Hanging Tough The author, still recovering from a family tragedy, took a giant step forward by making the playoff at the Nissan Open

March 05, 2001

I'll remember at least three things about the six-man playoff at
last week's Nissan Open: It was cold, it was rainy and it was
over quickly. Before I could tap in my par putt on the first
extra hole, Robert Allenby had won the tournament with one of the
greatest birdies I've ever seen. He striped a drive and a
three-wood on Riviera Country Club's tough 18th hole, just as I
had. Except my shot, which was going right at the flag, stuck in
the soggy left fringe while his skipped to within six feet. I
rolled my putt close for a sure par. Robert made a great putt to
win. A 3 in those conditions was unreal. I couldn't feel bad. I
shook his hand when he went by his locker afterward and told him,
"You stud!"

Officially, I tied for second. Unofficially, I would call this my
comeback. Last year had been a nightmare for my family, and this
year I hadn't even made a cut. For the Chamblees, the only
highlight of 2001 had been the birthday party we held at our
Scottsdale, Ariz., home in January for our four-year-old son,
Brandel Jr. It was a pirate-themed party, and every kid received
a hat, an eye patch, a sword and a stuffed parrot to put on his
shoulder. Forty kids with plastic swords had lawsuit written all
over it, but the only incident was when Kirk Triplett's son, Sam,
swung a bat at the pinata and hit his twin, Conor, in the face on
his follow-through.

My wife, Karen, and I went all out. We hired two guys who dressed
as pirates and put on an amazing animal show. They had talking
birds, birds that rode a horse as it jumped over a dog, a dog who
jumped over the horse, and dogs who rode in radio-controlled
cars. The showstopper was a poodle who climbed on a bike and
pedaled around my yard. I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't
seen it.

We also had a treasure hunt. I buried the treasure in the bunker
that's next to the practice green in my backyard and gave the
kids a clue as to where to find the treasure maps I had also
hidden. The maps eventually led them to the bunker, where 40
children splashed around in the sand until they had uncovered
the chest filled with jewels. (Memo to IRS: The jewels weren't
real.) It was sheer chaos, and it was wonderful. "That was a
great party," one of my friends said, "but now all our kids are
going to want a birthday party just like that. Thanks a lot." I
suggested to Karen that perhaps we had gone a little overboard.
"He's our only child," she said firmly. "I want to celebrate his
life after everything that has happened."

Little B (that's what we call Brandel Jr.) wasn't an only child
last August. I recorded on video his visit to the hospital to
meet his newborn brother, Braeden Joseph Chamblee. Karen was
concerned that Little B would be jealous about being replaced as
the center of attention, since he had been the king of our house
for 3 1/2 years. So she bought a present for Braeden to give
Little B and had B get a present to give Braeden. That was a
special moment. I'll never forget Little B leaving the hospital
half-singing, "I love my brother, I love my brother," and
excitedly telling me how he was going to teach Braeden to play
tennis and golf and baseball and lots of other things. "Daddy,"
he said, "I'll share my toys with Braeden." You know that Bible
story about it being easier for a camel to get through the eye of
a needle than it is for a rich man to get into heaven? Getting a
three-year-old to share his toys ranks with the camel. At that
moment, I was pretty damn proud.

Karen's physician had had a talk with us after Little B was born.
"I won't deliver your next baby," she had warned Karen. "You need
to go to a high-risk birth doctor because the next time, you
could die." Karen has a genetic condition that can cause her
uterus to rupture during pregnancy and prevents her from carrying
a baby to term. Brandel Jr. had been one month premature.

That was enough for me. I told Karen, "I'll adopt, but I won't
risk you." Karen fought me for two years. Every weekend she'd
say, "I want to get pregnant." I'd say, "Didn't you hear that
lady say you might die?" Karen knew the risks. How can you say no
to a woman like that? How can you say no to your wife and think
you're going to win? I finally gave in. I hoped her doctor was
simply overreacting. As it turned out, she was right on the
money.

Sean Murphy, a Tour player who lives in our area and is a good
friend, isn't usually speechless. When he called to congratulate
me on Braeden's birth, I had to tell him that Braeden had died
after nine days and that, in fact, his wake would be held that
very night. What can you say at a time like that? Not much. But
that night Murph showed up. Everybody at the wake was talking and
grieving and crying. Then Murph held up his arms for quiet.

"When I talked to Brandel today, I was calling to congratulate
him," said Murph. "I didn't know Braeden had passed away. At
first I was mad. I thought, God, how can you do this to my
buddy? Then, the more I thought about it, the more I realized
that Braeden is exactly where everybody in this room wants to
be. That's what we have ahead of us. That's our goal. We have to
live our lives right so we can get there to see Braeden."

I believe that may have been the best recovery I've ever seen.

Karen had given herself shots every day for eight months to try
to get pregnant. You should have seen the black-and-blue marks on
her legs. She was so determined, but we didn't have any luck.
Finally, during last year's Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, Karen went
to a clinic for a procedure similar to in vitro fertilization. It
takes a week to find out whether the procedure works. During the
second round of the following week's Phoenix Open, I ran into
Karen as I was coming off the 14th green. She had this big smile
on her face when she asked, "Do you want to know?" I said, "I
think I already do--you're pregnant, aren't you?" She said yes as
she jumped on me.

I had a hard time on the next tee. The 15th hole, a par-5 at the
TPC in Scottsdale, has water on the left and desert on the right.
I backed off two or three times, trying to focus. Finally, I
ripped a drive right down the middle and then hit a great shot
onto the island green to about 10 feet. I was paired with Mike
Weir, who had hit it to 15 feet and made his putt for eagle. I
was standing over mine thinking, I can't believe Karen is
pregnant. I wasn't thinking about what I was doing, but the putt
went in anyway. I walked over to Weir and said, "My eagle is
better than your eagle." How's that, he asked? I told him I had
found out my wife was pregnant before I hit my tee shot. He
started laughing. "You're right," he said. "Yours is better."

How not to spend your summer vacation: When Karen went to the
hospital for a prenatal checkup the week before the U.S. Open,
her doctor, fearing that she was in danger of losing the baby,
decided to confine her to a hospital bed for the duration of her
pregnancy, more than three months. She wouldn't even be able to
go home. Karen was crushed because she was looking forward to
Pebble Beach. We had gotten married under the Lone Cypress tree a
month after the '92 Open. She asked for permission to join me in
California, but her doctor said no. When I called her on Tuesday
night from the Open, she gave me the bad news. She was crying. I
was crying.

I played a practice round the next day, and Larry Moody, a friend
who is the Tour's Bible-study leader, had been tipped off about
Karen. He wanted to say a prayer with me, so we stood in the
middle of the 4th fairway, the mist blowing in--we could hardly
see the green--and he put both hands on my shoulders. He made up
this prayer, off the cuff, asking the Lord to watch over Karen
and to give the three of us strength to endure this turmoil. It
was poetic. I was crying by the time he finished.

I called Karen that night, and she was upbeat and excited. A
brown Labrador retriever had spent the day in her hospital room.
It was the Happy Dog, a pet used to cheer up patients. Karen
loves dogs. We have two at home, and she treats them like people.
The turnaround in her attitude was dramatic. It seemed almost as
if a prayer had been answered.

I wasn't there for Braeden's birth. Because of Karen's uncertain
situation, I scheduled only one corporate outing all summer--on
Aug. 7, the Monday after the International outside Denver.
Karen's doctor assured me before I left that nothing was about to
happen. Guess what? I made it to the 4th tee before I got word
that the doctor needed to induce labor. I rushed to the airport
and was at the hospital by one o'clock, but Braeden, two months
premature, had arrived at 10 a.m. He cried when he was born.
Karen and her brother, who was with her, heard him. That was the
only noise my son ever made...and I missed it.

Two days after Karen had given birth she was far bigger than
when she was pregnant. Her body was swollen. All hell had broken
loose. They rushed Karen in for X-rays. She could have died
right then and there, I learned later. She was in septic shock.
Her heart and lungs were enlarged, she had a fever of
106[Degrees], and there was a chance of an embolism in one of
her lungs.

I would cringe every time the doctors came to take her vital
signs and temperature, which hit 41.1[Degrees]C once--I didn't
know what that equated to; I just knew it was dangerous. She got
better after they switched her to a different antibiotic, but it
still took a day and a half to get out of the scary zone. With
Karen improving, I went to see Braeden, who apparently was doing
fine. They were about to take him off intravenous fluids, they
said, and we would be able to take him home in a week. That was
five days after he was born.

I went home to get some rest, and that night the hospital called
to tell me that Braeden had had a reaction to his feeding, which
was bad news. The doctors said he had NEC (necrotizing
enterocolitis, an intestinal inflammation in response to feeding
that is common in premature babies). They waited two days for the
inflammation to subside before performing surgery, hoping that
would help. It didn't. Braeden didn't have any good lower
intestine left.

I was talking to him two hours before the surgery when he
suddenly turned and looked me right in the eye. That was the
first time I'd ever seen Braeden open his eyes. I'll always
remember that moment.

The doctors told us what to expect when it was time to take
Braeden off the life-support lines on his ninth day. It's scary
knowing you're going to watch someone die. I asked if Braeden was
in pain, and the doctor said, "No, he's full of morphine." My mom
and dad were there, along with two of our closest friends. Karen
and I took turns holding Braeden and keeping him warm after he
was unhooked. Every 10 minutes a doctor was required to come in
and check Braeden's pulse. After 30 or 40 minutes, which somehow
seemed terribly long and terribly short at the same time, if that
makes any sense, the doctor returned for one last check. "He's
gone," he said quietly.

It took me three nights to write Braeden's eulogy. Each night I
worked on it, I was a sobbing mess by the time I went to bed. The
one thing I could give my son after he was gone, the only thing,
really, was a beautiful funeral. It was held at our church, St.
Bernard of Clairvaux Catholic Church. I talked about lullabies in
the eulogy and how they come around only three times in your
life. You hear them as a child, you sing them to your children
and, if you're lucky, you sing them to your grandchildren. I
never got the chance to sing Braeden a lullaby.

That's the hardest thing, thinking about what might have been.
Karen, who has recovered from a follow-up operation she had six
weeks ago, and I are still putting the pieces back together. I
play golf for a living, so at some point I had to get back out on
Tour. The grief still hits me. I get emotional every day thinking
about Braeden. I felt it walking up 18 at Riviera during the
playoff. It would be nice, I was thinking, to have him in a
picture so that 10 years from now I could say, "Yeah, Braeden,
that's you right there--beside the Nissan Open trophy." That would
have been nice to share with him.

I keep telling Karen--and reminding myself--to be thankful for what
we have. Little B is a joy, a gift from God. I truly believe we
have been blessed.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY J.D. CUBAN Chamblee hadn't made a cut all season but found his game in soggy L.A. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY J.D. CUBAN NO. 1 FAN Karen, six weeks removed from surgery, watched Brandel at Riviera. COLOR PHOTO: BOB MARTIN TOY STORY Chamblee was proud that Brandel Jr. (with Karen at the '99 Masters) was willing to share with his baby brother.

When Sean Murphy called to congratulate me on Braeden's birth, I
had to tell him that Braeden had passed away.

I get emotional every day thinking about Braeden. I felt it
walking up 18 at Riviera during the playoff.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)