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Golf Magazine Interview: Brandel Chamblee

Brandel Chamblee, GOLF Magazine Interview
Chris Condon/PGA Tour/Getty Images
NOTE TO TIGER: Chamblee says Woods will never fully regain his dominance.

Which of the 20-somethings do you see challenging Phil and Tiger next year?
I love Rory's game. I'm excited about the three R's — Rory, Ryo Ishikawa, and Rickie Fowler. Throw Martin Kaymer in there, too, since he now has a major to his credit. You know what I like about them? Their swings look different, instinctual. Compare them to Adam Scott, Charles Howell, Luke Donald, Justin Rose. No knock on them, but there's not a major champion among them, and I don't think it's a coincidence. They have cookie-cutter swings. But I don't see that with Rickie, Rory, Ryo and Kaymer. Also, they haven't been pummeled by Tiger for years, so they're not intimidated by him.

Who steps up? One of the three R's?
Maybe. But they all lack one thing: size. I like the bigger guys who don't have to swing at 100 percent. Big guys tend to have what I call "big game" — the sky-high ball flight that wins majors. Bigger guys can do that while swinging at 80 percent. Think Tiger, Vijay, Phil. Ryo, Rory and those guys swing full throttle all the time. But there's one guy in his 20's who has the physical strength, the putting, the monster ball flight to dominate and win six, seven, eight majors in the next 10-12 years. And that's Dustin Johnson. Dustin has everything. He has some weaknesses around the greens, but so did Jack. If he doesn't win a Masters or two, I would be shocked.

But can Johnson rebound from his mental meltdowns? What if he's scarred from his Sunday 82 at the U.S. Open, and his Rules blunder at the PGA Championship?
Would Hogan have been as great if he had won the '42 Masters, instead of losing a playoff to Byron Nelson? Would Tom Watson have been as good if he hadn't given away majors early on? I don't think so. Hogan and Watson weren't demoralized. They were emboldened. So Dustin has a choice: He can be scarred mentally, or he can say, "I could have won half the majors in 2010!" and then work harder. What you don't want is to feel you were robbed. That would be Greg Norman's perception. It builds up emotional baggage.

How has Dustin Johnson handled the adversity of 2010?
Dustin has handled this adversity very well. He bounced back by winning the BMW Championship. That says so much about his character. Dustin seeks out practice rounds with guys like Phil and Freddie Couples. To me, that shows that he wants to be in the company of great players. Far and away, of all the young guys, he has all the skills of a Phil, Ernie, Vijay. But can he handle the disappointment the game dishes out? That's so key. Look at Phil. He could have been scarred by near misses in the '90s. And then here comes a guy [Woods] who is better, more talented, who beats you into a pulp. Yet Phil never let it scar him psychologically. And he finally broke through at the 2004 Masters.

So Johnson's major disasters could help him in the long run?
Few players have that ability to keep a level head. And if Dustin can, the sky's the limit. It doesn't hurt that he's working with Butch Harmon, a gift to the game of golf. It's not a coincidence that Butch has worked with Greg Norman, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson. Butch knows talent, and how to help a player find his best, most innate swing — not the cookie-cutter, scientific approach to teaching, which I think is a cancer on the game.

What do you mean 'cancer on the game'?
I mean that the golf swing is art, but it's taught as science. That's a confining way to learn the game, and it's bad both for the players who learn that way — I go back to swings like Scott, Donald, Howell — and for golf in general. When you learn the swing watching and obsessing over videotape, you become fixated on your flaws, on perfection. Well, you cannot obtain perfection in the golf swing. The swing used to be taught by former pros who taught how to play the game. Some of the kids they taught grew up to be Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson and Arnold Palmer and Greg Norman. But now, nobody leaves the Tour. So who teaches the swing? Scientists and engineers and people without practical experience [in competition]. Don't get me wrong — they're very smart people. I'd like them to teach me algorithms and engineering. But not the swing. The swing isn't math. It's art. It's about instinct and feel and guts. I'm sure some expert can take a magnifying glass and find flaws in Da Vinci's brush strokes, but you know what? It's still the Mona Lisa.

Hale Irwin told us the same thing, that pros should fire their swing gurus and learn from experience and the gut. Because under pressure, whether you're Mickelson in the Masters or John Doe in his club championship, you revert to instinct, not textbooks.
I'm reminded of a Hogan story. He once asked [his protégé] Gardner Dickinson what shot he'd hit if his life depended on it. Dickinson said, "Ball back in my stance, trap draw." Hogan said, "You're goddamn right you would!" Sure enough, with the tournament on the line at Colonial [in 1967], Gardner hit that exact shot to a back-left pin and won. Walking toward the green, Hogan's there and gives him a wink and tip of the cap.

You're very critical of the golf swing. Who's got the best swing in golf?
Actually, I'd say Angel Cabrera. I love it. It's natural. Instinctual. Powerful. And it doesn't look like anyone else's. He didn't have a lot of instruction. He learned the swing on the course, because he was a caddie growing up in Argentina. I once asked his teacher, Charlie Epps, why Argentinean players have such beautiful moves. His answer said it all: "Because there's not a single swing thought in all of Argentina."

Who have you really pissed off with your commentary?
I've heard a lot both from Tiger and Hank Haney, and the stack-and-tilt guys have attacked me, because it happens to be a swing philosophy that I believe is not the most effective way to hit the ball. And if you look at the ballstriking statistics of the guys who use or have used the stack-and-tilt — Aaron Baddeley, Charlie Wi — the facts bear that out.

What did you make of the PGA site, Whistling Straits? Critics say that it is excessively penal.
Pete Dye is a great architect, but courses like Whistling Straits are everything that's wrong with golf: too costly to maintain, too long, and too hard to play. We need courses to be more player friendly, because we're losing golfers. We need to swing back to the golden age of architecture, like Tom Doak and [Ben] Crenshaw-[Bill] Coore are doing. Your ankles shouldn't be killing you after your round. Golf should be a walk in the park, not a gun to your head.

Let's talk about your playing career. When did you know you wanted to be a pro golfer?
Growing up in Texas, every sport I played, I wanted to do for a living. I ran track, but I finished last in the regionals. I played football, and I ended up at the bottom of a pile of guys the size of sumo wrestlers, spitting up blood. When I was 13, I played golf for the first time, and told my dad, "I wanna do this for a living."

When you turned pro in 1985, did you have that 'These guys are good' moment?
Actually, it was the opposite. In 1983, when I was 20, I was invited to play in the Colonial. I made the cut, and after 54 holes, my name was on the leaderboard next to Jack Nicklaus and Tom Weiskopf. Back then, there was no Golf Channel, so on TV you only saw the leaders on weekends hitting amazing shots and making every putt. I thought they were gods. At the Colonial, I realized you can be imperfect and still play this game.

You mentioned Nicklaus. You idolized him growing up, right?
Here's a story. When I was playing for the University of Texas, my college roommate was Paul Thomas, who, unbeknownst to me, knew Jack, through Paul's father, Dave, a fine player. Well, Paul and I went to the 1982 British Open at Troon. We walk out of the Bollinger tent, and I'm hammered. And we run into Jack Nicklaus! I'm awestruck. Jack says, "Paul, how are you?" I'm thinking, Holy s---! The greatest golfer on the planet knows my roommate! Jack says hello to me, but I've got three bottles of champagne in me. I saw three Jacks. I just shook the middle hand. He says to Paul, "You guys wanna grab dinner tonight?" Are you f---ing kidding me? Next thing I know, I'm sitting next to Jack Nicklaus at dinner, with a large group. I'm so excited. Too excited. At one point,Jack turns to me and says, "Do you play golf?" The world stopped. I stammered, "Umm, yes, at the University of Texas..." Silence. I was struck dumb. And he turns and talks to the rest of the table.

You choked!
Absolutely. It's like Cindy Crawford walks up to you and says, "You're cute." And you say, "Umm, I like your mole."

Were you as awestruck when you met Tom Watson?
I was in the locker room at the Western Open. I see Watson walking toward me. I expect to hear something like, "You're playing well. Keep it up." He walks up, hands me his shoes, and says, "Can you get these cleaned up? I tee off in about an hour." [Laughs.] He thought I was the shoeshine guy. I said, "Mr. Watson, I'd love to, but I'm teeing off a half hour after you." He was so embarrassed.

You had a solid career. When did you know it was time to hang it up?
When Tiger turned pro [laughs]. Playing with him [at the 1998 International] was humbling. He did things no one else could do. On No. 1, he was on the left side of the fairway. The pin was tucked back right about 250 yards away, and he had to go over a ridiculously tall pine tree. He takes a 4-iron and skies it over the tree to a foot from the hole. It landed like a wet dishrag. It was silly. Then he made a hole-in-one on No. 7. After an inordinate amount of screaming from 100,000 people, it was finally quiet for my putt. I'm over my ball, and I hear Tiger whisper to [his caddie] Fluff [Cowan], "God, I love this game." I backed away and laughed. I wanted to say, "No s--- you love it. You make every other shot, and you make $100 million a year. Try loving it when you hit it 270 instead of 310."

You wrote in Sports Illustrated that you quit because you wanted to be 'a real person.'
Golf is all-encompassing. I was always working out, practicing, traveling. Along the way, we lost a child [in 2000, Chamblee's son Braeden was born two months premature and lived only nine days]. No one can play this game without a burn. I didn't have enormous talent. I had average talent. But I burned for it. That burn left me around 2000, 2001.

How did Braeden's death change you?
The loss of a child devastates you. It changes you forever. I lost the desire to practice and play. It affected my marriage. [Chamblee and his wife, Karen, later divorced.] People say time heals grief, that you get over it. That's not true. You always have that emptiness. There's a scar on your heart. Every day, I drive past the cemetery where he's buried. So every day, I experience a dark moment. Someone I know lost two of his three children — one son in a boating accident, another son on September 11, 2001. He said that two-thirds of his heart is gone forever. And he said that though you never get it back, you can make that one-third bigger. You make it grow with your attitude, your outlook, improving the lives of others. That's what I've tried to do.

Your first full year in the booth was 2003. What was the toughest moment?
The whole year! I started working with ABC, and it was maybe the worst year of my life. I hated it. And I was terrible. I didn't know how to throw it to Judy Rankin. I didn't know what my role was, if I was stepping on Curtis Strange's toes. It was an uncomfortable, disgusting year. The hardest thing in television is to be yourself, and I was not myself. I was trying to be somebody else. I was speaking with a governor, worrying about what other people were thinking.

You're a big fan of Johnny Miller's shoot-from-the-hip broadcast style. What's your take on Nick Faldo, the lead analyst for CBS and Golf Channel?
Nick is very good in the booth, but I think he uses too many crutches as a broadcaster. How many times does he say "Crumbs" or "He missed that by fractions"? As a player, Faldo was selfish and arrogant — and I don't mean that as an insult. You need to have a selfish arrogance to be great. Nick could try to show more selfishness in the booth. He could take chances. I think he suffers at CBS because there's so much talent around him: Jim Nantz, Peter Kostis, David Feherty — they're all great. In my opinion, Nick too often describes the action — he explains what, but the viewers want to know why.

Time to critique yourself. What was your worst on-air gaffe?
Once, while talking about the Champions Tour, I wanted to say "aspect," but it came out "ass point." As soon as I say it, in my ear I hear my producer say, "Really? Ass point? You just said 'ass point?'" During the commercial, a producer put that sound bite on a video loop that played for three straight minutes: "ass point, ass point, ass point..."

And your favorite line?
I remember Tommy Armour III had a 50-foot putt at the BMW [Championship]. It was dark, 7 p.m., last shot of the day. And he makes the putt. Kelly Tilghman turns to me and says, "Can you believe this?" I say, "Well, I've known Tommy a long time, and I always thought he did his best work in the dark."

Have your own question for Brandel Chamblee? Leave it here or send an e-mail to editor@golf.com.

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