IN A business rife with mediocrity, commentator Frank Nobilo is one voice worth listening to, writes John Huggan
There weren’t many Americans in the field for the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth last week. Only two, in fact – the 2013 European Tour rookie of the year, Peter Uihlein, and Brooks Koepka. But despite that (typical) lack of trans-Atlantic participation, the Orlando-based Golf Channel did acknowledge the event’s near-elite status on the golfing calendar and sent over one of their leading broadcasters to commentate on the action.
A trip to European Tour headquarters is nothing new for Frank Nobilo, though. For a decade or so before he made the jump to the PGA Tour in 1997, the 54-year-old New Zealander was a familiar face on this side of the Atlantic and a successful one, too. As winner of five European Tour events and ten more worldwide, Nobilo played for the international side in three Presidents Cups and from 1994 to ’97 was a regular contender in major championships. Seven times in that period he finished in the top 15 at one or other of the four most important events.
“It wasn’t until I was about 35 that I believed I was good enough to play with the best,” he says. “I played my best golf in 1996, when only [Nick] Faldo and [Greg] Norman had a lower stroke average in the majors. I was a grinder. I hated to give away a shot. I was Faldo with a smile. I would see a hard par-4 and grind out a par. [Five times Open champion] Peter Thomson told me once that if you can par the hard holes and birdie the easy holes, you will score well. That’s simple and logical, but it is so true in the majors.
“The 1996 US Open at Oakland Hills was my best chance to win one. I was tied for the lead or one shot back and hit a great 3-iron to the 14th green on the last day. But it took a bad bounce and finished 30 feet away. Annoyed, I had a run at the first putt and three-putted. Then I took a driver at the next hole, a short par-4, when I should have played safe, and made six.”
Had it not been that he suffers from rheumatoid arthritis – the condition forced his premature retirement from the tour in 2003 – Nobilo’s career would surely have been even more impressive.
“It goes without saying that Frank was a really good player,” says Denis Pugh, who coached the former New Zealand amateur champion for a significant chunk of his career. “He was a beautiful swinger of the club, very sound technically.
“Had it not been for his physical problems, I feel sure he would have won a major. Or at least had a few more chances. He was a supreme ball-striker, a really good iron player. His driving was very solid too. And he was a decent putter. He had guts so he tended to hole the ones he needed to hole.
“Frank could work the ball both ways. And he had the ability to hit high and low shots. He could create speed. He could find the sweet spot. So day-in, day-out he was very consistent.”
Always one of the more erudite figures in the professional game – he even managed to read the basically unreadable “Golfing Machine” instruction manual cover-to-cover – Nobilo has carried that thirst for knowledge into his new career as a broadcaster. It shows, too. Alongside his “partner in crime”, former PGA Tour player Brandel Chamblee, he routinely provides thought-provoking and insightful analysis of the professional game at the highest level.
While that shouldn’t be the exception rather than the norm, it is sad but true to say that, in a business rife with mediocrity, blandness and, increasingly, blatant self-promotion, expertise like Nobilo’s can be hard to find. Unlike so many, he has things to say – important things – about what really matters in golf.
“I’m worried about the game,” he says. “I think we have lost our way in so many aspects. Golf is too expensive. The courses are too long. We have equipment that is really designed for the recreational player, but which produces unhealthy distance for the elite players. I remember playing in pro-ams and occasionally being out-driven by an amateur. Now that never happens. Now the pros hit their 5-irons past the amateurs’ drives.
“Bottom line – the professional game has never been more divorced from the amateur game. I think that is extremely dangerous. I’m not one for bifurcation [two sets of rules] though. One of the beauties of the game should be that everyone can play. But, if we went to different equipment, we would lose that. The game wouldn’t be what it is supposed to be.
“When they started messing with St Andrews and adding yardage, the R&A lost me. Can you imagine if the All England Club did that to Wimbledon and made the centre court smaller so that the game would be more difficult? In tennis they slowed the ball down. I think we need to do the same in golf.
“I was amazed looking at Wentworth. It isn’t the course I remember playing. So any comparison between now and then has been lost. Martin Kaymer, for example, should be able to compare himself with Bernhard Langer. But he can’t. He isn’t playing the same game or the same courses.”
While he is a long way from bitter, an understandable sadness lingers within the Auckland native. At heart, he remains a player. More than a decade on from his enforced retirement, it is clearly difficult for him to watch others doing what he once did.
“I was resentful when I had to finish playing,” he admits. “I hated everything. I went through all the ‘why me?’ stuff. But I’m lucky. I fell on my feet with the job I have now. But the ‘what ifs?’ still live with me. I try to forget. But I was so angry. I had chunks of time I couldn’t fill. Every now and then I picked up a club and could play. Then days later I couldn’t move. That was so frustrating.
“I played my last event in the US in 2002, at Disney, and my last anywhere at the New Zealand Open. I shouldn’t have gone, but I did. It was in my home town. I ended up missing the cut. I thought it was going to be OK on the Tuesday when I played almost pain-free. But the next day I was like a tin of rusty nuts and bolts. I had so much pain in my wrists, elbows and shoulders.
“Even now, my wife would say I’m not really happy. And I would have to agree. I’m not sure if I’m a frustrated player or a frustrated analyst, though. I want to get better. I’ve always been anti-establishment. I still am. I speak up when things are wrong. I want the best for the game and it bothers me when that isn’t the case. Much of what is wrong today is that those who love golf don’t have a voice. We’re not hearing from them.”
No, we’re not. Nor, given the stunning combination of arrogance and ignorance in so many of the “blazers” currently running the game, is imminent change likely. They’re just not listening.