Chamblee: Clarifying view from analyst's chair

By Brandel ChambleeOctober 4, 2015, 9:45 pm

In my first year as a commentator I received some impassioned advice about how I should approach the job. It was 2003 and I was still playing a few events on the PGA Tour. During the third round at Colonial I was walking off the ninth tee with a five-time Tour winner whom I had known as long as I had played golf. We were talking about the people in the profession I was joining. 

“I hate Johnny Miller,” my fellow Tour player said. “Whatever you do, don’t be like him.”

“Why do you hate him?” I asked.

“Because he thinks he knows everything.”

This opinion was nothing new on Tour. A lot of players took issue with Johnny Miller and his candid – some would say caustic – comments about their games. He had even caused blood to boil within my own family.

In 1999, I was in fourth place going into the last round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational. When I went to the water-fraught, par-5 sixth hole, I was just one shot off the lead. I hooked my tee shot into the drink, and Johnny said that the pressure of the hole and being close to the lead caused me to get quick, which led to the hook. Watching at home, my father seethed. I finished in a six-way tie for fifth.

As I was driving from Orlando to Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., for The Players Championship, I called my father. He was still steamed at Johnny for presuming to know what had caused my disastrous drive.

“He said you choked, Brandel,” my dad said, but before he could go on I interrupted him. “I did choke,” I said. “Johnny was right.”

Whoever is sitting in the analyst’s chair on a TV broadcast – be it Johnny Miller for NBC, or me for tournaments shown on Golf Channel – has a difficult, often thankless job. We have to know something about every player in the field. We have to know when they’ve changed coaches, managers, world ranking, swings, shot shape, clubs and caddies. We have to know the course, weather, hole locations and breaks of the greens. And we have to be ready for every conceivable situation that a player might face from Thursday to Sunday and be able to spit all of that out in 10- to 30-second sound bites.

Before I go on, let me make this clear: I am not complaining about the demands of my job. It’s a great job. But it’s often misunderstood and I’d like to clear up some of the biggest misconceptions.

The “what” – what club, what coach, what hole, what shot – is easy. The hard part is trying to understand and communicate WHY a player hit a particular shot, won or lost an event, changed coaches, plays a hole well or poorly, etc. Anybody can tell you WHAT happened: He hit 70 percent of the fairways today. But to explain WHY someone hit 70 percent of the fairways, when the day before he hit only 50 percent, or why he had 25 putts when he averages 29, or why he had five top-10 finishes last year when the year before he had just two, well, you have to do more than read or listen; you have to think, perhaps even guess a little and then give your opinion. Hopefully this opinion survives a collision with the evidence, but as an opinion, it’s still open to debate. 

Johnny Miller is the king of saying why something happened. This infuriates many players and viewers, but what the players don’t get is that Johnny is not commentating for them. He is talking to millions of viewers. As a colleague is quick to say when confronted by an irate Tour player, “I had your job for 20 years; you haven’t had mine for two minutes.”

I have now been doing TV for 13 years and I could write a book about all the mistakes I’ve made.

Early on I was calling a tournament in Las Vegas and all the players had pink ribbons on their hats for Breast Cancer Awareness. As the camera zoomed in on one of the hats, I was supposed to talk about the significance of the ribbon. I said, “The pink ribbon is to bring attention to Breast Awareness Month.” Now, the word CANCER is fairly important to that phrase. I was unaware I had left the word out and had no idea why my producer was yelling in my ear.

Misspeaking is one thing and, depending on the faux pas, usually forgivable. Being flippant, on the other hand, is almost inexcusable.

During my PGA Tour career, I played a lot of golf with Dillard Pruitt. He had this big lateral shift off the ball and almost no hip turn, but he could hit the ball as straight as anyone I had ever seen. I once saw him win a bet by hitting a particular mower strip in the middle of a fairway.

I always teased him that he was a “rock and blocker,” and I would imitate his swing to make him laugh. Fast-forward to a Live From segment on Golf Central from the PGA Championship one year. We were running a piece on the great teacher Jimmy Ballard, who is famous for teaching a lateral shift off the ball and then back into impact. As we came out of the piece, I had maybe 30 seconds to button it up and said something about Jimmy teaching a rock-and-block golf swing.

The next day, I heard through the grapevine that Rocco Mediate and Jimmy Ballard were upset with my description of their philosophy. It killed me because I respect both of them greatly and believe there is validity to their ideas. If I upset someone because I differ with them, or because I have an opinion about their golf game, that is one thing, but to not give my full consideration to the time allotted for someone’s story is just wrong.

People often ask me how I make it through the long weeks of major championships when we are up at 5 a.m. and don’t get done until late at night. I always say, “segment-by-segment,” which is basically from commercial to commercial.

Each segment of a studio show has a talking point, and I dive in and try to tell the audience something they don’t know, which almost always involves me giving my opinion

The host might ask me, “Why doesn’t Charles Howell win more golf tournaments?” I hate questions like this because I really like Charles Howell and I don’t want to say anything to upset him or his family, but I have to give my opinion, so I try as hard as I can to give an educated opinion and to be fair. Then five minutes later I might be asked another question: “Brandel, how come Tiger changed his swing in 2010 and is this swing as good as his 2008 swing?”

I can’t just say “he changed his swing to get better”; why would anybody change to get worse? I have to look at this new swing and compare it with the previous one and to the one before that and then do countless hours of research and give my opinion. This involves some guessing, obviously, but I am paid to guess to some extent in every opinion I give. And then a few minutes later I am asked to give another opinion.

When I played the Tour I worked hard. Maybe not Vijay Singh hard, but not far off. What I liked almost as much as practicing was the camaraderie of the Tour. What I do now is a long way from the levity of being in the company of 155 men with a common interest, but one thing hasn’t changed: I work every bit as hard now as I did then. It might look easy to sit in an analyst’s chair and be critical, but nothing could be further from the truth. 

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McIlroy gets back on track

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 21, 2018, 3:10 pm

There’s only one way to view Rory McIlroy’s performance at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship:

He is well ahead of schedule.

Sure, McIlroy is probably disappointed that he couldn’t chase down Ross Fisher (and then Tommy Fleetwood) on the final day at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. But against a recent backdrop of injuries and apathy, his tie for third was a resounding success. He reasserted himself, quickly, and emerged 100 percent healthy.

“Overall, I’m happy,” he said after finishing at 18-under 270, four back of Fleetwood. “I saw some really, really positive signs. My attitude, patience and comfort level were really good all week.”

To fully appreciate McIlroy’s auspicious 2018 debut, consider his state of disarray just four months ago. He was newly married. Nursing a rib injury. Breaking in new equipment. Testing another caddie. His only constant was change. “Mentally, I wasn’t in a great place,” he said, “and that was because of where I was physically.”

And so he hit the reset button, taking the longest sabbatical of his career, a three-and-a-half-month break that was as much psychological as physical. He healed his body and met with a dietician, packing five pounds of muscle onto his already cut frame. He dialed in his TaylorMade equipment, shoring up a putting stroke and wedge game that was shockingly poor for a player of his caliber. Perhaps most importantly, he cleared his cluttered mind, cruising around Italy with wife Erica in a 1950s Mercedes convertible.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

After an intense buildup to his season debut, McIlroy was curious about the true state of his game, about how he’d stack up when he finally put a scorecard in his hand. It didn’t take him long to find out. 

Playing the first two rounds alongside Dustin Johnson – the undisputed world No. 1 who was fresh off a blowout victory at Kapalua – McIlroy beat him by a shot. Despite a 103-day competitive layoff, he played bogey-free for 52 holes. And he put himself in position to win, trailing by one heading into the final round. Though Fleetwood blew away the field with a back-nine 30 to defend his title, McIlroy collected his eighth top-5 in his last nine appearances in Abu Dhabi.

“I know it’s only three months,” he said, “but things change, and I felt like maybe I needed a couple of weeks to get back into the thought process that you need to get into for competitive golf. I got into that pretty quickly this week, so that was the most pleasing thing.”

The sense of relief afterward was palpable. McIlroy is entering his 11th full year as a pro, and deep down he likely realizes 2018 is shaping up as his most important yet.

The former Boy Wonder is all grown up, and his main challengers now are a freakish athlete (DJ) and a trio of players under 25 (Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm) who don’t lack for motivation or confidence. The landscape has changed significantly since McIlroy’s last major victory, in August 2014, and the only way he’ll be able to return to world No. 1 is to produce a sustained period of exceptional golf, like the rest of the game’s elite. (Based on average points, McIlroy, now ranked 11th, is closer to the bottom of the rankings, No. 1928, than to Johnson.)

But after years of near-constant turmoil, McIlroy, 28, finally seems ready to pursue that goal again. He is planning the heaviest workload of his career – as many as 30 events, including seven more starts before the Masters – and appears refreshed and reenergized, perhaps because this year, for the first time in a while, he is playing without distractions.

Not his relationships or his health. Not his equipment or his caddie or his off-course dealings.

Everything in his life is lined up.

Drama tends to follow one of the sport’s most captivating characters, but for now he can just play golf – lots and lots of golf. How liberating.

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Crocker among quartet of Open qualifiers in Singapore

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 2:20 pm

Former amateur standout Sean Crocker was among four players who qualified for the 147th Open via top-12 finishes this week at the Asian Tour's SMBC Singapore Open as part of the Open Qualifying Series.

Crocker had a strong college career at USC before turning pro late last year. The 21-year-old received an invitation into this event shortly thereafter, and he made the most of his appearance with a T-6 finish to net his first career major championship berth.

There were four spots available to those not otherwise exempt among the top 12 in Singapore, but winner Sergio Garcia and runners-up Shaun Norris and Satoshi Kodaira had already booked their tickets for Carnoustie. That meant that Thailand's Danthai Boonma and Jazz Janewattanond both qualified thanks to T-4 finishes.

Full-field scores from the Singapore Open

Crocker nabbed the third available qualifying spot, while the final berth went to Australia's Lucas Herbert. Herbert entered the week ranked No. 274 in the world and was the highest-ranked of the three otherwise unqualified players who ended the week in a tie for eighth.

The next event in the Open Qualifying Series will be in Japan at the Mizuno Open in May, when four more spots at Carnoustie will be up for grabs. The 147th Open will be held July 19-22 in Carnoustie, Scotland.

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Got a second? Fisher a bridesmaid again

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:40 pm

Ross Fisher is in the midst of a career resurgence - he just doesn't have the hardware to prove it.

Fisher entered the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship with a share of the lead, and as he made the turn he appeared in position to claim his first European Tour victory since March 2014. But he slowed just as Tommy Fleetwood caught fire, and when the final putt fell Fisher ended up alone in second place, two shots behind his fellow Englishman.

It continues a promising trend for Fisher, who at age 37 now has 14 career runner-up finishes and three in his last six starts dating back to October. He was edged by Tyrrell Hatton both at the Italian Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in the fall, and now has amassed nine worldwide top-10 finishes since March.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Fisher took a big step toward ending his winless drought with an eagle on the par-5 second followed by a pair of birdies, and he stood five shots clear of Fleetwood with only nine holes to go. But while Fleetwood played Nos. 10-15 in 4 under, Fisher played the same stretch in 2 over and was unable to eagle the closing hole to force a playoff.

While Fisher remains in search of an elusive trophy, his world ranking has benefited from his recent play. The veteran was ranked outside the top 100 in the world as recently as September 2016, but his Abu Dhabi runner-up result is expected to move him inside the top 30 when the new rankings are published.

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McIlroy (T-3) notches another Abu Dhabi close call

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:08 pm

Rory McIlroy's trend of doing everything but hoist the trophy at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship is alive and well.

Making his first start since early October, McIlroy showed few signs of rust en route to a tie for third. Amid gusty winds, he closed with a 2-under 70 to finish the week at 18 under, four shots behind Tommy Fleetwood who rallied to win this event for the second consecutive year.

The result continues a remarkable trend for the Ulsterman, who has now finished third or better seven of the last eight years in Abu Dhabi - all while never winning the tournament. That stretch includes four runner-up finishes and now two straight T-3 results.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

McIlroy is entering off a disappointing 2017 in which he was injured in his first start and missed two chunks of time while trying to regain his health. He has laid out an ambitious early-season schedule, one that will include a trip to Dubai next week and eight worldwide tournament starts before he heads to the Masters.

McIlroy started the final round one shot off the lead, and he remained in contention after two birdies over his first four holes. But a bogey on No. 6 slowed his momentum, and McIlroy wasn't able to make a back-nine birdie until the closing hole, at which point the title was out of reach.