The best biography or auto-biography I’ve ever read by someone connected to sports was Howard Cosell’s third memoir: I Never Played the Game.
The title of the book was accurate, telling, and pure Cosell. For years, Cosell was the smartest and most important voice in sports television and radio. And, when he criticized someone, the response often was, “What does he know, he never played the game.”
I thought about that argument again on Sunday night, when Ian Poulter angrily tweeted at Brandel Chamblee—who, for the record, is a friend and a colleague. I also happen to like Poulter a lot and leaned on him heavily during the research of my book on last year’s Ryder Cup, titled, The First Major, which will be out in October.
So, I like both men and, in this case, I disagreed with Brandel. But I also disagreed with Ian’s tweet.
Here’s what happened: After Poulter finished tied for second at The Players Championship, three shots behind winner Si-Woo Kim, Chamblee said on Golf Channel that he believed Poulter was playing to protect second place coming down the stretch, not playing to win. He cited Poulter’s layup at the par-5 16th hole and playing for the middle of the famous/infamous island-green 17th, rather than attacking the flag, which was tucked in the back right corner of the green.
Second place at The Players is worth $924,000. Given that Poulter thought he’d lost his full-fledged playing privileges a month ago (a mistake by the tour, discovered by fellow player Brian Gay, got him into The Players) the fact that a tie for second just about wraps up his playing exemption through NEXT year, is no small deal.
Beyond that, you can easily make the case that what Poulter did was also smart in terms of his chances to win. He probably had as good a chance to make birdie at 16 by laying up as going for the green and to fire at the flag at 17 is rarely a good play unless your swing is so dialed-in, you don’t think you can miss. Poulter was clearly fighting nerves as evidenced by his shanked third shot at 18.
I don’t often disagree with Chamblee, especially since the comments he makes are ALWAYS based on a lot of research and lot of experience playing and watching golf through the years.
This time, I disagreed.
Not surprisingly, so did Poulter—understandably. But his tweet at Brandel took a sarcastic shot at his playing career—one tour victory; two losses in playoffs and 15 years in all on tour—and then snarkily talked about how easy it is to ‘sit on your arse,’ and talk about golf.
It was Poulter’s version of, ‘you never played the game,’ paraphrased as, ‘okay, you played the game, but not nearly as well as me.’
Which is accurate and absolutely irrelevant. To begin with, ‘sitting on your arse,’ and analyzing any sport WELL, isn’t easy. Joe Montana and Joe Namath were two of the greatest quarterbacks in history. They were terrible doing TV analysis. Ever listen to Magic Johnson on TV? Not so good, right? On the other hand, Billy Packer, who never played in the NBA (but was a terrific college player), was brilliant. The two best baseball analysts I’ve heard on TV in recent years are John Smoltz, who’s in the Hall of Fame, and Tom Verducci, who will go into the Hall of Fame someday – as a writer.
Let’s talk for a moment about coaches. I think we would all agree you have to know and understand your sport and know and understand people to coach well. Bill Belichick was a Division-3 football player at Wesleyan. He would tell you his best sport was probably lacrosse. Mike Krzyzewski was a reasonably good college guard who averaged eight points a game at Army playing for Bob Knight. Roy Williams was a JV player at North Carolina. Tony La Russa and Bobby Cox were marginal major leaguers – at best. On the other hand, Joe Torre, the other great manager of that generation, was an All-Star and borderline Hall of Famer.
The point is you do NOT need to have “played the game” to coach it, write about it well or analyze it on TV or radio. If Poulter had said he disagreed with Chamblee’s analysis and here’s why he played the shots he played, that would have been fine. The shot about Brandel’s career and how easy it is to, ‘sit on your arse,’ was beneath him. I’m guessing someday Poulter will sit on his arse and do TV analysis. And, if he works at it half as hard as Brandel does, he’ll probably be good at it.
But it won’t be because he’s one of the great Ryder Cup players ever. It will be because he’s smart and has a sense of humor. It should also be noted that to play on tour for as long as Chamblee did and to win on the tour EVER means you can really play the game. I always laugh when people refer to guys like Chamblee as “journeymen.” Those people don’t understand how good you have to be to EVER play on the tour.
On my office wall is a laminated scorecard from my best round of golf ever. I shot 70, playing in a real match at Gardiner’s Bay Country Club. I had no chance to shoot 69, since I birdied 18 to shoot that 70. I have no doubt that if a so-called “journeyman” like Chamblee or my buddy Paul Goydos had played with me that day, the WORST score they would have shot would have been around 65. Probably it would have been closer to 60 if they’d made a few putts.
So, on the very best day of my life, I would probably have been 10 shots worse than a “journeyman” pro having an average day. Most days I couldn’t come within 20 shots of those guys—and that’s when I was a decent high single-digit handicap player.
But does that mean I can’t write or talk about why some players succeed and others fail? I have spent quality time with every great player of the last 50 years — yes, including Tiger Woods— along the way. I know how they think and have a sense of why they’re great. I’ve also spent a lot of time with players not quite good enough to make the tour and I can document the real differences between them and the guys who succeed.
I’ve never stood in the middle of the fairway on the 18th hole of a match that decided a Ryder Cup, looking at a long, difficult second shot. But I’ve talked to Davis Love in detail about exactly how he felt and how he dealt with those nerves—when he literally felt like he was going to be sick. I’ve done the same with Martin Kaymer, learning how he felt standing over a 6-footer to decide a Ryder Cup.
That may explain why I barked at a TV producer the first night I did color on a college basketball game way back in 1988. The first thing he said to me when we sat down to talk about the telecast was, “Now you’ll admit you don’t know the x’s and o’s of the game like a player or a coach, so…”
I cut him off right there. “Excuse me,” I said. “I just spent a year watching every practice, sitting in on every coaches’ meeting, watching from the bench, being in huddles and in the locker room, before, during and after every game with Bob Knight. I watched tape with him—often just the two of us—and discussed his thoughts while he watched. I’ve also watched every important coach in the game run practice and talked at length with all of them. You don’t think I can explain the motion offense or recognize a zone-trap? Are you nuts?”
I now do about 25 games a year on TV. I know neither ESPN nor CBS would ever hire me to do color. (For the record, at this point in my life, I wouldn’t want to work for either; the travel would kill me). Why won’t the big guys hire me? Because I never played the game—or coached it. I can tell you flat out I’m better on TV than almost everyone either network employs, but it doesn’t matter.
You can say that’s ego talking and that’s fine. But I know it’s true. I never played the games at the highest levels but I sure as hell KNOW the games. And I know the people in the games—quite well.
Just like Howard Cosell did then and Brandel Chamblee does now. For the record, Vin Scully never played baseball beyond high school. He was his own analyst on Dodger games for 67 years. He never played the game. Was there anyone who knew the game better than Scully?
I think not.
John Feinstein’s most recent non-fiction book, “The Legends Club—Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Valvano and the story of an epic college basketball rivalry,”—spent six months on The New York Times bestseller list in hardcover and has recently been on the Times list in paperback. His new book, “The First Major—The Inside Story of the 2016 Ryder Cup,”—will be published in October. He won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for mystery writing in the Young Adult category for his kids myster, “Last Shot,–Mystery at The Final Four,” and has been inducted into four sports and writing Halls of Fame.