A Glimpse Inside The Mind Of Golf’s Most Divisive Critic
LAHAINA, HAWAII | Brandel Chamblee stood with his light blue golf bag slung over his left shoulder outside the Plantation Course clubhouse at Kapalua, an hour from his pro-am tee time, and laughed at how he got here.
Chamblee, on Maui as part of the Golf Channel television crew for the Sentry Tournament of Champions, was a late fill-in for the Wednesday afternoon event and he couldn’t help but wonder if he was invited to play when Tiger Woods, whom many expected to be here, decided to take a pass on the first event of 2019.
“Imagine if you were in the pro-am thinking there was a chance you could play with Tiger Woods and you wind up with me,” Chamblee said.
While Woods is in the midst of an inspiring career renaissance, Chamblee is also resurrecting his playing career. The 56-year-old, who won one of the 370 PGA Tour events he played, intends to tee it up in a handful of PGA Tour Champions events this year when his television schedule allows it.
The most astute and controversial analyst in golf television will put his game on display, fully understanding his detractors will relish when he struggles. But if Chamblee fretted about what others think of him, he wouldn’t be the voice that causes viewers (players included) to lean in when he talks.
“It’s good to have crazy goals. It’s good to scare the hell out of yourself,” Chamblee said while working his way through a steak and baked potato dinner in Orlando a couple of weeks before Christmas.
There is no one on golf television who provokes the reaction Chamblee does. He may not always be right but Chamblee is rarely, if ever, in doubt.
He does what the best analysts do – he explains what is happening and, more importantly, why it is happening. Where others may rely on instinct, Chamblee builds his convictions on data, observation and experience.
On Sunday morning before the final round of the Hero World Challenge in December, Chamblee knew he would be asked to pick a winner from a crowded leaderboard in the year’s last significant event. He awoke at 5:30 a.m. and spent three hours drilling into volumes of statistical data.
When the camera was on, Chamblee said Jon Rahm would win. He was right.
“I did my job,” Chamblee said.
That job means saying what he believes. If it means being critical of Woods, Chamblee has never been afraid to speak his mind. But despite the perception in some circles that he has been a Tiger basher, Chamblee has also gushed praise on Woods through the years, marveling at what he’s done during the past two decades.
Phil Mickelson ripped Chamblee last year, saying the analyst “has made his commentating career on denigrating others.”
“Any time there is criticism you think: ‘Is that accurate? Is it rational? Is it based in fact?’ ” Chamblee said. “You consider it for sure. You do. ‘Was I fair? Did I get that right?’ I want to get it right.”
Mickelson is not alone, though. Far from it. In 2017 Chamblee incurred Ian Poulter’s wrath after tweeting that Poulter “clearly did not play to win” in the final round of the Players Championship. Poulter, who finished three shots back of winner Si Woo Kim, fired back: “Sorry to disappoint, I can only dream of being as good as Brandel … it’s clearly very easy sitting on your arse … thanks for the support.”
Rory McIlroy defends Chamblee.
“I really like Brandel,” McIlroy said. “I think he’s really smart, very well read. I think he makes his points very well. If he gets away from what he knows, he digs in and he’s stubborn and he’ll argue his point and he’ll argue his point very well because he’s from a family of lawyers. That’s all he knows.
“He does more research than I think any of the others do that cover the game especially in the TV side of things. He’s a great addition to the game.
“We all talk about him. If Brandel Chamblee is the worst critic we have to deal with in golf then we have it easy. You think of these basketball players who have to wake up and try not to listen to Stephen A. Smith or any of those pundits that are on TV that pick apart their careers. We have it easy if Brandel is the loudest critic in our game.”
Scott Jones, who lives in San Diego and has been playing pro-ams at PGA Tour events for more than 20 years, was in Chamblee’s group at the Sentry pro-am. He has played the same pro-am with Jordan Spieth and Brooks Koepka, among others, but relished his afternoon with Chamblee. Between shots they talked not just about golf but about life. Chamblee asked Jones what makes him happy, what he’s doing these days, his interests outside golf. When it was time to play, Chamblee paid attention to every shot his amateur partners hit.
“This is a sport that needs more pizazz. It needs a Daly, a Poulter,” Jones said. “We need an editorialist in golf, like a George Will or William Buckley.
“I worry about these golf pros. They need to let him do his job and say what he thinks. I don’t think he’s attacking anyone. I just think some guys are too sensitive.”
Have dinner with Chamblee and in the course of two hours, the conversation can be as broad and colorful as one of Maui’s famous rainbows.
He can go into detail about Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the German writer/poet/statesman from the early 1800s, most famous for the celebrated drama Faust.
Chamblee’s wife, Bailey Chamblee, recently gave him a stack of books that included a biography of Ralph Waldo Emerson that he devoured.
Chamblee was so impressed when he saw the play Hamilton that he researched Alexander Hamilton and the playwright/star Lin-Manuel Miranda the way he does Tour players. When he learned enough, he went back to see Hamilton again.
“I just loved it,” Chamblee said.
Then he explained how Miranda took one year to write the play’s second song and got help from Barack Obama doing it.
Chamblee contends the play celebrates immigration but in reality Alexander Hamilton “wasn’t for any of those things. If you had written a true play about Alexander Hamilton, it’d have been just like Donald Trump. He wanted to rule the world. He did great things with our financial (institutions) because he was a smart son of a bitch.”
If the television thing hadn’t worked out, Chamblee could have been a college professor.
“I’m far too conservative to be a professor. They need a conservative professor for crying out loud. College has become a cesspool of liberalism,” said Chamblee, who graduated from the University of Texas.
But he immediately followed with, “I believe in liberal thoughts. Someone needs to stand up for the inequality in the world, income inequality, income distribution. Somebody needs to fight for that. I just wish someone would come along and do it based on what works and what doesn’t instead of what gets them elected.”
Eventually, the conversation comes back to golf. It’s Chamblee’s profession and his passion. He was good enough to finish among the top 100 money winners on the PGA Tour for six consecutive seasons but when the television opportunity to join Golf Channel arose in 2003, Chamblee stepped outside the ropes.
That’s where he’s remained until he qualified for the Senior Open Championship last year. Though he missed the cut at St. Andrews, it reinforced his belief that he still can play competitively because he understands the golf swing better than he did in his playing prime.
He spent years researching his book on the swing and he believes in core fundamentals that have stretched across ages in the game. Chamblee doesn’t believe in rolling back technology and likes to make his case on social media, where he will engage with others who think the game is being destroyed by distance.
Like virtually everything else, golf is evolving. Advancements in video technology have changed the game forever, finally giving instructors proof of what is or isn’t happening in a player’s swing. It has made players better and instructors more accountable, Chamblee believes.
“When I was in college, I swung the club closer to what I’d like to swing it now before I had instruction. I think a lot of good golfers were that way. Before they got instructed they did things intuitively, the right way,” Chamblee said.
“Instructors don’t know, especially the older ones. They don’t know. They were guessing and they guessed wrong most of the time. And the ones that were the best instructors were just the ones who did the least damage. They weren’t brilliant. They were just the ones who did the least damage.
“When I got into TV there were some prominent instructors who were the most pernicious of the lot, destroying golf games,” he said. “What always frustrated me in my job is I would watch one of, say, their 20 players have a good week and everybody would say ‘because they’re working with so and so.’ Meanwhile, they’ve ruined the backs and the games and the minds and the nerves of 18 or 20 players that I would research and would know about.
“But if you work with 20 different players and one of them happens to have the right problems that fit your agenda, you’re going to get that one right and at least for a time, he’s going to be pretty good. He’s going to be better than he was. We build these teachers up and it bothered me.
“Teaching is the only profession in the world that I can think of where you are not held accountable for your failures. You’re not. They’re only lauded for their successes. Now that’s a helluva gig if you can get it.”
Like his criticisms of Tour players, Chamblee’s views on swing coaches have created blowback. “I get so annoyed listening to Brandel Chamblee,” teacher Wayne DeFrancesco wrote on his website. “I can’t wait for the day where either Chamblee is gone or I get a chance to sit next to him and at least show people just how hateful and uninformed he really is.”
Chamblee credits Jack Grout with allowing Jack Nicklaus to play the way he did at a time when it seemed everyone wanted a flat swing like Ben Hogan’s. Grout let Nicklaus’s right elbow fly and didn’t try to change the way Nicklaus got his hands high at the top of his swing.
Other instructors, Chamblee believes, may have done more harm than good. That’s one of the reasons why he wrote a book on the swing, studying the classic moves across decades, landing on what he believes is the proper foundation.
It’s also what led him to return to competitive golf. There was a time when 55 was the line of delineation on the senior circuit, the age when performance began to tail off. Now it’s closer to 60, which is why Chamblee wants to see what he’s got left.
“I want to go back out and see if the ideas I have come across I can play with them. The only way to do that is to try to compete. Otherwise you won’t do it. It’s like having a deadline for an article or a book. A tournament is a deadline,” Chamblee said.
He’s not leaving his television work, though. When Johnny Miller announced his retirement from NBC Sports’ golf coverage, many thought Chamblee might be his replacement. Chamblee said he did not seek the job Paul Azinger landed but would have taken it had it been offered.
“I like who they hired. I think he was the best choice. I think he was the best man for the job,” Chamblee said.
“If they had asked me to do the job, I would have done it. But doing what I do, I think it’s the best gig in golf.”
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