If you want to do something ridiculously unpopular, take on Tiger Woods. You'll be called a racist, a moron and, worst of all, a hack. Brandel Chamblee, who won one PGA Tour event in a 15-year playing career, learned that lesson the hard way.
Chamblee is an insightful, articulate, stat-wielding analyst for Golf Channel who for a decade now has been both lavish in his praise of Woods's golfing accomplishments and (at times) almost comically critical of his ever-evolving swing. This year Woods has given him a bunch of fresh material.
Woods has had a series of brushes with the rule book in 2013. At the BMW Championship outside Chicago in September, a Tour official penalized Woods two shots when a high-def video close-up showed that he had caused his ball to move fractionally when he started to remove a twig that the ball was leaning against.
In his professional life Woods—whose personal life was turned upside down by prying cameras—is under constant surveillance, and he doesn't like it. He was hot and profane in the scorer's trailer. When he emerged, he was dismissive of the ruling and, by extension, the respected official who had made it. Woods could have withdrawn in protest. Instead he played on.
Chamblee recently called Woods "duplicitous" on Golf Channel. That's a nervy thing to say because the cable network has a high-stakes business relationship with the PGA Tour. The Tour and Golf Channel share a star attraction. Good talkers, like Chamblee, learn to choose their words carefully, and live to talk another day.
Chamblee has another outlet for his thoughts about the game, writing at GOLF MAGAZINE and at Golf.com, which are part of the SPORTS ILLUSTRATED Golf Group. In a short, blunt Golf.com piece posted Oct. 15, Chamblee gave end-of-season grades to various players. He gave Woods, despite five wins, an F, for being "a little cavalier with the rules." Chamblee prefaced that remark by describing his own experience as a cheater on a fourth-grade math test. He never called Woods a cheater, but the implication was clear.
Internet posters went crazy, telling Chamblee that he was a Tiger-hater, a bigot, an idiot—and a failed player. To the nonorthodox, golf's rules seem persnickety. But others in the game, both its high priests and those toiling in its vineyards, understand that without strict adherence to the game's often complicated and sometimes ridiculous rules, competitive golf unravels. The messenger—Chamblee—was shot repeatedly.
Mark Steinberg, Woods's agent, talked about legal action. Woods said, "The ball really is in the court of the Golf Channel and what they are prepared to do." Woods and Steinberg have immense power, and they wielded it. They made this thing about Chamblee and his commentary and not about Woods and his rules problems.
Tour HQ in Ponte Vedra Beach and GC HQ in Orlando had urgent talks. High-priced corporate talent pondered weird scenarios. Woods dates Lindsey Vonn, who is likely to star again at the Winter Olympics, in February, broadcast by NBC. Golf Channel is a division of NBC. What if Woods stops giving interviews to Golf Channel? What if Vonn refuses to do fireside chats with Bob Costas? All because of some quickie Internet column? Somebody was going to have to make this right.
And that somebody was Brandel Chamblee. He gave up his Golf and Golf.com gigs. He went on Twitter and Golf Channel and apologized not for his views but for the rancor his words caused. "Golf is a gentleman's game and I'm not proud of this debate," he tweeted. "My intention was to note Tiger's rules infractions, but comparing that to cheating in grade school went too far." As mea culpas go, these were skimmed milk on Raisin Bran. He did not, notably, back off his original statement.
The corollary questions are staggering. Is Woods distracted? Is he desperate? Will he ever win another major? Are the game's traditional values—fairness and grace—in jeopardy?
Any serious player will tell you that you stop lifting a twig for one main reason: The ball has started to move. Innumerable golfers have penalized themselves for minor ball movements. You know why this episode matters so much? It tells you what's in the golfer's heart.
Back in the day, Woods didn't have to do anything special to win, so superior was his talent. Those days are gone, even though he remains golf's best player and most important figure. Chamblee wants what everyone who cares about golf wants. We want Woods to follow in the footsteps of Jones and Nicklaus and every slave-to-the-rules journeyman who has ever called a penalty on himself. We want Woods to put other players—and the game that made him—ahead of himself. The truth is, the ball's in his court.
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