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SERVING THE GAME
Catching Up with New National Team Head Coach Chris Zambri October 31, 2023 | Liberty Corner, N.J. By David Shefter, USGA

For the past two decades, coaching, specifically at the college level, has been the fabric of Chris Zambri's DNA. (Pepperdine University) 

Southern California native Chris Zambri, 52, officially became the first coach of the newly created U.S. National Development Program as of November 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.

During his professional playing days, Chris Zambri qualified for a pair of U.S. Opens in 1995 and 1999. (USGA/JD Cuban)

Q. Having played professionally at a high level and then coached a number of players who have succeeded, does that relate well to kids and especially their parents when recruiting and working with them in a national team setting?

Zambri: To be able to fill in some blanks when having a discussion with a player and create a level of credibility or empathy for what they are going through is critical. Because if you play golf long enough and get to a point where you’re able to play high-level college golf or high-level amateur or professional golf, so many experiences [relate] to what these young players are going to live through. To be able to relate to them on that level is really important to establish credibility and establish some trust. Time is such an important factor, too. I’m 52 now and I’ve been crazed with golf since I was about 14, 15. To do it just about every day for [nearly] 40 years you gain a lot of knowledge.

Q. You not only are a coach but also a father of an elite college golfer as Joey, your son, has qualified for a couple of U.S. Amateurs, including the 2023 championship at Cherry Hills. How has that process helped your development as a coach?

Zambri: I’ve seen it from both sides. I learned a great deal from the dad side. I learned a lot about golf just through the process of taking someone who literally had never played up until the point where they are a Division I college golfer [at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo]. And to be able to see that process and experience the inevitable highs and lows that come with trying to become great at something ... it’s been great in all ways. Informative. Fulfilling. All that. It was a good experience for me as a coach. There’s a level of empathy required for young golfers and their parents. Coming into this role, it helps me know how challenging it can be to figure out the next best step. For so many families, it’s unbelievably difficult. And I guess one piece of advice would be that, if they don’t think it’s difficult, they are probably not making great decisions.  

Q. Given that golf has seen a lot of growth coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, is this a great time to be starting a national program?

Zambri: It’s amazing. Whether this was COVID-related or whatever it was, golf seems to be on a roll right now. I’ve spoken to people who own golf-retail stores and business is booming. It’s a great time to be in golf. In the end, it’s pretty easy to sum up what we’re trying to do here, which is to help young players be better. It doesn’t go much deeper than that. Maybe there are 5 or 10 important decisions that a young golfer makes between the time they take it up and when they become elite. If we can help guide people in that decision-making process and push them in the right direction, we can take this advantage we have in numbers and turn it into a huge advantage in results.

Q. What kind of feedback have you heard from not only young talent you’re recruiting but also from the periphery about what the USGA is trying to accomplish?

Zambri: The feedback has been amazing. There’s a ton of interest in the program. Not a lot of information has been put out yet, but it will be coming really soon. I think there’s a lot of people sitting back and waiting to see what we do. I get that feeling when I talk to a lot of college coaches. Part of them are wondering how this is going to work out. But no matter where you stand, if you ask them if young people could use some help to navigate the process, that would be fairly unanimous. A lot of them have instructors and coaches, but not everybody does. We want to be able to help in every and all ways. We’ll probably not be too involved when they’re just starting [to play], but once they establish themselves and get serious about it and adept, our job is to help shepherd them, along with others in their life, to compete at the highest level.

Q. Is the ultimate goal to develop the next generation of professional stars or just enjoy the game at an elite amateur level?

Zambri: That’s a good question. We’re just trying to turn out great players, whether they be [career] amateur golfers or professionals. We want to identify the best players and get them the help they need. We’re just about making our players better.