After qualifying for a spot in last year’s Senior British Open and subsequently missing the cut, longtime Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee was reminded of how much he missed competing. Though he hasn’t played a full Tour schedule in more than 15 years, last fall he announced that he’ll play Champions Tour events more regularly.
I caught up with Chamblee at the Waste Management Phoenix Open’s Annexus Pro-Am to find out how much he’s practicing, which parts of his game need the most work, and — most remarkably — why the heck he still has a 15-year-old driver in the bag.
How’s the prep going so far?
Pretty good. I’m happy the way I’m hitting the ball, and you know, I’m enjoying it. I really am. I love to go out and work on the things that I pick up from tour pros or theories that come up when I’m at home studying. So I use myself as a guinea pig, and it’s fun.
Has it added any stress to your schedule?
In terms of schedule, absolutely. I feel like I have three jobs. Why do I take this on? [Laughs] Because I really don’t have the time. But I love to play golf, and I’ve gotten to the point where I really did miss it. I just missed competing. And my wife loves golf so much that I go out and play with her and I enjoy it. The other day, she sat down with my schedule. She’s like, “All right, we are looking at your schedule and figuring out which events you’re going to play.”
Is that schedule set in stone yet?
I’m waiting to find out if I get into a handful of events, and hopefully I will. And if I don’t, then the only events I can try to play are the U.S. Senior Open and the [British] Senior Open. And then I may try a Monday qualifier here or there, but I might get a few spots.
You mean sponsor’s exemptions?
Yes. And if I get some, then the only ones I’m looking to try to get in are ones where I’ve got a week off before. Look, it’s ridiculous, right? I realize how absurd it is to say, I’m going to prepare to try to beat Bernhard Langer in one week. That’d be like saying, I’m walking into the gym and I’m going to lift 500 pounds the next week. It’s a ridiculous prospect. But look, I love the game, and I text with some of my buddies out there, and I miss them. And I want to go out and play a little bit, and so it’s a fun goal to have, and I don’t hit the ball too much different than I did when I played the Tour. I mean, not that I was any great Tour player, but I still hit the ball well, and I still play plenty good enough to compete, I think.
Rumor has it that you have a 15-year-old driver in the bag. Is that true?
I do. It’s a challenge, really, to these equipment companies. I’ll tip my cap to the first one that gets this driver out of my bag, because I’ve gone through the fitting process for several drivers. And look, on the computer, they can find one that has a little less spin and comes in at a little lower angle, so it’ll run more. But when I actually get it made up, it never seems to quite have that same personality. So I haven’t yet been able to find one, and I’ve tried. This driver is actually is a lot like me: It’s old but it still works.
Tell me how this driver ended up in the bag.
Well, I am not an equipment geek. I have a good friend by the name of Jack Harden who played the Tour. And actually, his father played the Tour, and his father was an incessant tinkerer of equipment, such that he built the club that Alan Shepard hit on the moon. So Alan came to this guy and said, “Would you build me a collapsible Wilson 6-iron to take to the moon, because we have to hide it?” So Jack Harden, Sr., built that club for Alan. Well, Jack would always build clubs for me, because he knew I didn’t mess around much with equipment. So one day we were playing, and he kept driving it past me. And I was like, “What is that?” And I pulled it out of his bag, and I hit one. I was like, “This is mine,” and it’s been mine since. I quit playing the Tour in 2003. I’m pretty sure I was playing it then. So what is that? That’s 16 years.
How far do you hit this driver on average?
Oh gosh, I probably hit this driver 285 yards on average.
What degree is it?
It’s 9.5, but I don’t think it’s quite 9.5. I think it’s 9 or 8.75. The gram weight of the shaft is 70, I believe. And Tour Velvet 60 round grip. I’m pretty simple, but it’s 44-3/4 inches long. And I think it’s a D3 swing weight. I keep waiting for the face to crack, but I don’t think I can hit it hard enough to actually crack.
Let’s hope it’s not during your first Champions Tour event.
Right? Because they only have so many hits in them. And the fact that I haven’t played any golf for 15 years is probably why this thing’s still in the bag, because I haven’t reached that number. Either that, or I just can’t hit it hard enough anymore to crack the face, because I used to crack the face. I would not switch drivers when I played on Tour until I cracked the face. And it would take like four years until the face would crack. And so this one’s 15, 16 years old. The equipment geeks out there will know how old this driver is. But I actually do have a backup to it. I have the same club, a backup that sits in my living room, and it’s right next to my desk.
Are you putting with the pin in?
I am. The research is so clear on it, that if you don’t go with the pin in, you’re at a disadvantage. So it’s weird. I don’t like doing it. Especially a 10-footer, I almost feel like I’m cheating. It looks better without the pin in. It rolls better. I want to hear the ball hit the bottom of the cup and not hit the pin. So yeah, I’m putting with a pin in, and the game’s changed a lot.
Do you anticipate feeling really nervous when that first event comes around?
I wouldn’t say I was nervous at the Senior Open. I didn’t know what to expect out of myself. I didn’t know how my body would react. And just from a competitive standpoint, I didn’t have all the nuances that I needed.
What’s been the most difficult part of your prep?
It’s the ability to do those things that as a touring pro you kind of take for granted, like taking four yards off an iron and cutting it into the wind or adding four yards but toeing it in. It’s just working the ball in all these different situations. Uphill, side hill. Like, my debut was at St. Andrews. And every single hole was uphill, side hill, downhill. The nuances of the game, I think, are the hardest thing to remember. It’s working the ball into different situations, into winds and off bunkers and over water.
Is there one particular Champions Tour event you’d like to play more than any other?
Probably the Ally Challenge at Warwick Hills, in Grand Blanc, Mich. I remember so well showing up at Warwick Hills as a rookie, and I think I shot 71-71, and that was the year I think 25 under won. And I remember having a talk with myself there about, “How am I ever going to play the Tour? I can’t imagine anybody being able to get to 25 under here,” because I just played well. And two or three years later, I shot 66-66 there and was leading. And I didn’t feel like I did anything differently. It was just learning to be comfortable. I found my comfort there. Instead of hitting it to 17 feet, you hit it to seven feet. It hit me there that I could finally play the tour.
A cool, full-circle story.
I enjoyed my career playing golf. But there’s a certain point where you quit looking at everybody on the range and trying to swing like them, and you just become yourself. And the same thing’s true with TV. At some point, you get comfortable and you’re just like, “I’m going to be myself.” And that’s a wonderful moment. For me, it happened at Warwick Hills. So yeah, I’d like to get back there. That’d be fun.