Chamblee, Nobilo spark "State of the Game" panel

From left, Frank Nobilo, Brandel Chamblee, Dan Hicks, Johnny Miller and Nick Faldo discussed the "State of the Game" on the Golf Channel in February 2013.

From left, Frank Nobilo, Brandel Chamblee, Dan Hicks, Johnny Miller and Nick Faldo discussed the "State of the Game" on the Golf Channel in February 2013.

Golf Channel’s annual “State of the Game” panel limped out of the gate Feb. 22, with anchor Dan Hicks posing a boilerplate question: “What are your impressions so far of the 2013 season?”

I typed in my notes: “weak opener, no focus.” Unfocused questions generate similarly unfocused answers, which is what we got, particularly from analysts Nick Faldo and Johnny Miller. It wasn’t a promising start, and I anticipated that this “State of the Game,” televised from the WGC-Accenture Match Play, would be as forgettable as those done over the past two years.

Then, however, a spark was lit and it became pretty compelling viewing – at least if you’re inclined to watch five middle-aged guys sit around discussing such things as bifurcation and deer antler spray.

The fuse-lighters, in this case, were Golf Channel’s top two studio voices, Brandel Chamblee and Frank Nobilo.

During an opening-segment discussion of Rory McIlroy’s switch to Nike equipment, Nobilo wrapped up a lengthy comment by saying, “He took the money just like everyone would.” That might seem blindingly obvious – would you turn down an estimated $200 million endorsement deal? – but it led to this exchange:

Faldo: “I disagree.”

Nobilo: “You did it. At Wilson, you had blank Mizunos in the bag.”

I immediately replayed that segment twice. Who would have guessed that nice-guy Nobilo would drop the hypocrite card on Faldo? (Miller seemed particularly amused at Faldo’s comeuppance.)

In truth, a lot of players over the years have played fast and loose with their equipment endorsements. But while Miller and Faldo were playing the role of old fuddy-duddies, tsk-tsking McIlroy for changing sticks when he was playing so well, Nobilo and Chamblee were talking real-world decisions on the modern-day PGA Tour.

Chamblee ticked off a list of great players who have had success playing various brands of equipment, concluding: “(McIlroy is) going to switch to the exact same (forged) clubs, and they’re going to say Nike on them. . . . Nobody has ever made a change as quickly as Rory McIlroy, but nobody has ever been offered that kind of money. In effect, they’re giving him the $200 million that he would get for winning 200 majors on the front side.”

There was a real dichotomy at work on “State of the Game” panel. I’m not sure whether it was intentional, but it was interesting to watch. To Hicks’ left were Miller and Faldo, both great players, now golf’s two most famous television analysts. To Hicks’ right were Chamblee and Nobilo – the former who toiled on the fringes of the PGA Tour, the latter whose career was cut short by injury and illness.

I might be way off base, but I sensed a bit of a rivalry – sort of a friendly version of Jets vs. Sharks in which no one gets stabbed in the end.

Perhaps Miller and Faldo thought they could wing it – just roll their microphones out on the set and expect everyone to acquiesce and nod their heads at the sage old champions. Nobilo, and especially Chamblee, would have none of that. My sense was that, on some level, they wanted to make a statement that they were worthy of trading opinions with Miller and Faldo. The Golf Channel pair were filled with facts and thoughtful opinions that suggested they had done their homework in preparation for the show. In an email exchange after the show, Chamblee told me that he spent about 10 hours prepping for the show, then several more condensing his thoughts into coherent comments. That work paid off. On “State of the Game,” Chamblee was quoting Shakespeare while Miller and Faldo were stuttering through Dr. Seuss.

(One point here: I occasionally get emails from readers saying something to this effect: Why should I care what Chamblee thinks? He was a journeyman player and doesn’t have any right to critique Tiger Woods or any other player. I don’t think there’s any straight line to be drawn between skill as a player and as a commentator. Look across the sports world and you’ll see plenty of former players who have had more impactful second careers on camera than they did on the field.)

One of the best discussions Friday night came on the hot-button issue of bifurcation. Most of the panel sided with the U.S. Golf Association’s one-set-of-rules stance. Miller compared bifurcation to “changing the Constitution for one state like Texas.”

Nobilo trotted out a familiar bogeyman. “This used to be a manufacturer-supported game,” he said. “It’s now a manufacturer-driven game. So when you talk about the spirit of the game, we have deviated. The talk of bifurcation is so dangerous to the game.”

(Sigh. It’s not just the politicians who criticize the job creators. . .)

Leave it to Chamblee, the iconoclast, to make an expansive case for bifurcation.

“People say that the best thing about golf is that it’s governed by one set of rules. That’s an opinion, it’s not a fact,” Chamblee said. “The fact is that golf is flat, growth is flat, the fact is that golf is too expensive, takes too long, it’s too elitist and it’s too complicated. (Camera cuts to Faldo frowning.)

“In one fell swoop, if you had bifurcation at the professional level, you could roll golf equipment back, you could roll the COR back, the coefficient of restitution back, you could disallow the anchored putter. You could allow all of those things at the amateur level, you could shrink golf courses back to two decades ago, you make golf cheaper, you make it faster. And I promise you, nobody quits golf because two different sets of rules govern it. But lots of people

will come to the game because they’re allowed to play with equipment that makes it more fun.”

That’s a lot to cram into 42 seconds, but it illustrated yet again why Chamblee, at his best, remains the most compelling voice in golf.

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