChambeau taking the lead wouldn't have been surprising, but that time was three years ago. When he won the US Open in 2020 as a giant monster, DeChambeau shrugged off the jokes and overcame side glances aimed at his mad scientist approach. Sure, he may be a little aloof – check out his gusto and puff before hitting every drive – but the results don't lie, especially a US Open win.

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But he has not backed that victory with anything. He won the Arnold Palmer Invitational in 2021, but that's it. He hasn't won anywhere since then, missing the cut at the last two Masters and his remaining major finishes are T46, T38, T26, T33, T56 and T8. A Top 10 finisher in his last eight majors.

It's been a slog for DeChambeau, he says he's been running for five years in fact, searching and searching to fix his swing that had become too unpredictable. He attributed this to a hand injury. But there was also weight gain.

Early in the pandemic, DeChambeau spent a lot of time in the weight room. By the time he arrived at Winged Foot for the 2020 US Open, he had put on some 50 pounds. It was a startling turnaround and one that, again, 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, he was. He began removing certain things from his diet — corn, wheat, gluten, dairy — that he discovered he was allergic to. He says he 18 pounds in 24 days.

“It was crazy. It wasn't fat. It was all water weight,” he explained. “You know what I used to look like. I wasn't skinny.”

His PGA Championship debut didn't show that anything had changed, especially when he flunked his approach on 17 – the eighth hole of the day after starting on the back nine – about 30-40 yards wide of his intended target. He missed the green so badly that he beat teammate Kenny Pigman, who was standing on the 18th tee.

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But that shot followed with a bogey, followed with a birdie at 18, followed by another birdie at 1 that lifted him the leaderboard. He followed that up with two more at No. 4 and 6.

Oak Hill, which has previously hosted a large number of majors in western New York, was proving to be just as achievable. There are easy birdies, 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 birdie opportunities.

A total of 156 players teed off on Thursday. There were only 15 under par when DeChambeau tapped in for his 66.

“It's been a while,” he said after his round. “Great to be back and finally starting to figure out what's going on with my golf swing. As I've told you guys before, I've struggled with my driving. You can see me out there on the range. Let's see. It's something I don't ‘I don't want to do. I don't want to be out there all night, but I have to figure out what I did well in 2018 and what made me so successful.'

“I feel like I' catching up and trending in that direction.”

It's a round, but it's the kind of round he hasn't done in a major championship when it counts in a long, long time.

Is Bryson DeChambeau back? He's got three more days to prove that he is.