Saturday 30 April 2016

From the lake of dreams (Sussex) rises Merlin...

Bryson DeChambeau is the latest golden hope of American golf, low amateur at the Masters followed by a T-4 finish in his first tournament as a pro at Hilton Head, and just the fifth player to win the NCAA and US Amateur titles in the same year - the other four were Jack Nicklaus, Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods and Ryan Moore.

It's not just the golf, either. The Americans are well stocked on Boy Wonders, what with Spieth and Fowler and so on. DeChambeau, once a physics major at Southern Methodist University, is trying to rip up some of the game's conventional wisdom, playing with a set of clubs that he conceived and helped to design. Instead of gradually decreasing in length towards the wedges in the regular way, all of DeChambeau's irons have the same 37.5 inch shaft, his theory being that he can make exactly the same swing on every shot - a swing he has tailored very specifically to his body type. Because the clubs are all the length of his six iron, his swing is anachronistically upright, and when coupled with the flat cap he favours, gives him an old-school, deeply marketable look.

It started in 2011, when DeChambeau's coach told him to read The Golfing Machine by Homer Kelley, published in 1969, a book described by Golf Digest as 'an arcane, science-based tome' and blamed by some for what the magazine called the "high-profile flame-outs" of Mac O'Grady and Bobby Clampett (O'Grady in turn is now an equally controversial swing instructor who plays scratch golf both right and left handed). Dechambeau's revelatory flash came upon him when he read 'Chapter Ten, Component 7, Variation A', which dealt with the notion of what Kelley termed the 'Zero Shift Swing'.

The ins and outs of the Zero Shift Swing are for the pointy heads of golf mechanics, but it's worth noting that what DeChambeau has done is not prescriptive: he believes that the golf swing is entirely individual, and that everyone can play: "It's not talent, it's just practice... If I wanted to learn Arabic or Russian, I could. Or tie my shoes in a new way, I could. Why? Dedication. I'm not really smart, but I'm dedicated. I can be good at anything if I love it and dedicate myself."

DeChambeau is already picking up significant amounts of TV airtime when he plays, and he's a telegenic guy. He's far better known than 150 or so veteran tour pros, and the differences in his swing ensure that every time he's on, one of the commentators will talk about his clubs.

Golf clubs have, like the cricket bat, been through their transformative moment: the difference is that they can to a degree keep pushing forwards with new materials and gimmicks. Willow will always be willow, with all of its beauty and constraints. But If DeChambeau is right, and he has found an alternative way of playing the game, then he's offering manufacturers an entirely new market.

Cricket will not have that luxury, at least while the rules on what materials can be used in the bat remain (and maybe there's a case that they shouldn't). When I wrote about bats for cricinfo a couple of years ago, Chris King, who makes them for Gray Nicolls, was working on designs that would make the player feel better, the willow itself having been pushed to the edge of its useability.

I've been thinking of DeChambeau, and of Chris' ideas since I've had hold of Newbery's new bat, the Merlin. Two seasons ago, entirely out of the blue, I got one of the greatest emails of my life asking if I'd like to try out the then-new Kudos, a blade that has since joined my personal pantheon. When it became Newbery's fastest selling bat, the link was obvious*, and I couldn't get down to Hove fast enough when the offer of the Merlin came along.

In appearance the Merlin is classically understated, a beautiful bat with slender shoulders and sweeping lines. The toe is squared off, which seems in vogue at the moment, and the bat is pressed slightly differently (the result of a mistake on a prototype, apparently) giving it a flatter, apparently broader face. Looking down on it, it has a sort of sultry power that, a few years ago, you'd associate with much bigger, less sophisticated cudgel (I may be overthinking all of this, but Chris King is onto something - a bat must make you feel good when you look at it in your stance... whatever 'good' means to you).

The twist to the bat is in the top of the handle, which is hollowed out in order to drop in a plug of lignum vitae, a dense, heavy, green wood designed to act as a counter balance. It weighs a few ounces, and is there to make the bat come down faster once it's at the top of the backlift, a very DeChambeau type of idea that probably has something to do with the moment of maximum inertia.

I was somewhat skeptical about this, but in pick-up the bat does feel slightly unorthodox. I've only used it three times, twice in the nets when I hacked away (I hadn't batted for so long I could barely see the ball, let alone hit it) and once in a game (on an artifical pitch last weekend, where it was so cold it was also quite hard to actually see) when I managed to middle a couple (the bat has that deep, satisfying sense of prolonged contact when it happens). I felt as though I was at the ball early a couple of times (any excuse...) so perhaps I was swinging it a little faster.

It's a fascinating idea that has a psychological impact as well as a physical one (maybe more so, in fact, certainly for me). With a material like willow, which in the modern bat is worked to within an inch of its life, expanding its development takes imagination and flair and the Merlin has both.

There is a trend trend for global sports 'brands' (uurgh) mostly concerned with selling trainers to sticker up bats and pay big-name pros lots of money to use them (and good for the pros, make it while you can) but these are not the bats that you see out on the club pitches of England. Bat making at heart is artisan and individual. You know a Newbery bat by its look and feel, in the same way that you know a Gray Nicolls, or a Salix or a Woodstock, a Millichamp & Hall and so on. These are the bats that people want, because they are bats that the owner can make a connection with.

*I'm joking. It is obvious though.

NB: also obviously, and in full disclosure, Newbery gave me both the Kudos and the Merlin. The last bat I bought before that was a Newbery. They make great bats that suit me. Like all good makers, you can go along to see them and talk about the bats they've got, probably until you're blue in the face and they're edging you towards the door. You don't buy often, so when you do, make it a good one...

NNB: If you needed any more confirmation that cricket bats are sexy, Gordon Lee, Newbery's CEO and a man as happily obsessed with the product as everyone else there, used to work for Ann Summers and Wonderbra. Now that's what you call a CV...


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Anonymous said...

Interesting article as always. However, I don't think that the single length iron concept is a new one. Bryson might have tweaked the concept slightly but I'm not sure....As an equipment geek of the worst order (golf and cricket) I've been trying to get hold of a single length iron set for a couple of years now. There are several companies that have made such iron sets for a number of years (1 Iron Golf is one) and Tommy Armour was the last mainstream golf company to try the idea. However, sets have typically been around £1000. With a bit of luck, Bryson will get a few more companies thinking in this direction and bring the price more into line with typical sets. I certainly think that it's a concept with some merit.

On a completely different thread, I hadn't realised until recently that you wrote "Muscle", a book that I very much enjoyed. It certainly helped to get me through a hellish daily bus journey from St Albans to Harlow! From your writing, I also picked up on Jonathan Rendall and a number of other authors - so thanks!


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