Bold Chamblee isn’t afraid to speak his mind
Sunday, February 6, 2011
Brandel Chamblee opened a Twitter account in December and immediately searched for mentions of his name.
“The first thing I see is Geoff Ogilvy’s wife saying I’m (a jerk),” he says, laughing at the memory.
That October 2009 tweet from Juli Ogilvy, whom Chamblee says he has never met, coincided with the Presidents Cup. That week, Chamblee predicted on Golf Channel that the U.S. would drub the International team, which included Geoff Ogilvy.
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“I thoroughly believed the Presidents Cup was going to be over on Saturday,” he says now. “I did the math. They couldn’t putt with us. There was no way (the Internationals) were going to be relevant on Sunday.”
He was right, of course. The Internationals didn’t win a single session during the four-day event.
That episode illustrates why Chamblee has become perhaps golf’s best broadcast analyst. He has strong opinions, supports them with enough stats to make a Roto-geek’s head spin, states his case with a quick, coherent delivery, would prefer to hit a shank rather than mouth a cliché, and doesn’t much care if someone takes exception to what he says.
Those were the same qualities that Jack Graham, then ABC’s golf producer, saw in Chamblee when he hired him in 2001 to do occasional work as a hole announcer. Chamblee promptly double-bogeyed the assignment.
“The first year that I was in television (with ABC), I think it’s very well documented that I sucked,” Chamblee says.
He recalls that Graham would be so disgusted that he couldn’t even look he in the eyes after shows. Graham says he had been wowed by Chamblee’s intelligence and humor, and he couldn’t understand why those qualities weren’t translating to television.
“I kept thinking that next week is the week that he’s going to get it,” says Graham, now Golf Channel’s executive producer.
So he stuck with Chamblee. In 2003, working as a hole announcer on Sunday at the British Open, Chamblee remembers calling Thomas Bjorn’s par putt on No. 12. Chamblee’s instincts told him that he should simply say, “Sooner or later, it all boils down to heart.” Instead, he tried to wedge in a short monologue that he had written. The next week, a critic opined that his commentary sounded “scripted” – which, of course, it was.
Chamblee, 48, says the best TV advice he ever received came in his first assignment for Golf Channel, during Masters week 2001, when he was working as an analyst on the studio show. Former talk-show host Peter Kessler, whom Chamblee had never met, walked up to him, poked him in the chest, and growled, “I want you to trust your instincts. Don’t ever think about what you’re going to say on the air. That’s why they hired you.”
In late 2003, five years after his lone PGA Tour victory at the Greater Vancouver Open, Chamblee was offered a full-time job by Golf Channel, and he realized he had to make a decision between life on TV or on Tour. He chose TV, and gradually began to trust Kessler’s advice, blossoming on studio shows. In retrospect, Graham says he learned that Chamblee simply needed a bigger forum than he had as a hole announcer, a role in which five seconds is an eternity.
“He’s a long-form guy,” Graham says. “He really is a guy who needs to have room to expand on his thoughts and ideas.”
Chamblee has no shortage of those. And unlike many other athletes who parachute into television, he doesn’t mind criticizing former competitors. When friend Scott McCarron last year popped off about Phil Mickelson’s use of Ping Eye2 wedges – which was legal, but frowned upon – Chamblee lit him up.
“When I knew that Scott McCarron couldn’t make a living playing golf at all unless he anchored a putter to his chest, which should not be allowed, and he’s talking about the spirit of the game, I recognized the irony in it,” he says.
He’s not shy about hunting bigger game than McCarron. That includes the biggest target of them all.
Chamblee argues that there is “no way, no how” that Tiger Woods can ever be called the best player in history – even if he surpasses Jack Nicklaus’ 18 majors. He believes that Nicklaus “shut it down” when he topped Bobby Jones’ 13 majors. “If the record were 18, Jack would have got to 22,” he says. Chamblee also argues that Nicklaus played against stiffer competition, noting that Gary Player, Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino and Tom Watson averaged seven major titles, more than any of Woods’ contemporaries.
In fact, he’ll go a step further: “The best players were in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. . . . They learned by mimicking and observing – not by looking at any video, not by reading a book, not by any math equation.”
Of late, he has been critical of Woods’ continual swing changes.
“He’s like your neighbor who has a Hummer and Prius in the driveway,” he says. “He can’t make up his mind. You going to be greenor mean?”
Like the best analysts, in golf or elsewhere, Chamblee loves exploding conventional wisdom. Example: He scoffs at announcers who insist that Luke Donald is a great ballstriker.
“I heard a lot of people say that at the Tour Championship,” he says. “I’d think, ‘You guys are not doing your homework, because he is not.’ Great golf swing, but there’s a reason he’s won twice. It’s because he misses a lot of iron shots.”
Donald ranked 180th on Tour in ballstriking – driving distance and accuracy, plus greens in regulation – in 2010. His saving grace, says Chamblee, is that “he’s the best bunker player on the planet. There’s no contest.” (Actually, there’s not: Donald ranked No. 1 on Tour in sand saves in 2009 and 2010.)
Similarly, when John Senden won the 2006 John Deere Classic, Chamblee got some blowback from listeners for saying that Senden is a better ballstriker than Ernie Els.
“I was trying to point out the absurdity of this game,” he says. “Most people think it’s all about ballstriking, but it’s not. Ernie Els can’t hit the ball anywhere near as well as John Senden. And Ernie Els will be in the Hall of Fame this year, and no offense to John Senden, but he will never be in the Hall of Fame.”
While many fans and analysts fall in love with pretty, metronomic swings like those of Donald and Els, Chamblee recently tweeted that Graeme McDowell has the “best irons on the planet.” In McDowell, he sees the same swing characteristics as great ballstrikers in their primes, including Nicklaus, Byron Nelson and Nick Price.
“When (McDowell) transitions, that club gets on plane faster than anyone else’s in the business,” he says.
His strong opinions on the swing have stoked a long-running feud with Stack & Tilt disciples. Chamblee says that when some of them sniped at him on the range at the 2009 Bob Hope Classic, he couldn’t resist putting them in their place.
“You’re the worst ballstrikers on Tour,” he recalls telling them. “The worst. And if you don’t believe me, go to ballstriking (stats), go to the bottom, and I will find every one of you in the first 20 from the bottom. Because I just did it.”
Stack & Tilt teacher Andy Plummer had a different recollection of that meeting. He said that he requested a few minutes of Chamblee’s time because “for a number of years he portrayed our teaching inaccurately.”
Plummer said he told Chamblee, “I object to you saying that the angle of (swing) descent is too steep, because it’s not.” He denied that Chamblee said anything about ballstriking stats and added that he felt Chamblee “patronized” his students by telling them “what great players they were.”
Not surprisingly, Chamblee hasn’t always endeared himself to his Tour contemporaries. This month, while practicing at TPC Scottsdale, he received a cool reception from players with whom he used to pal around.
“Golfers are so sensitive, which, honestly, I do not get,” he says.
Years ago, he recalls NBC analyst Johnny Miller calling him “a choking dog” after he snap-hooked a drive into the water while playing in the final group at Bay Hill. Chamblee says simply: “I was a choking dog. I did hit a crappy shot.”
He hasn’t missed many shots since finding his niche on Golf Channel’s studio shows. That reflects his preparation, which begins several days before a tournament. He’ll research the history of the event, analyze the course, pore over statistical trends, pick 10-15 favorites, then track each shot they hit. It’s a tedious process, but it always produces some nuggets that he can share with viewers.
Then, he says, “When the (camera) light goes on, if I have fun, that’s a good show for me. Nobody’s making me do this. I’m doing it because I like it.”