MIAMI – It was 2004 and Charles Howell III was just four years into his professional golf career when he competed at the now-defunct Save Mart Shootout, an unofficial one-day event in Fresno, California.
He was among a handful of touring pros in attendance and part of the day’s festivities included local junior players showing off their swings during a clinic.
One of the lads was a promising 11-year-old from nearby Clovis named Bryson DeChambeau, who nervously took three whacks with his driver, the club that would eventually become his calling card. The feedback from Howell and the others was encouraging.
“I remember them coming to me after, saying, ‘Great job, man. We’ll see you out there soon,’” DeChambeau recalled. “So, I’ve looked up to him my whole life.”
It’s now 19 years later, and DeChambeau and Howell, along with Anirban Lahiri and Paul Casey, are standing next to each other late Sunday evening behind the stage adjacent to the fan village at Trump National Doral. Famed Australian techno producer FISHER has just started his post-round concert, so the beat is thumping loud. But he couldn’t drown out DeChambeau’s declarations of love and appreciation for his three Crushers GC teammates after winning LIV Golf’s signature tournament, the Team Championship.
Despite DeChambeau’s reputation as someone who marches to his own drum, crafting his game with equal parts unconventional thinking and analytical dedication, he does not operate on an island. He enjoys the camaraderie of LIV’s team concept, whether it’s the Crushers’ front office support staff, the high-energy digital content crew or his teammates and caddies inside the ropes.
He also understands his limitations. When he joined LIV last year, he was the second-youngest captain in the league. He sought to surround himself with veteran teammates – stable, secure players who would appreciate his quirkiness, his any-hour-of-the-day text messages and endless search for the most incremental of improvements. Players like Howell and Casey and Lahiri, who have a combined 52 years of professional golf experience. Each from different parts of the world, each with a global view, each with voices that DeChambeau would respect.
Casey is 46 years old, Howell 44, Lahiri 36. DeChambeau just recently celebrated his 30th birthday. Although he’s the captain, he embraces the reverse-mentorship structure. “I couldn’t have picked a better group of guys to be with,” he said. “Because one, they are wiser than me, so I wanted to gain more knowledge, what they had. And two, they are all dedicated to the craft and getting better every day.”
The three wise veterans knew they were joining a player with special talent. Even as DeChambeau struggled to find form last year while dealing with health and other issues, they saw he was locked in on building the Crushers team, with aspirations that go beyond simply winning tournaments. Outreach programs are important for all four players, particularly for Lahiri as he seeks to grow the game in his native India.
Last November, DeChambeau's dad, Jon, passed away after battling kidney disease and diabetes. That left his son without a father figure. Fortunately for Bryson, he had three teammates whom he could lean on. They couldn’t replace his dad, but they would do their best to offer guidance and counsel as needed.
In the process, they’ve become more than just range partners and dinner companions.
“This team is like family now,” Lahiri said. “We have all kind of grown together. I think [Bryson’s] grown about eight or 10 years in the last 14 months having three stepdads on the team.”
Indeed. DeChambeau’s growth as a leader is just as impressive as his continued development as a golfer. Howell is 14 years older but appreciates his young captain’s ability to inspire.
“To be a part of it with Bryson, what he puts into this, how hard he works, what he thinks about – he’s such a wonderful captain on top of being a great player. A massive heart and a great person,” Howell said. “As happy as I am for this, I’m happy to see this guy win and succeed always because he deserves every bit of it.”
Of course, as the end of the day, it’s still about golf, still about results, still about the chase for trophies. DeChambeau finally regained his form in mid-season after a driver equipment switch prompted renewed confidence with his most potent weapon. He won two of the last four regular-season events. The first was fueled by that incredible 61-58 weekend in Greenbrier. The second one, in Chicago, denied his teammate Lahiri a chance to end his personal eight-year victory drought. DeChambeau felt bad about it, even as he lifted the winner’s trophy; Lahiri, while disappointed, held no grudges.
No player in professional golf delivers better theatre than DeChambeau, and his back-nine performance Sunday on the Blue Monster was vintage stuff. With his Crushers clinging to the lead built on Lahiri’s brilliant bogey-free 65, DeChambeau was trying to hang on after his driver suddenly went askew. “I kind of lost control of the face,” he said. That’s never good – especially for someone with his off-the-charts numbers.
He offset the problems with a couple of 35-foot birdie bombs, but at the drivable par-4 16th, his driver betrayed him into a seemingly impossible spot. His tee ball sailed over the green and hit the top of the Birdie Shack grandstands, then presumably bounced off the cart path behind the structure and eventually ended up in front of the nearby 2nd green.
It left him with a couple of options, neither good. He decided to play the ball as is, 109 yards from the pin, with grandstands blocking his view. His teammate Casey was playing the second hole. He didn’t know exactly what was going on – but it didn’t surprise him who was involved.
It also didn’t surprise him that DeChambeau’s blind shot found the middle of the green, followed by a 20-foot birdie putt that, in essence, sealed the championship for the Crushers.
“That’s Bryson,” Casey said. “Not only is he the most dynamic player on the planet, he’s also been a great captain this year. He’s been a great guy. He’s supported us because in a season, you’re not peaking all the time, you have ups and downs, all of us, including him. But he’s been a phenomenal captain and I’m so proud of being part of this awesome team. I love all these guys.”
Watching from outside the ropes was DeChambeau’s mother Jan. She’s seen her son do some amazing things on the golf course. But getting up-and-down from behind the grandstands?
“Never seen anything like that before,” she said. “But he has that inner strength. He just kept on going. What a great day for all the struggles, all the things he’s been through. And great for the team. He’s got such a solid team. He loves his team.”
A week earlier, DeChambeau came up short in his bid to win the season-long Individual Champion title. He had shot 63 on Saturday to put himself in position but couldn’t find the magic again on the final day and was knocked off the podium by frenemy Brooks Koepka. It was a tough result, and a costly one, since only the top three at the end of the season earn bonuses.
With the Team Championship win, the Crushers earned $14 million, with 60% of that going into the team’s coffers. It’s significant revenue for a club and a captain that has big dreams. It also comes with a permanent spot in the record books. Dustin Johnson’s 4Aces GC won the 2022 beta-test year, but it’s the Crushers who own LIV Golf League’s first full 14-tournament season
“Having the Crushers be front and center of the first inaugural full season just means the world,” DeChambeau said. “We are part of history, and I couldn't be more proud of these guys.”
Finally, it was time to stop talking and start partying. But not every Crusher could stick around. Casey had a plane to catch. Howell and his family needed to pack. These stepdads are wise. Sometimes, you just have to let the kid go enjoy things with his own crowd.