Southern California native Chris Zambri, 52, officially becomes the first coach of the newly created U.S. National Development Program on Nov 1. A former standout at the University of Southern California, Zambri spent the last two decades coaching in college, first at his alma mater for 14 seasons (12 NCAA appearances) and then as the associate head coach at Pepperdine University, where he helped the Waves win the 2021 NCAA title and reach the semifinals a year later.
While at USC, he coached several well-known players, including 2007 NCAA individual champion and 2007 Walker Cup competitor Jamie Lovemark, three-time U.S. Mid-Amateur champion and four-time Walker Cupper Stewart Hagestad, current PGA Tour player Justin Suh and current professionals Rico Hoey and Sean Crocker.
USGA senior staff writer David Shefter chatted with Zambri about his new role, his expectations for the USGA’s U.S. National Development Program and his coaching style, among other topics.
Q. What intrigued you most about the position?
Zambri: I just enjoy helping golfers get better. That’s what I find really fun. Whether I was coaching a high school team or a college team or involved in coaching great players from all over the United States, it still comes down to the same thing: looking at a player’s game and trying to find ways to help them shoot lower scores. I just find that fascinating and interesting. I don’t want to dramatize it, but it’s a historic thing to happen in America to have a program like this. And to be able to be part of it is a huge honor. All those things made it really appealing to go after.
Q. Is there something about starting from scratch on the ground floor versus entering an already-established program?
Zambri: It makes it a lot different. There’s a lot more planning and preparing and a lot of decision-making that goes into what the USGA has decided to take on. As a coach, you are always going to bring your own version of what you want your college program to stand for, so there’s a lot of thinking and planning that goes into that. But this is on a much bigger scale.
Q. Is there a difference between coaching junior players and college players? Especially those collegians who have plenty of competitive experience as well as a mature factor in terms of course management and other intangibles?
Zambri: What’s interesting is high-level pros are still asking those tough questions: when to be aggressive, when to be very conservative … those are really tough questions. Luckily, in my life, I’ve played a lot of golf, but it didn’t necessarily lead me to the right answers. There’s been a lot of information in the last 10 years that’s been put out on a more-encompassing strategy or system to make decision. And that’s led to improved golf around the world.
Q. As a college coach, you have to get out and identify talent or potential recruits and then nurture them once they get on campus. Did that experience at USC and Pepperdine prepare you for this current role?
Zambri: It’s very similar. It’s a combination of so many things that will go into making those assessments. There’s all kinds of data-driven ways of making decisions on where a player’s game is, and there’s the eye test and watching and trying to weigh one alongside the other. I really feel the latter – the eye test – can be a little more deceiving than just following the numbers. The process is the same. The only difference for a college-level player is that you’re making those decisions, and creating a list.. We shouldn’t have to battle getting players at the top of the list to come on board if we do our jobs right.
Q. This is obviously the first foray into a national program here in the U.S. But for many years, other countries have invested in developmental programs and the results prove that the investments are worth it. Where does America have to go to get on par with those other nations?
Zambri: It’s definitely a long time coming. The USGA has made a huge decision by saying we want to take on this type of program. The one thing is, the U.S. is always in a position of strength in numbers. We have more people than just about any country out there who love and play a lot of golf. With that, I imagine that we’re going to be competitive from the get-go... But seeing all these other countries having success by drawing out of a smaller pool [of golfers], you would think we’d be able to have a similar level of success — if not more — by drawing out of a bigger pool. I spoke to someone recently from another federation and he told me if the U.S. ever figured this stuff out, they’d be in trouble. We’re hoping to make the right moves to make that a reality.
Q. Once you begin, what is priority No. 1 for Chris Zambri as the head coach of the USNDP?
Zambri: Since I haven’t [officially] started yet, I am not sure what [managing director player relations and development] Heather [Daly-Donofrio] or Dr. Beth Brown (senior player development advisor) have in mind yet. Just from the calls that I have been a part of so far, it’s going to be trying to identify the best players in the country at ages as young as 12 and13 all the way up to 20-plus, and then start figuring our next move with them. There’s also a grant program that will be opening up soon. Folks like Heather Daly-Donofrio, Liz Fradkin (senior director, player relations), Scott Langley (senior director, player relations) and now Dr. Beth Brown — they’ve all been putting in a lot of work, along with BJ Delong (director, data and technology for USNDP). My job is to just catch up and support them in any way possible.
Q. Have you talked to coaches with other national programs to glean information?
Zambri: We’re entering a space where others have been and had success. It sounds like other folks who run these other programs are eager to have the U.S. in the space. They’ve been extremely giving and helpful with their time, like allowing us the opportunity to attend some of their training camps. But it’s interesting … it’s not just talking to golf federations, but all kinds of federations [in other sports]. Trying to collaborate, for instance, with the USTA (U.S. Tennis Association) to ask them for best practices, and things to try and implement and things to maybe avoid. There’s a lot of knowledge out there that we need to seek because we are just getting going.
Q. What are your strengths as a coach?
Zambri: I like to form decisions on what I see and then measure where a particular player excels and where he or she can improve. Some of those things can just be a process of elimination. If there is incredible physical skill in all areas and the results are not commensurate with what I see skill wise, then we can start making assumptions that a player has sharp mental and strategy skills. That’s what I love about this opportunity. To continue to look at people and where they are with their game and try to take the next step, which is not easy. But the more you do it, the better you get at it. That’s where my strength is. This is where a player is now, but if we did this or added this element to his or her game, they would play better. That’s assuming that nothing else changes, which is huge.