Feature Interview with Brandel Chamblee
Brandel Chamblee is a lead analyst at the Golf Channel. Chamblee turned professional in 1985 after being first team All-American at the University of Texas and has won at every level in golf all over the world. For six straight years, he was among the top 100 money winners on the Tour. Anatomy of Greatness is his first book and is published by Classics of Golf/Simon & Schuster. The book, along with a host of other classic golf writings Herbert Warren Wind and Bernard Darwin among others, can be acquired via the Classics of Golf web site: www.classicsofgolf.com.
1) What was the ‘spark’ that started you to look for – and then connect – the common swing positions of the greatest golfers?
I have thought about this book and common swing positions of the greats for over six years. That said there are two books that sparked my book, The Masters of Golf by Dick Aultman and Ken Bowden and Harold Bloom’s Genius: A Mosaic of 100 Exemplary Creative Minds. If you haven’t read Genius, I can’t recommend it enough.
2) Talk about the process of creating a format to explain the entire swing in one 144 page book.
I had a file in my computer called “My Book” and kept putting my notes and research there. That ultimately became an outline and then filled out into the text of the book. My goal was to do a book that was easy to understand like Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book and then make sure that the photographs in the book help explain and clarify the words. I have hundreds of golf instruction books and read all through them multiple times and I got my hands on every magazine instruction article and video I could find. Once I got through all of that, it was approximately 2 years of narrowing it down, and then a year of writing and making sure I had the right words to describe each part of the swing. I was lucky to meet two people who were as driven as I was about the swing, and extremely intelligent, and to get every piece of the swing right. They were very important to the final outcome. That was Lucas Wald and Jeff Martin.
3) What was the biggest surprise during your analysis?
Simply this; how many things the greatest golfers of all time did in common and how different it is from modern instruction. How can you argue with Jones, Hogan, Nelson, Snead, Nicklaus, Palmer, Player, Miller, Norman, (early) Woods and Wright? Once I saw all of these commonalities I was even more surprised that today’s instruction has moved away from proven success. I think the pros today would be swinging 4-6 mph faster (12-18 yards longer) if they applied some of the fundamentals of the greats before them. And they will be healthier. I hope we can move back to the principles of the Golden Age of Golf Instruction like architecture has moved back to the principles of the Golden Age of Architecture.
4) Yet, as you say, golf instruction turned away from some of these time tested principles. People went with the ‘stack and tilt’ or tried keeping their left heel glued to the ground. Why did many instructors move away from methods proven over generations?
This is a great question. The first answer is I don’t really know why they dropped what had worked since the beginning of golf. In the book there is a photo of Vardon at impact and he looks like Nicklaus. In between every great golfer from Vardon to Jones to Hogan to Nicklaus lifted their left heal. Each generation passed on the fundamentals of the swing, including lifting their left heal and a strong grip, to the next; and then somewhere around (the 80’s) where instruction started to latch on to hip restriction.
I also believe that this has hurt the LPGA. Look at Michelle Wie; she doesn’t even turn her hips on the way back or move her legs on the way through, and then she tries to slide toward the target—and she is injured all the time. That is no coincidence. She is nowhere near the golfer she should be or used to be. It is her technique. Look at Mickey Wright, Patty Berg and Louise Suggs—their positions of the swing looked like the great male players of their eras.
My book has excellent photos of Mickey Wright and a fantastic one of Patty Berg. When I see Michelle Wie, I think it has been a waste of talent. She has given complete autonomy of her golf swing to someone who is basing his ideas on nothing that’s ever worked in the past, just on his own ideas. Now, today, most of instruction today centers on resisting the lower body and torque and I think it’s a big lie. This book was my attempt at swinging golf instruction back to a more rational narrative.
5) Sean Foley contacted you about how he incorporated your ideas into Hunter Mahan and Justin Rose’s swings and they are now swinging 5-6 mph faster, thus gaining 15-18 yards. Same for Stan Utley, who has picked up 20 yards through the better mechanics espoused in your book. What do you hear from other pros?
It is hard to change the entire direction of a trend that has gone on for over 30 years, but I feel good that this is a start of a real discussion and even a movement back to time tested principles and as I said above, a rational narrative. GolfWeek said that ‘It’s a fairly weighty tome, not necessarily long, but deep in its research and potentially significant in its mission to shift the focus of golf instruction.” I know there are pros that are starting to use methods in my book, and they will try it out on the range first and then take it to the course. Having Sean Foley start with Mahan and Rose is a good beginning. I personally saw how quickly Utley started hitting the ball farther and higher. Brad Faxon has been working with Lucas Wald incorporating many of the principles in my book and Lucas said he flew a three wood 248 yards into the wind and is flying drivers 270 yards plus. I feel a bit like a scientist whose research has been validated.
6) If these professionals are getting quick results, what can amateurs (encumbered with many more swing faults) expect?
Amateurs will generally get even more distance, height and accuracy—it might take a bit longer for them to learn the entire swing, but if they make changes to a weak grip (by having a stronger grip, your body intuitively rotates faster on the way through to sort of hold off the release) and they lift their left heal, they will have immediate results. They should start with the very beginning of the book with the grip (make it stronger) and diligently work all the way through to impact and finish, they will get good results and the game will be more fun.
It is important that they need to take their time to read and understand and implement the nuances in the book. I had a man come to me and say that since getting the book, he is hitting the ball 15 yards farther and his back wasn’t hurting him anymore. He was about the 100th person who has told me that. The problem for amateurs watching the tour players is that touring professionals are such good athletes (and who work out a lot) that can make anything work, but the average golfer needs as much turn (by lifting their left heal) as he or she can get and it will relieve the pressure on the lower back and add valuable distance.
7) How has your own swing changed, from college where you were 2-time All-American with Brad Faxon, to your tour days and to now at age 53?
I was self taught and pretty good in college and hit the ball long and high. When I turned professional, I started to change my swing with modern instructors and got away from the classic swing I intuitively had. I have changed my swing back and followed what the greats did and my swing speed is up dramatically and hitting it great. Lucas Wald has my swing on his site with his commentary.
8) Switching to golf course architecture, Jack Nicklaus said in a Feature Interview on this site said golf course architecture did not stimulate much conversation on Tour. Was that your experience as well?
I think most professionals like great architecture and enjoy playing great courses, but remember their number one goal on tour is to make a living and do their best to win. Today it is even more intense and complicated with coaches, trainers, agents and sponsors. It doesn’t leave a lot of time to be focusing on architecture. That said, there are players who have had a bigger interest than most. Crenshaw has always had an affinity for architecture and I think when Tom Watson went a played courses in the British Isles it was about atmosphere and getting back to the roots of the game and of course architecture. I also think that great architecture brings out better and more creative players. Since it is Masters week, I think Bubba is a good example of this. He loves Augusta National and plays well there. The same thing for him at Riviera. If the course doesn’t have as much character it doesn’t stir the same level of excitement for him.
9) Yet, you seem well versed in architecture. When and how did your interest in the subject matter develop?
I have always been naturally inquisitive and liked to learn new things. This applies to golf architecture. I’ve been fortunate enough to travel and see many courses when I played professionally and that developed my knowledge of golf architecture. Though I am very busy with family and the travel and preparation that is involved with my job, when I do have extra time, I find a way to get to places like Chicago Golf Club. It is natural to finish the round and discuss golf architecture. Now that I’ve been to Bandon (those architecture conversations happen there too) I know I will find my way back. Every time you see brilliant imaginative architecture I think it connects a golfer to the game on a deeper level. I am hoping I can connect more as there are many courses I would like to see and play. I have a colleague who keeps inviting me to northern Michigan to see Kingsley Club and Crystal Downs and Doak has a reversible 18 opening soon so I am keenly interested to visit there.
10) The Golf Channel is 24/7 specific to one sport. Yet, there isn’t a show devoted to architecture and the game’s playing fields. Does the subject matter not resonate with the general viewership?
Golf Channel does have Matt Ginella focused on golf courses and architecture and that is a good thing. He does profiles on architects and their courses that are interesting and well received. I don’t think the general viewership, though interested in architecture, is large enough to have it 24 hours a day. They don’t have instruction 24 hours a day and we all know how golfers are obsessed with having their own games being better.
11) Which do you consider the three best courses that the Tour routinely visits today for non-major events?
It is hard for me to say the three best, but here are three great ones. Riviera was always great, and now with its steady, ongoing restoration, it is fantastic, much better than when I was on Tour. Pebble Beach. Incredible holes along the water and then throw in the history. Winning at Pebble puts you with Nicklaus, Watson and Woods—and that is good company. TPC Sawgrass. The Players has a major feel, but I will include it here. The course woke up a lot of people in the golf world and has matured very very well. The 17th is a stunner…and gets your attention like the Road Hole in that you start thinking about it well before you should.
12) You played Bandon Dunes last fall – what did you think? That brand of golf is so different from what is beamed into our houses each week on the PGA Tour.
I had said that Bandon Dunes, along with Cape Kidnappers, Ballyneal, Friars Head and Sand Hills are a few of what is the Golden Age revival of golf course architecture over the past 20 years. Bandon is stunning. You want to play golf in three hours with one ball and breathe inspiring air? Play Old Macdonald at Bandon Dunes. All of the courses at Bandon are fantastic … it is a supreme experience and it has rejuvenated a town. All of the tour players who have been there love it there. If we had more courses where the average golfer can play eighteen holes in three hours and never lose a ball—I think we would have more golfers playing today.
13) You first played in The Masters in 1999. What do you think of how the course has evolved since then?
Augusta has a brilliant routing and that has and always will stand the test of time. I think that is part of what makes MacKenzie courses special. Regarding evolution, there are always changes, but you might or might not notice them. It is longer, tighter with rough and overall tougher to keep up with how far the pros are hitting it. If you haven’t been there, when you go to the back tees at 13 and 18 it is long way back there. Most amateurs would have a hard time from back tees.
14) What are your favorite moments from Augusta?
Selfishly, it was 1999. I was leading after the first round and was within 2 shots of the lead on Saturday. That year is still one of my top 10 moments of my life. Getting off the selfish train, the morning tee shots on Thursday from Jack, Arnie and Gary are fantastic. Phil’s 6-iron, Tiger’s chip in on the balls last rotation, Bubba’s hooking wedge in a playoff and just a few. I could go on and on. Every year provides magic.
15) Over the past twenty years, what has been your favorite course set-up for a major? Why?
Any year at The Old Course. I say this because the course has so much of its original feel and playability. Plus, the weather to such a large degree dictates the playing conditions. If it is a dry summer it is firmer and faster and the rough lighter. If it rains a lot it isn’t as firm and the rough is deeper. They made some changes this last year, but it was a magnificent championship with so many golfers with a chance to win. Long hitters and short hitters all have a chance.
16) How about your least favorite set-up? Why?
I think Pinehurst the year Payne Stewart won. I will be forever happy that he won, but a course that had been so magnificent had been turned into bowling alley fairways with pitch outs whenever you missed the fairway. What Coore and Crenshaw did to restore the course was a commitment to excellence. The fact that that Pinehurst and the USGA agreed to the idea of restoring it toward its original design, makes the last U.S. Open at Pinehurst my second favorite to the question above.
17) How much, if at all, does the venue matter for the Ryder Cup? Its popularity is ever increasing despite host courses that are nowhere near the best that the countries have to offer.
The Ryder Cup has turned into a premiere and uniquely exciting event. The pressure that the golfers feel is more intense than anything else they experience. The crowds are like nothing else they experience. Though great courses like Oak Hill, Oakland Hills and Brookline have held Ryder Cups, over the years I don’t think that you’ve consistently had the classic architecture you see at major championships.
What is more important is having great match play holes. Think the 10th at the Belfry or recently the 15th at Celtic Manor. Great match play holes that provided intense drama. I even think back to the 18th at the Belfry…not what you would call a great hole, but the drama on the hole was captivating. The pressure, intensity, and excitement can transcend the course.
18) A few people in golf including Peter Thomson, Johnny Miller, Tom Doak, and yourself are known for speaking their mind in a frank, straightforward manner. Yet, today’s all-pervasive media – television, print, social – loves to pounce on a line or two to stir up a skirmish. Does that tendency alter in anyway how you elect to deliver your message these days?
Thank you for putting me in that crowd. Peter Thomson is a golfing god to me. Doak is one of my favorite architects and I wouldn’t be able to do what I do without Johnny Miller changing commentating. As most people will tell you, it doesn’t affect how I talk or write. I work very hard to prepare and I believe in what I say. There is a belief and confidence that comes with that and it helps me when people don’t agree with me or as you say, pounce on a line of two.