Brandel Chamblee's comments on Tiger Woods causing a stir
Some fights have no winners, only bruises that are slow to heal, leaving scars that never completely fade away. Such is the case with the recent dustup between Tiger Woods and former tour player, commentator and columnist Brandel Chamblee.
First some background: Chamblee is one of the smartest guys in the game and someone who never utters or types a word without having thought through what he wants to say. That comes from his raising. The son of an entrepreneur (Harrel Chamblee owned a home-improvement company) and brother to one of the best lawyers in the country, Chamblee learned his debating skills at the dinner table where his mother, a devout Christian, would try to convert Harrel, a lifelong atheist.
Ever since his days as an All-American at the University of Texas, Brandel has been a fierce defender of golf's history and traditions. He is someone who openly laments the decline in civility among players. "When did tour players become the least approachable people in sports?" he asked me over dinner one night earlier this year, a question chocked so full of hyperbole I barely knew how to respond. "I mean how have we gone, in such a short time, from Arnold Palmer, one of the greatest ambassadors ever, to now where the guy who is 75th on the money list won't sign autographs or acknowledge fans?" These things worry the 51-year-old. They are the things he studies and probes long after he understands the nuances of whatever course he's commenting on that week and well beyond his mastery of the mechanics of the golf swing. There aren't many PGA Tour players you would want to take a golf lesson from -- since most have no idea how to teach--– and even fewer you would invite into your home to discuss politics, religion, history or economics. Arnold Palmer is one. Paul Azinger is another. Phil Mickelson is surprisingly adept and convergent on a number of topics and an impressive if sometimes impatient teacher of the game. Chamblee pretty much rounds out the list.
So, when Chamblee, now a commentator on The Golf Channel and a contributor at Golf.com, used his column to talk about Tiger Woods' tempestuous relationship with the rules in 2013, he knew exactly what he was doing.
In the column Chamblee recounted a personal story about his fourth-grade teacher who caught him cheating on a math test. When the test was returned, the teacher had written the famous quote from Sir Walter Scott: "Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive." Then the teacher wrote "100" at the top of the test …which was crossed through and replaced by an "F", a grade Chamblee admits he deserved, and a lesson he remembers vividly 42 years later.
Grading Tiger’s year, Chamblee wrote: "I remember when we only talked about Tiger's golf. I miss those days. He won five times and contended in majors and won the Vardon Trophy and ... how shall we say this ... was a little cavalier with the rules." The grade he gave him was 100 … marked through and replaced by an "F".
The column had the intended reaction. People on both sides of the Tiger camp fortified their positions and hurled invectives at each other. Agree or disagree, there was little question that Chamblee's precise language and use of the word "cavalier" echoed what many people inside and outside of golf -- including a number of current and former tour players who spoke to me off the record -- feel about the way Tiger handled himself in 2013.
The bad drop at the Masters and the kerfuffle it stirred has been debated ad nauseam since April, as has the penalty at the BMW Championship where Tiger's ball clearly moved, a fact he continues to dispute.
Tiger did not cheat, and Chamblee never said he did. Tiger was assessed penalties in accordance with the rules in Abu Dhabi and at the BMW when his ball moved, and he was given a two-shot penalty after the fact in Augusta when he took a bad drop, even though that ruling raised more than a few eyebrows.
The problem was the way Tiger handled those incidents. After the Masters ruling, numerous people in and out of golf suggested that Tiger should have withdrawn in order to protect the integrity of the field and the honor of the game, an opinion those in Tiger's camp attacked as an absurd double-standard. But the fact that Tiger never gave withdrawal a moment’s thought jarred those who know and respect golf's history. Later when, in the face of overwhelming evidence, he continued to insist that his ball did not move at the BMW, he damaged not only his reputation but that of the game.
Then came the predictable response to Chamblee's column. Tiger's agent, Mark Steinberg, formerly of IMG before founding Excel Sports Management, told ESPN, "There's nothing you can call a golfer worse than a cheater. This is the most deplorable thing I have seen. I'm not one for hyperbole, but this is absolutely disgusting. Calling him a cheater? I'll be shocked, stunned, if something is not done about this. Something has to be done. There are certainly things that just don't go without response. It's atrocious. I'm not sure if there isn't legal action to be taken. I have to give some thought to legal action."
Unfortunately, this reaction is worse than the incidents themselves, and they have become all too familiar from Team Tiger.
At the Masters in 1997, Tiger's then-agent, Hughes Norton, summoned John Feinstein and his editors at Golf magazine, George Peper and Mike Purkey, to a breakfast meeting where they took issue with some of things Feinstein had written about Tiger and his father, Earl. Norton told Feinstein's bosses that they would hate to see Tiger's anger at John damage the chances of Golf landing him as a playing editor. Feinstein stormed out of the meeting, but not before calling Norton and IMG agent Clarke Jones "a**holes".
I had a similar brush with Tiger's handlers in early 2000. That year, I wrote a book entitled "AT THE TURN: Two Years that Changed Golf Forever". In it I chronicled the effect Tiger's meteoric rise had on professional golf, but I also detailed some stories that painted him in a less-than-messianic light. When some of those stories began circulating among golf insiders, I was summoned to the grillroom at Bay Hill during the Arnold Palmer Invitational. In that meeting, then-IMG vice president Bev Norwood told me that if I went to press with disparaging stories about Tiger I would have no further relationship with IMG.
"And if you go public, we will deny this meeting ever took place," Norwood said.
"Does Mark (McCormack) know you're telling me this?" I asked him. IMG founder and CEO Mark McCormack and I were good friends for many years and I remain close to his widow, Betsy. Norwood would not answer directly, nor would he look me in the eye -- at heart, Bev was a good guy in an impossible situation.
Instead he said, "This came from Tiger." Steinberg's reaction is an extension of that attitude, one I now refer to as the A-Rodization of golf. The days of Bobby Jones calling a penalty on himself when no one was around to lose the U.S. Open have been replaced by threats of legal action, like those issued by the Yankees' third basemen to Major League Baseball and Bud Selig.
It is a sad and sorry place for a self-policing game with etiquette enshrined in its rules. But that is where we are.
Chamblee apologized via Twitter on Tuesday, writing, "Golf is a gentleman's game and I'm not proud of this debate. I want to apologize to Tiger for this incited discourse."
He was right to apologize, not for the opinion but for the rancor that it caused. But he was wrong about one thing -- golf was once a gentleman's game, but, unfortunately, those days appear to have passed us by.