Golf Magazine Interview: Brandel Chamblee

December 8, 2010

Have your own question for Brandel Chamblee? Leave it here or send an e-mail to [email protected].

Brandel Chamblee wasn’t on his
high school debate team. “Heck, I grew up
on a debate team,” says the Irving, Texas,
native. “I’m one of six very opinionated
children. I like to stir the pot.” Pot-stirring is
what the former Tour winner, 48, does best as a Golf Channel
analyst, a post he’s held since 2004. Chamblee’s pointed
candor, egghead humor, and allergy to cliches make him
the most underrated TV commentator in golf, if not the best.
To make sense of a bizarre 2010 Tour season that saw Tiger
Woods go winless and a guy named Louis bring the Old
Course to its kilt-covered knees, we asked Chamblee the Big
Questions: Is Tiger washed up? Who is golf’s next great player?
And will Chamblee, who says he’s been courted by CBS and
NBC, jump to a major network? Watch your backs, Nick and
Johnny. Heeeere’s Brandel!

You’ve become known for frank,
pointed criticism. You must hear,
'Who does Chamblee think he
is? He only won once. Johnny
Miller won 25 times.'

I understand that argument. But I
know golf, I know major pressure, and
I don’t think you need multiple wins to
make observations and add to the audience’s
understanding. Hey, players get
upset with you. But I like what Johnny
said: “When you’re between the ropes,
you’re mine.”

Do you think you’re underrated as a broadcaster?
I don’t think so. I think I’m rated just the right amount. I’ve had people say, “You suck!” And I’ve had people say, “You are the greatest broadcaster in the history of sport.” You can’t let your ego be too affected by either. I read a lot. There’s a story of a general in ancient Greece who won countless battles, who was considered god-like. He always had a subordinate walking behind him, saying, “You’re just a man.” That’s a great lesson for life, whether they love you or hate you. But I can tell you who is underrated: [NBC’s] Dottie Pepper has a way of saying so much in so few words.

Golf Channel is less visible than
CBS or NBC. If another network
offered you a big job, would you
take the call?

Sure, I’d take the call. In fact, I’ve
taken those calls [from NBC and CBS].
But Golf Channel is a major network. I
love it here.

When you look back on 2010, what
moment stands out?

There are two. The shot of the year
belonged to Phil Mickelson. His 6-iron
on No. 13 at the Masters was perhaps
the greatest shot in major history. That
shot and scene had everything. It’s the
Masters. Tiger’s in the picture. Lee Westwood,
the best player in the world at that
point, is leading. And the most gambling,
charismatic player in the world has trees,
pine needles and a downhill-sidehill lie
over Rae’s Creek to a firm, nasty Augusta
National green, from a spot where everyone
else is laying up. And his caddie is
trying to talk him out of it!
And he pulls it off.

The other moment was Tiger’s sorry
attempt at an eagle putt on the 54th hole
at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. He
hit that incredible 3-wood from behind
the tree to about 20 feet — a classic Tiger,
fall-out-of-your-chair moment. There’s no
way he misses that putt any other year.
It showed us that the magic was gone.

Will the old Tiger be back in 2011?
I don’t think Tiger will ever play the
way we’ve seen him. He used to be surrounded
by awe. Now he plays in a completely
different environment. At [PGA
Championship site] Whistling Straits,
I heard people heckle him all day long.
Loud, rude comments. “Hey, where’s
Rachel?” He looks oblivious to it, but
he hears it. It’s unsettling. It will follow
him around for the rest of his career like
a bad odor. Tiger feeds off of fan energy,
and the fans haven’t forgiven him. The
curtain has been pulled back in Oz. He’s
not the Wizard anymore.

You’ve criticized Tiger’s swing
under Hank Haney. Will Woods’s
swing improve under Sean Foley?

Not if Tiger’s goal is winning more
majors. Tiger’s new swing changes are
designed to help him trap the ball and
hit it lower. I just don’t get it. You have to
hit the ball high in majors. Hitting it high
made Nicklaus and Watson champions.
In 2000 and 2001 under Butch Harmon,
Tiger hit sky bombs off the tee. In my
opinion, Tiger ruined the greatest swing
and the greatest physique in golf history.

You mean he’s too muscled up?
Tiger’s body was perfect for golf. He
was lean, sinewy, quick. He’s turned himself
into an NFL linebacker — but why?
In golf, you don’t have to lift a car over
your head. You swing an 11-ounce club.

If Tiger calls Butch Harmon and
says, 'Let’s get the band back
together,' does Woods break Jack
Nicklaus’s record of 18 major wins?

If Tiger makes that phone call, yes,
he breaks the record. If he doesn’t make
that call, there’s only a minute chance.
To win majors, you need control of your
shots. And Tiger’s lost that control. He’s
lost intimidation. He’s lost his clear mind.
And in 2010, he lost his magic with the
putter. He used to be Superman. Now
he’s just another good player.

What words of advice would you offer Tiger, who is still trying to get back in the good graces of the fans?
It would be how to deal with people, the media. I mean, Jim Nantz had strong words about Tiger this year, and when you upset Jim Nantz, you have gone off the reservation! [Laughs] I would sit him down and show him clips of interviews he’s done. I would tell him, “See the way you handled this? Terrible! Give human answers.” His relationship with the media is contentious. It’s like a marriage gone bad. You can feel the tension in the media tent. He doesn’t seem to understand that if he’s more civil, more human with the press, they would tell his story in a more forgiving light, and that would help him with fans. Alex Miceli [Chamblee’s Golf Channel colleague] had a telling exchange with Tiger this year. Tiger had been slumping. Alex meant to say, “Tiger, you went from being the best player in the world to really stinking it up,” but he was nervous — Tiger makes the media very nervous — and [Alex] kind of choked, bumbled it and said, “Tiger, you went from the best player in the world to the worst player.” And Tiger said, “I know one thing; I could still beat you.”

That’s not exactly a graceful, Arnie-type answer.
Not at all. Tiger should have showed civility, humility. He should have said, “I hear you, Alex. I’m stinking it up. This is a tough game, even for me. But I’m so lucky to be out here doing this for a living.” But he never has that human moment. We love his golf, but we don’t like him. He stiff-arms the media and by extension the fans. Look at [CBS commentator] Peter Kostis. Tiger’s rude to Peter Kostis. He can’t stand him because Kostis breaks down Tiger’s swing. Tiger’s attitude is, “How can you possibly know what I’m working on?” Well, Tiger, you won’t tell us what you’re working on. Look, what Tiger did in his personal life was reprehensible, but the reason nobody gave him a break is because nobody wanted to give him a break. They thought he was a jerk and that he deserved it. So I would tell Tiger that being more civil, humble and human would change the narrative and offer him a more forgiving environment. That would help his game. And it would help his legacy. I’m sure his legacy is important to him. Nobody wants to be remembered as a jerk.

Let’s talk Mickelson. Will he finally become World No. 1 in 2011?
I’m worried, because I don’t know anyone who has dealt with arthritis and gone on to be better for it. It robs you of mobility. You wake up every day with a different body. If his prognosis is as good as Phil said it was [at the PGA Championship], then I can see Phil and Tiger in a back-and-forth next year for No. 1. I hope so, because Phil is an absolute joy for golf. He’s fun. He’s accessible. He smiles when he plays. And his style is thrilling.

Do you really think Phil’s swing on no. 13 at this year’s Masters was one of the greatest swings in major history? Come on — it was a big moment, but shouldn’t a Tour pro be able to hit a solid 6-iron from a clean lie? And everybody forgets that he missed the eagle putt.
What are the contenders? Nicklaus’s 1-iron on 17 at the ’72 U.S. Open? Maybe, but Jack wasn’t standing on pine straw with a creek in front, do-or-die. As Phil stood over that shot, I thought, “If he pulls it off, he wins. If he doesn’t, he loses. This is it.” You know, Phil takes ridiculous chances. But it’s his instinct. The places he hits some of his drives — narrow par-4s with O.B. right and left — makes me giggle. You’d think that anybody who takes such risks must hit it straighter than you can point, but even Phil can’t tell you where it’s going! I love it.

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

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 [email protected].