News & Opinion

Chamblee, on Koepka: He’s major enigma

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. – Brandel Chamblee has been a lightning rod on Golf Channel’s coverage for much of his career as an analyst.

Most recently, his comments about Brooks Koepka and Chamblee’s selection of Tiger Woods to win last week at the PGA Championship at Bethpage State Park’s Black Course here turned heads.

On Sunday morning, before Koepka went on to win the Wanamaker Trophy by two strokes – and two days after Woods missed the cut – I met Chamblee at a local coffee house, far from the lights of the Golf Channel set, and talked about his takes on Koepka, Woods and golf in general. Here is an edited version of that conversation:

Alex Miceli: Some people think that, coming into the PGA, you don't like Brooks Koepka.
Brandel Chamblee: Oh, nothing could be further from the truth.

AM: Coming in, I think you picked Woods over Koepka.
BC: Uh-hum.

AM: Obviously, the betting public agreed with you.
BC: I thought [Woods] would drive it straighter than he did. I'd never seen Tiger show up at a major unprepared and foggy. There's a new normal with Tiger. I guess we kind of saw a little bit of that after he won the Tour Championship last year. He looked lethargic at the Ryder Cup. … He won the Masters. I thought he would show up, find the fairways. I just figured Tiger would carry on doing what he's doing. He's so close now to Sam Snead [with 81 Tour victories, one behind Snead’s record total] and obviously one closer to Jack [Nicklaus in major championships, 18-15]. I figured he would be completely motivated. … Plus, it was a romantic story. I got a little caught up in that romance. I pull for Tiger. I shouldn't because I'm meant to be unbiased, but I'm also a golfer, and I love watching golf being played at almost an unprecedented level, so I pull for that kind of golf. … I thought total driving was going to be very important here this week, and Brooks was in the top 10 and Tiger was 13. So that's how I came to that conclusion.

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Brandel Chamblee, a Golf Channel analyst, gets paid to offer his opinions on golf and its players. He gave Morning Read’s Alex Miceli a few more of them at the PGA Championship.

MORNING READ/ALEX MICELI
Brandel Chamblee, a Golf Channel analyst, gets paid to offer his opinions on golf and its players. He gave Morning Read’s Alex Miceli a few more of them at the PGA Championship.

AM: After Thursday's round, when Koepka shot 63, you made a comment that every time he was walking down the fairway hitting shots, he was giving you a big middle finger about not picking him. Is that accurate?
BC: I've been flipped off before – probably not as often as you would think – but I've felt like he was giving me the finger for 4½ hours. I said it tongue-in-cheek. I did it to sort of break the ice when we went on the air. … I don't know anybody that was lauding Brooks before the Ryder Cup in 2016 more fervently than I was. I have predicted greatness out of him very early on, and everything pointed toward greatness. But I basically said I needed to see more evidence. They rise and fall very quickly, and they rise for a variety of different reasons. … So, I looked at what Brooks has done, and I thought, Well he's won on three very similar golf courses [2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills, 2018 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills and 2018 PGA at Bellerive] where you could drive with absolute recklessness and be fine. … This game has become far too much about power, and because it's the least variable asset, it has become easier. ... It's not a huge group of players that have the requisite skills to contend in events like those. ... Brooks played great; don't get me wrong. I'm not diminishing that. But the question came up to me, Does he have the best mind in the game? That was how this whole thing got started. Is he the best player in the game, and does he have the best mind in the game? And I said I need more evidence. He's great, but I'm not willing to say he's got the best mind in the game and has the best game in golf until I see more evidence. And then I guess people got riled up because I thought it was a bit reckless of him. Well, I said it was very reckless of him to be paying attention to a body shoot as opposed to great preparations for the Masters. … I'm in the business of making relative judgments, and I use abstractions to get to those judgments. And are those abstractions 100 percent accurate? No, they're not. But you have to use some criteria to get to your relative judgments. I thought he would struggle with his pace at the Masters; he did. He three-putted five times. Tiger three-putted twice. That was the difference. So, in my view, I got that right. My job is to tell people things they can't readily or easily see, and they don't have the time to look up like I do. I told people he's going to struggle with his touch; he did. People were, like, “Well, he finished second; he proved you wrong.” Maybe he did. If he proves me wrong, he proves me wrong. I'm just telling you my opinion. Every two minutes I'm asked to make a relative judgment. And I try to make judgments that are based in fact and my knowledge of the game in a predictive way. I felt like I did my job at the Masters. People assumed from that that I've got a bone to pick with Brooks. I don't at all. No bone. I promise you nobody's enjoying his golf more than me. … We haven't seen the Secretariat since Secretariat. And maybe we have another Secretariat here. But yes, I'm meant to be predictive, so I'm meant to say that this type of golf was possible for Brooks.

AM: Using the Secretariat reference, is this his Kentucky Derby or his Belmont Stakes?
BC: If you look at what hobbles golfers, the golf gods have a way of getting everybody. It does not take much for golfers to go from invincible to invisible. There are so many hurdles: physical, technical, personal, and existential. Who would have thought [Arnold] Palmer's last major was going to be the '64 Masters? … Who would have thought Rory McIlroy would have this big a span between major championships? Who would have thought in 2008 that was going to be it for Tiger [in major championships] for over a decade? You just don't know. So, you start to look at, will he fiddle with his golf swing? I don't think he will. He's 29? The prime really is 28-33 in golf. This could be the beginning of an unbelievable two-, three-year stretch. … I've never heard anybody speak so specifically about his goals. Nobody does that in golf. Nobody. And he's a lot like Babe Ruth pointing to center field and the '32 World Series and hitting a home run to center field.

Nobody predicts so specifically the success that, in the way that Brooks is doing it. To show up on a Monday, Tuesday Wednesday at the U.S. Open last year and say they're going to have to take this trophy from me. And then this week, to say: Majors are the easiest events to win. And then go through the field and say that's it. Nobody's ever done that in golf. That is [Muhammad] Ali. … This game slams the door on you for a variety of different reasons. Success comes with so many hurdles. Can he handle the success? He said his goal was to be in bed every night by 10. I hadn't heard that until this week. And that speaks volumes about where a guy's head is at. I'm well aware of what does he in the gym. But that says a lot to me, to have that kind of discipline. That's Tiger-esque. Now Tiger, I don't remember him saying he went to bed at 10 o'clock every night, but he darn sure was getting up at 4 o'clock every day. I know players that have told me that Tiger would text them at 4 o'clock in the morning and say, “I'm in the gym working out. What are you doing?” Who gets up at that hour every single day of the year? People who win 15 major championships.

AM: Knowing what you know now, was Woods’ win at Augusta an aberration?
BC: No. Augusta's very kind to elderly golfers and very kind to its past champions. Not that many people have the skills to play Augusta. There are very specific shots you have to hit there. You have to be able to hit fades off the tee and draws off the tee. Not many people can do that. Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka can't do that very easily. So very few people can do that. And you have to be able to hit high cuts off hook lies. Not that many people can do that. That's why Jordan Spieth is a threat there every single year. That whole chicken wing [swing] limits his release, but it allows him to hit cuts off those lies. So that's why Rory [McIlroy] has struggled there, to whatever extent you want to say he's struggled. That's why he went to the fade. He tried to do that. Augusta, once it identifies players with those specific skills, it just keeps rewarding them. The other majors move around. So sooner or later, if you can only hit a fade, you're going to find a major that doesn't punish you for your lack of versatility in your game. If anything, I would say that this sort of setback for Tiger will invigorate him again. You can't just show up without having the sharpness of a knife almost every day since the last time you played.

AM: Will Koepka be the favorite going into the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach?
BC: He'll be the No. 1 golfer in the world, most likely. He'll have won four of his last eight major championships. So, he will be the betting favorite. In between now and then, is he going to go play regular Tour events and be sort of indifferent? Can you tell where Brooks Koepka finished at the Players Championship? No, you can't, right? He finished 56th. We didn't mention his name one time on set at the Players Championship. Not once. He was not in anybody's mind. That's what's difficult about Brooks, that he's won 2 percent of his regular Tour events and 20 percent of his majors. How do you reconcile those differences? Is he the guy who plays regular Tour events or is he the guy who plays major championships? And that's been my whole point for the last month. I don't really know who he is. I need more evidence.

Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: alex@morningread.com; Twitter: @AlexMiceli


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