John Huggan goes head to head with the game’s most divisive TV analyst.
After 15 years on the PGA Tour and with a single victory to his name, Brandel Chamblee retired in 2003, reinventing himself as a Golf Channel analyst. Now the divisive American spends his days picking the game, and its stars, apart and doing his damndest not to repeat anything you’ve already heard...
JH Let’s start in the middle rather than the beginning or end. How did you transition from playing the tour to doing what you do now?
BC Not particularly gracefully. I tried to do both at the same time in 2003. I only had conditional status that year. I thought if I played well enough I’d keep my card anyway. But I soon realised I couldn’t do either job that well when I was trying to do both. For one thing, I was new to television so I was on a huge learning curve. But they kept asking me back.
At first, of course, I indignantly turned down television when I was asked. I was like, “I’m a golfer, why would you ask me to do that?” But I soon realised after doing it a few times – especially when I wasn’t playing that well – that there was a fresh challenge there for me. I got a buzz doing it and the next thing you know I was a TV guy. I think it was former Masters champion Jackie Burke who said, ‘Once you go up into that booth you never come down.’ And he was right. He’s right about a lot of things.
Anyway, here I am. I probably haven’t played 10 rounds of golf in any year for the last 14. Until recently. JH Okay, so what does it say under ‘occupation’ in your passport these days? BC (Laughs) ‘TV analyst’. Or ‘commentator’. What it does not say is ‘professional golfer’. But I’m going to try and play pro golf again and see how good I can get. It’s odd. It’s like I have two full-time jobs at the moment. And I have calluses on my hands for the first time since 2002.
JH How good a player were you? BC I was an exceptional amateur golfer. I was probably a better golfer in college than I was during my 15 years on tour. I was a good tour player though. Most don’t last 15 years. People forget that. Qualifying for the tour is the easiest part – and the qualifying is hard as hell.
I was a longish hitter and especially good with the long irons. But when I got on tour I think the best I ever was in driving distance was 49th. I lost some of that zip. And without power, you have to be so precise, because every era has been powerprejudiced.
JH If you look back on it all, any regrets? BC Not really. I had a very nice career. I made millions playing golf, I travelled around the world and I achieved what I call my ‘Grand Slam’. I played in the Open at St Andrews, the PGA at Winged Foot, the US Open at Pebble Beach and the Masters. I had a heckuva time.
If I had to do it over, I would keep my own counsel a bit more. It wasn’t as easy back then. Teachers could make their way onto the range and convince you that they had a panacea for every flaw. Now, tour players are much better equipped. The most dangerous place on tour is still the range though. A tour player can end his career on the range by listening to the wrong information. And it is pot luck.
There are several teachers who I have great respect for. But there are some who have ‘graced’ the range, got a following and ruined careers. And they have never been held accountable. Teaching is the only job where you’re only judged by your successes.
Teachers only get talked about when their players are going well. But that coach is also working with five players who lost their cards, so where is the average? Not enough players stop to consider that.
What you have to remember is that teachers only learn from players, not the other way round. They get all their stuff from tour players. The reason everyone uses the Fosbury Flop in high jumping is because Dick Fosbury figured it out by himself. Coaches tried to get him to stop and told him not to do it. Athletes originate; teachers copy. That’s why I’d rather sit and watch a great player than listen to a great teacher.
Every single teacher is guessing. If they are behind you on a range and talking to you, you need to know that.
JH Let’s talk a bit more about you. What is your philosophy re the job you do now?
BC The challenge in my job is to be different. By the time I get on the air at the end of the day, just about everything that could be said about the golf has been said. I watch it all day. And I’m at the end with the job of saying what has not already been said. I have to come up with stuff that no-one else has and make it interesting for the audience. I find that to be incredibly difficult. Which is why I don’t take my eyes off the TV all day.
I can’t stand it when people talk around me when I’m watching. It drives me nuts. I sit in silence. What the commentator says is important to me. If he says something great I will refer to it that night and give him credit. But, whatever he says, I need to say something else. I need all the information so that I can come up with two or three interesting themes. And then make it memorable. Turns of phrase are so important. They are what make things memorable. That’s my job.
But I’m not really a journalist. We are borderline PR agents. We are selling players and selling the idea of greatness. And that is exciting. It’s not exciting to say that, when a guy wins an event, it may be the last one he ever wins. Or that he got lucky. Or that, many times, winning a major championship is a death sentence for a career. We never say that. We always say winning a major is a launching pad, or that it will open the floodgates. There is romance to what we do – and a bit of PR.
JH How do you react to criticism? BC I should be able to take criticism and compliments and be unaffected by both. That is my goal. One guy might say I’m the greatest commentator ever. And another might think I’m the worst. Believing either one isn’t going to help me. I have one job to do and I am constantly reflecting on how I can do it better.
JH I get stick, as you do, but neither of us is truly “controversial”. We are only controversial relative to other people who do what we do. Golf is way too cosy...
BC (Laughs) I guess that is true. Golfers are the only athletes that are never criticised. In every other sport you have a coach who will be in your face if you make a mistake. But golfers don’t have coaches like that. Golfers are lauded, especially if you make the tour. If you do that, you have been good enough all the way and so lauded by people in the media. And by people everywhere. JH They are told how special they are for a long time.
BC A long time. It’s very easy to believe that. So when you get on tour and Johnny Miller says you choked, it’s like “how dare you?” It’s “Don’t you know who I am – how dare you talk to me like that.” Even when you did choke.
I also try to be unpredictable. I hate to be predictable. I try to come at a player from every direction. I’ll talk about his weakness one night, then his strength the next night. I’ll talk about his swing one night, then his chipping the next night. I guarantee I’ve done 5,000 Tiger Woods breakdowns. I did one last night I’ve never done before. I’m always trying to be different. JH What did you make of what Phil Mickelson did at Shinnecock?
BC I thought it was Phil being Phil. He thinks he is the smartest guy in every room he walks into. So that was just Phil trying to show his understanding of the rules is superior to everyone else’s. But he was cheeky about it.
JH Is there not something to the theory that he just can’t stand the USGA? Or that he blames them for at least two of the US Opens he didn’t win?
BC If he had said, “I lost my mind,” most people would have got that. But he should read history. Jack Nicklaus putted off the first green at Winged Foot in 1974. But Jack is not vindictive about the USGA.
The problem is that when you make as much money as Phil has made, you live in an echo chamber where everyone tells you how amazing you are. And you are not held accountable for things you say or things you do. You are never told that you need to grow up.
Phil’s got a little Machiavellian thread running through him and at Shinnecock, I do believe that hitting a moving ball is something he had long considered. He knew he could take a two-shot penalty. JH Should he have been disqualified? BC I’ve talked to rules officials. And they would have walked him off the golf course. But the next time a governing body does the right thing in dealing with a superstar might be the first. He should have been disqualified. If this wasn’t a serious breach of the rules, I don’t know what is. He used it for a specific reason to avoid a shot, to avoid stress, to avoid hitting a shot he may have had to hit four or five times.
I’ve talked to lawyers and read them the rule. There is lawyer-speak in there, wiggle room. I’ve talked to golfers. And not one time has any of them said anything other than he should have been disqualified.
So what do I think of Phil? I think this
was his worst moment. There is no corresponding video of any player of his stature at any point in the history of the game doing anything like that – at that particular stage in his career. He’s an elder statesman. He’s been around a long time. So he has a responsibility to uphold the integrity and traditions and history of the game. And he didn’t do it.
JH Do we take the Ryder Cup too seriously? BC I think so. Jack Nicklaus knew what the Ryder Cup should be. It’s about camaraderie. Jack giving that putt to Tony Jacklin in 1969 summed up what that watch was about. There had almost been fist fights between players earlier that week. Ken Still and Dave Hill were almost fighting with Bernard Gallacher and Brian Huggett. It was not real pretty from a fan perspective or a player perspective.
Which is why Jack stepped up. He clearly felt like giving that putt was what the event needed to re-establish its equilibrium. Sam Snead was the US captain and he was furious. That was Jack’s first Ryder Cup and he has always said that the Ryder Cup is only used as a measure of a player, if that player is a lesser player. If you need it to fill in gaps. “Oh, by the way, he played on five Ryder Cup teams.”
That works perfectly for the Ian Poulters of the world. Which is fine. Making the team is a fine accomplishment. I certainly never did it. But if you’re a great player – and this was Tiger’s point – your record doesn’t really matter. Tiger’s point when people were trying to tell him that Jack took the Ryder Cup seriously – which he didn’t – was simple. He asked the room if they knew Jack’s Ryder Cup record. No one did, because no one cared. Least of all Jack. So Tiger didn’t say he’s the greatest player ever. But he has to know that he is. And he also knows that Ryder Cup records don’t actually matter.
JH All I ever want from a Ryder Cup is that it be close. Because then it is
wonderful to watch.
BC It’s great theatre. And that’s maybe why we take it so seriously.
JH The weird thing is that players fall apart to an extent we don’t see anywhere else. I always go back to Jay Haas at Oak Hill in 1995. He could barely stand up, never mind hit the ball on the 18th hole.
BC I once did an interview with Arnold Palmer. I asked him about the Ryder Cup. And he started crying. It was hard for him to talk about it without crying. When he was introduced on the first tee as representing the United States of America he got emotional. Now I’ve never represented my country in a team event. But I imagine I’d be that way too.
JH The team thing is a powerful thing. BC Yeah, whenever you have a partner you never want to let him down. If I play my butt off and we win, I get more excited by that than by winning myself.
JH Equally, one of the hardest things in golf is to play foursomes with someone who is playing better than you are.
BC Yes, I get that. Playing the secondary role is always hard. But back to the Ryder Cup. The fans have gotten a bit more belligerent. The matches are red meat to the lions. And the last one (in the US) was distasteful. In general, the Europeans seem to have fun with it, as we just saw at Golf National. The European fans are not as hateful.
JH All the really bad stuff has happened in America.
BC Yeah. But if there are 40,000 spectators out there and 100 hooligans, the minority lowers the narrative. It’s unfortunate. I wish there was a no-tolerance policy and we could get them out of there. Things would be very different if Augusta National ran the Ryder Cup. That’s what we need. It’s getting out of hand. So we need someone to come in there and say, “You kids stop slapping each other.”
I thought Sergio had the best line at Hazeltine. “I definitely know I haven’t won a major.” That’s so funny. That was him at his best. And the Europeans in general seem to have a more appropriate sense of the moment. For them the Ryder Cup is about the team, but also about fun. And that comes across sincerely, as it did for the most part at Le Golf National.
I’ve heard stories from Ryder Cups where the US won. The Europeans still come and party afterwards. I look at so many of those guys and think I would like to have a beer with them.
‘ If there are 40,000 spectators out there and 100 hooligans, the minority lowers the narrative..’
JH It is a bit of a myth that the Europeans all get along of course. There’s been plenty of stuff going on behind the scenes over the years.
BC Of course. I’ve heard them too. But for the most part they are great guys. Lee Westwood is a particular favourite of mine. Jose Maria Olazabal is as fine a man as you could ever meet. Paul McGinley is a proper man who knows exactly how to behave. We should all aspire to be that kind of person.
JH How close are we to a world tour? BC I’ve thought about it. We’re edging towards it. But there has to be some cataclysmic event to make it happen. Like the PGA Tour buying the European Tour. Who knows if that is the right thing to do though? Or they could combine and stop playing opposite to one another. That would mean a lot of politics. And egos. Bottom line is I’m not sure players from the US would want to hop on a plane and go to, say, Germany.
It’s already happened in the women’s game. Asia is huge on the LPGA Tour. And they have European events too. They would have been crazy not to take advantage of those markets. I’ve heard that the Asian LPGA players have endorsement deals commensurate with the male players. The TV ratings for LPGA events in Asia are the same as the men’s. So the endorsement money is the same. The market values them equally. But hey, I thought you were going to ask me about rolling the ball back? I absolutely want to have that discussion.
JH Go for it. BC I want to have that discussion with zealots like you (laughs). I’ve thought about this a lot. I agree that players hitting the ball nine miles is a problem in the pro game. But there’s a reason why I’m opposed to rolling the ball back or changing the equipment. In good faith the equipment companies have operated within the parameters of the rules. So to suddenly change would rob them of their intellectual property. I just don’t believe in that. At all. So the problem can be eliminated. But it would come at a cost. JH But those companies also got into the business knowing who makes the rules. And it shouldn’t be them.
BC That’s true. But along the way they have abided by the rules. So the problem can be eliminated by rolling the ball back and changing the equipment. But solving the problem is another matter altogether.
I look at architectural designs and wonder when was the last time there was any originality. There hasn’t been any. We still talk about Tillinghast or Seth Raynor as if they lived yesterday. There are no pot bunkers in the United States. Maybe one, at Pine Valley.
JH I’ve been in that bunker. BC Me too. Did you putt out of it?
JH No. BC If you ever get into it again, take a putter and hit it up the face. It will come out just perfectly. Anyway, there are three different architectural ideas I have which will help solve the problem of distance.
You have pot bunkers here in Great Britain. In the middle of the fairways, maybe 350 yards off the tee, those things would make players think about blasting away. There is one on the third hole at St Andrews. You can’t see it from the tee but you know it’s there. Even if you have played the hole a few times you still wonder where it is exactly. And it plays bigger than its size. They all do. So if we have accordion topography or chocolate-drop mounds out there – or pot bunkers – we can hold the guy who can hit 350 yards accountable. Right now, that guy operates with impunity. He flies bunkers that everyone else has to work around. But he can be held accountable by architectural design, obstacles if you like. We have to give him something to think about.
That’s one way. Now, I love the old courses. But we think of them as works of art and we are wrong to do so. I think they are works in progress. They always have been. St Andrews wasn’t always 18-holes. And it was never as long as it is now. Shinnecock Hills was once 4,000 yards and now it’s not. Augusta is not what it was either.
JH But we are actually leaving the courses now. They are out of room. Look at the Old Course during an Open. BC That’s what you say the golf course is. But the course is wherever the tees and the greens are. JH BC
So you’re okay teeing up on the Road Hole from a field across the road?
I am OK with that. Courses evolve. The one thing that has obsoleted courses more than anything else is the Stimpmeter. That is one piece of equipment everyone wants to get rid of. Every superintendent and every tour player. We can all agree to do that. Imagine Shinnecock Hills with greens running at nine on the Stimpmeter. Or, once we get rid of the darned thing, just imagine Shinnecock with greens that are appropriate. Appropriate speed for the design.
JH If you look at film of the Masters in the 1970s, the players are absolutely hammering putts.
BC That’s right. That makes these great designs more interesting. Because you can put the holes in places you just can’t put them in these days.
JH But doesn’t there have to be more to evolution than just making courses longer?
BC I agree. Because what is about to happen is going to eclipse what you already think. There are 94 guys on the web.com Tour averaging more than 300 yards from the tee. The next generation is coming. There is a guy called Norman Jones from Oregon. He swings the club at 133mph. Cameron Champ swings at 130mph. So it is coming. Look at Ryan Fox on the European Tour. He reminds me of John Daly. But longer. I watched the (two-hole) play-off for the Irish Open. Ryan hit his drives 380 yards both times. How Russell Knox beat him was amazing.
Anyway, I’m not entirely opposed to rolling back the ball. Or fix the clubs, if that is what everyone agrees to do. JH It’s only for the pros. Nobody wants the amateurs to find the game even harder. Although does it really matter to the vast majority? Whisper this. If you have bad technique it doesn’t really matter what clubs and balls you are using.
BC (Laughs) That’s true. My best friend has bad technique and the clubs don’t help him. Last night I was with a guy from a manufacturer and he was telling my friend that he needs whatever new driver they have out. I laughed. First, no he doesn’t need it. And second, it isn’t going to help him.
But this could happen. Imagine if guys get on the first tee at Augusta and fly it over the bunker. So they are chipping to the green. Then they hit driver, 8-iron to
‘Bottom line is I’m not sure US players would want to hop on a plane and go to, say, Germany.’
the second. They then hit 3-wood onto the third green. Then they fly it over the bunker on the fifth. Then they drive it right in front of the seventh green. Then they hit 7-iron to the eighth. Then they drive it over the corner at the ninth. That’s coming. And that’s not coming because of the ball and the equipment. The line in the sand has already been drawn.
JH The ball only gets the focus because it is the easy fix. BC I get that.
JH And would it make any difference to what balls people buy? It wouldn’t to me.
BC Yes, but Titleist’s argument is that they’re sitting on a flush. And the other guys in the game have shit hands. But those guys want to shuffle the deck because Titleist is the better poker player. To which Titleist’s response is that you are assuming I am still going to beat you. But I’m still sitting on a flush. I don’t want to reshuffle the deck. The other guys have nothing to lose.
JH The amazing thing about Tiger is that he dominated the way he did at a time when it had never been more difficult to dominate. The average player was closer to him than he had any right to be.
BC He played the ‘bladiest’ blades you can play. And the ‘spinniest’ ball. I almost think he dominated because he did that. He was powerful enough to do that. Back in the day Tiger averaged 298 from the tee. Daly was 299. But the next guy, Davis Love, was at 288. That is huge. The average was about 263 or 264.
The game has some problems because these huge guys are coming. They are about to do things that are going to make what has already happened pale.
JH I think the R&A are making noises because they are somewhat worried about the next Open at St Andrews.
BC They should be. I had 121 yards to the (par-5) 5th green there the other day. It’s a shame to see what is going on there. The only hole that can still hold its own is the 17th. But some day soon someone is going to drive almost onto that green. That may be the tipping point. There has to be one of those. Almost every hole on the course is a flick to the top guys.
I remember watching the Open there in 2015 with Ken Schofield. I called what we were seeing “gross”. And the pin positions are getting ridiculous. And the speed of the greens. When they had to stop play in 2015 it had more to do with the greens being too fast than the strength of the wind. It was a mess.
Chamblee and his Golf Channel colleagues at The Open. Chamblee went from facing questions as a Tour pro to answering them.
He divides opinion, but Chamblee constantly seeks to improve. Chamblee qualified for this year’s Senior Open on the Old Course.