Bobby Clampett: The detour of a phenom


The detour of a phenom
Twenty years ago Bobby Clampett was poised to soar to great heights, but his can't-miss career was rerouted into a puzzling trip of unmet expectations

By Bill Fields Golf World

Plenty of professional golfers misplace their talent from time to time, but after hitting 300 balls, trying two dozen putting strokes, sitting through six sessions with a sports psychologist or having one conversation with a spouse who reminds them how much the mortgage is, they usually find it. Sometimes, they don't.

There is no reason to feel sorry for a healthy 41-year-old man who has a wife and three children, a comfortable home and a steady, well-paying job on network television describing how other people play golf. It's a nice life, a lucky life. Bobby Clampett owns a resolute faith, a six-seat Piper Malibu that can fly at 25,000 feet, a head full of curly hair and memories of the once-upon-a-time when he was going to be the world's next great golfer.

It is completely appropriate, though, to ponder what happened, especially with a new generation of grooved swings and great expectations -- much like Clampett's -- hitting the tour. Listening to Clampett work as an announcer for CBS, it is difficult for a viewer to tell what kind of golfer he once was. From his perch on a tower at one of the closing holes, he rarely brags and seldom dissects a player who has blundered. Occasionally he'll reach for a cliché or impose an aviation term on the audience. As do many announcers, he has a supply of pet phrases. "Unforced error" is one of his favorites.

Two decades since Clampett struck golf shots with dictatorial authority -- the sound alone made oldtimers recall Ben Hogan -- he thinks about the swing every day. Clampett lives in Cary, N.C., not far from Research Triangle Park, where many high-tech ideas are hatched. His own are still fermenting. "I enjoy the challenge of continually figuring it out," he says. "When I practice these days, I usually have a video camera with me. Some people say, 'What are you bothering to do that for?' "

The answer is fairly simple. "I was asking him not long ago if he wanted to be remembered as Bobby the announcer or Bobby the golfer," says Lee Martin, Clampett's first golf instructor, "and he didn't hesitate."

Bobby the golfer was a young man without peer, someone who had all the shots, the touch and the drive to become the best. "He was a notch above everybody else," says contemporary Bob Tway, the 1986 PGA champion. "I remember talking to him once, and he was saying that he never thought he really hit the ball that well. I had to call him on that. I never saw anybody hit the ball better."

Clampett beat Tway in an epic extra-holes match in the semifinals of the 1978 Western Amateur at Point O' Woods G&CC in Benton Harbor, Mich. In the final, Clampett squared off against Mark Wiebe, who led through seven holes. No. 8, a tight par 4 of about 270 yards, was within reach with a bold tee shot. Clampett took out his driver. "I remember it clearly," says Wiebe. "I took a big gulp when his ball left the tee. That hole was as narrow as a lane at a bowling alley. He just hit a rope."

A skinny 18-year-old from Carmel, Calif., who was enjoying one of the best summers an amateur ever had, Clampett hit a shot that never left the flag. It flirted with going in. Clampett made an eagle, won the hole, and went on to take the match. "I was focused in," Clampett says, smiling at the memory. "Tiger [Woods] talks about this. I always had it. You absolutely picture the swing and the feel and visualize the shot."

When Clampett was 10, he hit balls until his hands were raw in order to learn a particular shot. In a couple of years, he'd worn down the grooves in a set of irons. "First time I'd ever seen that," says Martin, who taught him for three years. When Clampett was 13, he met Ben Doyle, an instructor who swore by The Golfing Machine by Homer Kelley, a revolutionary book that explained the swing in terms of physics and geometry, broke it down into 24 components, and detailed a cause and effect for everything. Its subtitle is "The Computer Age Approach To Golfing Perfection."

   "He wanted to get things real quick. And he was a mix of confidence and a belief that he had a lot to learn." -- Former BYU golf coach Karl Tucker
It was gospel to Doyle, and it became the road map for Clampett, who came by his analytical bent naturally. His father, Robert, who died when he was 11, was an aviation engineer. The book, first published in 1969, is filled with technical terms, and it is not for everyone. In the preface, Kelley urges readers to be open-minded to the scientific terminology. "After all," he writes, "complexity is far more acceptable and workable than mystery is."

Accepting and mastering the complexity, Clampett became a young legend around the Monterey Peninsula. He won two California Amateurs. At Brigham Young University, he was a three-time All-American and twice winner of the Fred Haskins Award, college golf's Heisman Trophy. Karl Tucker, who coached BYU's golf team from 1961-1992, hadn't encountered another golfer quite like him.

The team would hit balls in a football practice field adjacent to Smith Fieldhouse on campus. From his office, Tucker had a good view. In two hours, Clampett would hit just 25 balls, each shot preceded by phantom swings, position checks, analysis fit for a science lab. Although no one was going to mistake Clampett for Sam Snead as he settled, machine-like, into a shot -- his right elbow quivering until it was set just so, his back tilting, his head shifting--he wasn't without flair.

"He was phenomenal," says Mike Holder, the longtime coach at Oklahoma State University. "He was a shotmaker who had a great short game. He had everything." If Tucker told his No. 1 player that the team needed a really low score, Clampett would deliver. "If we needed a 65, Bobby would shoot 65," Tucker says. "He was magic."

Oct. 6, 1982 issue of Golf World
After three seasons at BYU, in the summer of 1980, Clampett turned pro. The precocious kid who could hit shots 200 yards left-handed off his knees was going to bring the competition to theirs. Clampett seemed inoculated from the vagaries of a fickle game, or was he? But if you listened closely, there were storm clouds. "I'm probably more of a student of the game than I am a player," he said early in his pro career.

No one knew so at the time, but the 1982 British Open at Royal Troon, on Scotland's west coast, would be the beginning of the end of Clampett's path to greatness. The man with the enviable lag in his downswing, the delayed hit that golfers craved, would get in a hurry--to seize the championship that week, to modify his swing soon thereafter. "I think Bobby was always an impatient guy because he grew up without a father," says Tucker. "He wanted to get things real quick. And he was a mix of confidence and a belief that he had a lot to learn. In college, he'd come into my office after having done something goofy, and say, 'I know you're going to chew my ass out, but before I leave tell me you love me and that everything is going to be okay.' "

At Troon, from a 67-66 start and a five-stroke lead through 36 holes, Clampett enlarged his lead to seven strokes after five holes of the third round. Then, at the par-5, 577-yard sixth hole, he drove into a fairway bunker. Trying to advance the ball far enough down the fairway to reach the green in three shots, he played boldly and caught the lip, the ball settling not far away in a nearby bunker. From there he repeated the mistake, staggered to the green and carded a triple-bogey 8 on a birdie hole. Clampett's lead and spirit had been sliced considerably.

"That was a critical mistake," says Nick Price, who was paired with Clampett for the final two rounds and had his own problems over the closing few holes Sunday, handing the championship to Tom Watson. "Up until he didn't get out of that bunker, he had played perfectly. All of a sudden, his confidence was questioned. That 8 seemed to take all the confidence out of him."

After his torrid start, Clampett closed with 78-77 and tied for 10th place. His breakthrough trip to Britain, which had bulged with long interviews with an intrigued press corps and photo ops with his girlfriend and future wife, Ann Mebane, turned to disappointment. "I feel very sorry for Bobby," Watson said after collecting the claret jug for the fourth time. "He may be crying right now, but I've cried before, and he'll learn to be tough."

Instead of chalking up his troubles to nerves or inexperience or pressure -- "Sometimes you can go from shooting 65 to 75 and the problem isn't your swing," says Tway -- Clampett blamed his technique.

"I was hitting too many shots a day that were costing me," he says now. "My swing relied too much on timing, and I had some compensating moves going on. Essentially, I was too steep coming into the ball." At first Clampett stuck with Doyle, who was worried about Clampett's attitude, not his mechanics. "Bobby's problem at Troon was that he lost respect for the golf course," Doyle says. "He got a little greedy. Bobby thought he knew it all. One time he played a round with Jack Nicklaus, and he told me he didn't watch a shot Jack hit. Well, that's a lack of respect. You watch Jack Nicklaus, and you learn something."

By the end of 1984, Clampett's fourth full year on the PGA Tour, he expanded his search to improve. Enthralled with the way his good friend Mark O'Meara had modified his swing working with instructor Hank Haney, Clampett turned to Haney. Soon he would work with Jimmy Ballard and supplement that help with what fellow players, who were always intrigued by The Golfing Machine, had to offer. In contrast to the lone-wolf personality that has been the hallmark of many of the best golfers, Clampett was a gregarious, friendly man eager to listen. When his game deteriorated, the cocksure attitude that had marked his brilliant play was replaced by uncertainty.

"He got the ultimate case of rabbit ears," says respected instructor Chuck Cook. "Everybody started giving him advice. He got to where he wasn't sure what to believe and began using a combination of things in his swing that didn't fit together." Bogged down by too many swing thoughts, Clampett floundered, his swing an awkward parody of the clinically precise action it had been. "He had more moves than an erector set," was Ballard's ignominious appraisal.

An unquenchable quest to get better, which always had been as much a part of Clampett as his Harpo Marx hair and his breadstick build, helped make him a prodigy. But that same desire ultimately worked against him and made him little more than a puzzled plodder.

   "Was I really good? Compared to what? Tiger Woods? I don't think so. To half the players on tour? Maybe. But I knew my potential, and I wasn't reaching it." -- Bobby Clampett
"I thought that with the swing I had, I couldn't be the best player in the world," Clampett says. "There were two ways I could go: I could stick with what I had and be satisfied with second best, or I could try to make some monumental changes to get to the next level. That is just part of my nature." Clampett was 14th and 17th on the money list in 1981 and '82, but was dissatisfied. "That wasn't my comfort zone. Was I really good? Really good compared to what? Tiger Woods? I don't think so. To when I was a junior? Yeah. To half the other players on tour? Maybe. But I knew what my potential was, and I wasn't reaching it."

Unlike Ralph Guldahl before him and Ian Baker-Finch after him, the two men who authored golf's most infamous disappearing acts, Clampett didn't have a major title before he started tinkering. If Price could go back 20 years, he would tell Clampett to infuse into his swing a bit more rhythm, one more similar to his demeanor. "Bobby had a real slow backswing, which is okay," says Price, "but most great players swing the way they walk and talk. Bobby walked one way and swung another." Holder, who is a devotee of The Golfing Machine, believes Clampett gave too much credit to the book and Doyle. "A player has to constantly build his belief system," Holder says. "A player has to take responsibility for what goes on inside the ropes, and he needs to take all the credit when he plays well."

If, 20 years ago, someone had predicted the agate summary of Clampett's PGA Tour career would be what it is -- 387 events, 33 top-10s, six second-place finishes, only one victory -- he would have been accused of not knowing his golf. But that's the record, the lone win coming at the 1982 Southern Open just a few months after his collapse at Troon. Wearing the same gray plus twos, argyle socks and white shoes he'd worn on that disappointing Sunday in Scotland, Clampett closed with a 64 to defeat Hale Irwin by two strokes. "I had people saying the reason I had lost the British Open was because of the stupid knickers," he says. "I was always against superstitions, and I wanted to make a point. I don't know what happened to that outfit. I think it went to Goodwill."

When Clampett was unsuccessfully trying to recycle his game, he kept his angst in check. "Bobby has always been a positive person," says Wiebe. "He wouldn't walk around with his head down thinking his life had ended. But to go from being as great as he was to struggling like he did had to be tough." When Clampett got the chance to work fulltime for CBS in 1995, he had no reservations. "With great players," Clampett says, "there is almost something wrong with them. They've got tunnel vision. There isn't much roundedness in their life."

It is a brilliant December morning in North Carolina, the air clear and warming. If Clampett decides to hit some balls later, he'll only need a lightweight sweater. He is caring for his wife, Ann, who is recovering from recent surgery, and minding their children, Katelyn, 14, Daniel, 12, and Michael, 10. The kids want to measure themselves, and Clampett points them to a closet where there are already some marks on the wall. These days Michael is going at the piano the way Bobby went at golf when he was a boy -- practicing without being prodded, eager to learn something new, thirsting to get better.

Ann and Daniel have just taken up golf. "My wife's got a backswing to die for," Clampett says. "On plane, rotated, the clubface is absolutely perfect. It's so natural for her. I just sit there and marvel. My older son is the same way. Of course, they haven't gone to the extent of working on their games and learning the downswing yet, either one of them, but when they do, it's going to be fun to watch."

He has an eye on the new wave of can't-miss kids flowing onto the tour -- players such as Charles Howell III, David Gossett and Ty Tryon--who are as eager to make their mark as he was a generation ago. "Some people were shocked that Ty was able to qualify for the tour at 17, but I'm not really surprised," he says. "With better understanding of the swing and more training, we're setting the stage for kids to have more success. Golf has transitioned into a mechanical art form, or as The Golfing Machine says, it's about translating the mechanics into feel."

When Clampett's peers who are still on tour -- men who saw him soar and struggle -- glimpse him in the TV tower, they have mixed feelings. "I really felt sorry for him because he had all the ingredients," says Price, who recovered from his Troon disappointment to win three major championships. "It's terrible when everything you believe in and everything that has worked stops working. But it happens all the time in golf -- very few golfers go through life without trouble in their swings or their short games. It depends on how you deal with those things."

But what of the new breed of barely legal golfers loaded with length, potential and expectations? When they see Clampett, should they be seeing something more than a man in a headset talking behind a sheet of Plexiglas? "Could they learn something from what happened to me?" Clampett says. "That's a good question." He pauses for a couple of seconds, as long as the trademark pause he used to make before beginning his backswing. "Probably not. Because every person is so different, he has to make his own decisions, has to figure out what his goals are, who he is, the way he's made up. You put 10 players in the same situation I was in 20 years ago, a couple would do what I did. But most of them are going to do like Bruce Lietzke -- just keep going, not try making any changes, stick with what they've got. Neither way is right and neither way is wrong."

Clampett's equananimous view of golf comes from his religion and his experiences on and off the golf course. He believes it takes more strength to stand up to a slump than to lift a trophy, and compared to the punch he discovered real life could deliver, golf wasn't very important. In September of 1986, when his golf game was already a maze of mixed messages, he endured the death of the couple's first child, Sara Elizabeth, a few days after she was born. "That event changed me in a lot of ways," he says. "I ran to God for answers. I started studying the Bible. What was revealed gave me a much healthier perspective on life. I looked at things in a totally different way."

He still loves golf, and hopes one day, when the kids are out of the house and he is eligible for the Senior PGA Tour, it will love him again. "If Bobby could get an exemption on the regular tour right now," says Doyle, "he could be very successful. He'd have to work at it, but it's all in there." Clampett trades e-mails about the swing with Martin and has renewed his friendship with Doyle, but he goes to the range alone. "The last four or five years," Clampett says, "I've actually made more progress working on my own."

After improbably qualifying to compete in the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach Golf Links, where as a 22-year-old he had finished third behind Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus in the '82 Open, Clampett -- competing for the second time in 21 months -- went out in the first round and didn't miss a green or a fairway while going four under par through 10 holes. It was textbook golf, that sweet blending he was always looking for, the way ice cream becomes a shake. He got on the leader board, dabbed tears from his eyes, finished with a 68 and reminded everyone of an earlier time.

"Life is made of dreams," Bobby the golfer told reporters that afternoon, "and a lot of dreams have happened on the golf course."

Clampett doesn't talk much these days about what might have been, but he doesn't have to. If he thinks he made an unforced error along the way, he's not saying.

Great story

Bobby still has game.
He has appealed the ruling

Clampett fails to qualify for U.S. Open
WALLACE, N.C. (AP) — Television analyst Bobby Clampett failed to qualify for the U.S. Open on Wednesday when he was given a 2-stroke penalty for being late to his tee time.

A former PGA Tour player, Clampett appealed the ruling that forced him to a four-man playoff for the final two spots out of local qualifying at River Landing. He expects to hear Thursday from the USGA.

Clampett was eliminated from the playoff when he made double bogey on the second hole.

Earlier, starter Barry Bruggers announced Clampett's threesome on time at 1:42 p.m., and ruled that Clampett was not there, although Clampett insisted he was only about 25 yards away from the tee.

"I don't think that that is the proper interpretation of the rule," Clampett said. "I did not know that rule, I did not know it was that cut and dry."

Tournament officials huddled with Clampett for about 40 minutes when he completed his round before deciding he deserved the penalty.

"He actually got there before anyone pulled the trigger," said Ray Novicki, tournament director and assistant director of the Carolinas Golf Association. "That's his contention, that he was on time. But he wasn't."

Former U.S. Amateur champ Nick Flanagan of Australia had the low round of the day with a 64, followed by Ryan Gioffre with a 65


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