CHARLES BARKLEYbursts into the pro shop at the Hank Haney Golf Ranch in suburban Dallas, setsdown his yellow-and-black bag and works the room, gathering a few smilingemployees into the folds of his generously sized robin's-egg-blue golf shirt.As he espies a familiar face, he shakes his head and puts on a mock frown."Uh, oh, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED is here," he says. "O.K., I did it. Itook steroids. My whole career is based on steroids."
This is an article from the March 16, 2009 issue
So this is how itwill be. There will be no bowed and bloodied Barkley, no humbled and hollowshell. Over the last few months the man has been nabbed, booked, sentenced andjailed—more properly, "tented"—as a result of his DUI violation on NewYear's Eve in his hometown of Scottsdale, Ariz. At Haney's ranch, Barkley issubmitting himself to another form of public humiliation, putting on displaythe best-known bad golf swing in the world, a contorted jumble of lunges andhitches that Haney, best known for playing Socrates to Tiger Woods's Plato,will try to fix for a Golf Channel reality series appropriately entitled TheHaney Project.
It all would bemore than enough to deflate a normal man, but the 45-year-old Barkley,predictably, seems undeflatable. He has already performed his scripted act ofcontrition for his DUI, apologizing for his misdeeds—he was arrested afterfailing a field sobriety test and was found to have a blood-alcohol level of.149%, nearly twice the legal limit of .08%—when he returned to the airwaves asan NBA studio analyst on Feb. 19 after serving a six-week TNT-imposedsuspension. But for those who want to see even more public groveling andbehavior modification from Barkley, those who have long felt that the media,seduced by the man's antic charm, give him far too much of a pass, it will nothappen. The post-DUI Barkley is pretty much like the pre-DUI Barkley, with theexception of, one would hope, no more DUIs and, consequently, no more jail,though his abbreviated sentence and accommodations (three days in a spaciousoutside tent with work-release freedom on each of the last two days) did notexactly conjure up images of Shawshank.
Perhaps theBarkley haters can glean some measure of satisfaction from his travails on TheHaney Project. Barkley's struggle to find his golf game is, to be sure, A-1entertainment—the ratings for the first episode, which aired on March 2, madeit the channel's most-watched Monday-night nontournament program ever—but thereis a part of it that is no joke. Laugh and he will laugh with you, but his is,at last glance, still a Sisyphean crusade, as SI observed last week over twodays of shooting at the Haney ranch and a nearby golf course. This must besaid, though: Rarely has so much sweat and pain been accompanied by so manylaughs.
PART OF thedelight of The Haney Project is watching the contrast between the protagonists.Haney, lean and reserved, paired with Barkley, round and unrestrained,everyone's unleashed family pet. Like all reality shows, Project has itsmoments of scripted choreography ("O.K., Hank and Charles, we want you towalk in together like you're just arriving," says director Tom Farrell ofThe Workshop, the Pennsylvania-based company that is producing the show for theGolf Channel), but it is in no way a fake. Barkley's swing, pre-Haney and atits worst, was a genuine mess. After a fairly normal address, he brought theclub back far too close to his head, then began a perilously steep movementtoward the ball. As the clubhead approached the ground, Barkley stopped andhitched (up to three times) as if he were trying to pound into submission amobile army of ants.
The show'shapless hero works endlessly with one goal in mind—"If you think that I'dhit a thousand golf balls a day just for exercise," says Barkley, "thenyou have your head up your butt"—while the tutor hammers home the teachingpoints, his renown as a swing fixer very much on the line. "Tiger said tome, 'I can't believe you put your reputation on helping him,'?" Haney says,"but in a sense that's what I've done."
The specter ofWoods hangs over Project. It was at Woods's wedding to Elin Nordegren at aBarbados golf resort in October 2004 that Haney first worked with Barkley,making a few suggestions when he saw him lunging, er, swinging. Woods's jokingreplication of Barkley's hitch appeared on the first episode (Barkleypooh-poohs it, but in truth it's a fair approximation), and Tiger's barbs ringin Barkley's ears. Increasingly, Barkley doesn't have much return ammo. WhileBarkley's afflicted swing is available for scrutiny and ridicule in celebritytournaments—he finished dead last at the American Century Celebrity GolfChampionship last July—Woods doesn't shoot hoops in public. And once Tigermarried a beautiful model and started a family, Barkley's insults about Tiger'slack of social skills lost their sting. About all Barkley has is the top ofWoods's head. "Tiger has this pick he uses to try to disguise the fact thathe's going bald," Barkley says. "It's just terrible." But Woods hasa comeback even for that. When Haney tells Tiger that he instructed Barkley tolower his head at address, Woods jokes that the camera should get out of theway lest "there be a total eclipse." Often criticized for being bland,Woods could easily do 30 minutes of stand-up on his good buddy.
Having Woodsand/or Barkley's other superstar tormentor, Michael Jordan, show up to observeBarkley's presumed improvement would be the show's dream final episode. As oflast weekend, however, neither had been booked.
THE AVERAGEstudent," Haney is saying, "could not work this hard and would not workthis hard. Charles has hit over a thousand balls every day we've been together.The average player couldn't hit 200. That is attributable both to Charles'sathletic ability and his desire to get better."
During themorning session Barkley swings almost nonstop for 30 minutes at a time, movingfrom ball to ball with only a second or two pause between each swing, sometimesusing a 70-inch driver—45 is standard—so he can better feel the clubhead. Someballs are teed normally, others are waist- and chest-high, resting atopsawed-off shafts stuck in the ground. Some of the swings are accompanied bycurses, when he hits shaft instead of ball. Most of the work is geared towardchanging the plane of Barkley's fantastically flawed swing. Haney stands behindhim, running through the whole pedagogical vocabulary of reinforcement. Realgood. Niii-ce. Perfect, bud. There you go! Haney holds a long club and, like anun with a yardstick sneaking up behind a naughty schoolboy, sometimes reachesinto Barkley's swing and guides his club into the proper plane, trying tocreate an outside-in arc that replicates a counterclockwise loop. Barkley'smain malady—this is simplistic to say the least—is that his swing plane is waytoo steep. Haney believes that Barkley's head-lowering hitch, rather than beingthe source of trouble, is a necessary self-correction. "If Charles didn'tstop and hitch on the way down," Haney asks, "how would he hit theball? He would theoretically drive the club three feet into the ground."The 53-year-old Haney says this in utter amazement. His experienced eyes areaccustomed to watching an athlete with perhaps the best swing in the world takea hundred perfect ones, then, maybe on the 101st, go a trifle inside on thetakeaway. So he says, "Tiger, that was a bit inside," and the flaw iscorrected.
After lunch at abarbecue joint, a long video review and a few hundred more practice ballsprecede a supposedly casual stroll on the nine-hole executive course that rimsthe property. But lurking in everyone's mind as the cameras whir is thepossibility that Barkley's muscle memory will turn to mush. Previous excursionsto courses during filming have not gone well. Neil Hartman, a sportscaster inPhiladelphia, a longtime Barkley golfing buddy and the coordinating producerfor Project—it was Hartman's idea to put Haney and Barkley together—feels thepressure. "The last three years have sucked because, for the most part,Charles has just stopped playing," says Hartman. "That is just sad forsomeone who used to enjoy the game so much and brings so much joy to others whoplay with him."
The first hole isa short par-4. Barkley practices his looped swing with Haney looking on.Barkley does a fair takeaway and ... hitches on the downswing. And hitchesagain. The results, however, are not disastrous. Haney has also been working onclub impact and follow-through, and Barkley looks no worse than, say, a bogeygolfer, maybe even better than that because his power, when he does connect,produces prodigiously long drives. So a sense of ease comes over the round."I almost went all Christian Bale on your ass!" Barkley hollers to avideographer who gets in his sight line. An hour of video work follows, and theexhausting day that began at 9:30 ends eight hours later.
At dinner thatnight Barkley has a few drinks. He says, however, that he will no longer getbehind the wheel when he has had too much to drink, and, indeed, he does notdrive that evening. "I embarrassed a lot of people who care about me,"says Barkley. "I will pay a price and I should pay a price." But that'sthe extent of his knee scraping. "Everybody wants to be overly dramaticabout what happened," he says. "I'll be all right. When I think aboutprison, I concentrate on how tough it is for the normal person. They take yourmoney, your house and all your hope, and when you get out, you have nothing.Now, that is sad."
The dinner isnot. The restaurant is crowded, and virtually every customer coming and goingstops to shake hands with Barkley or request a cellphone shot. He is wary—theman must make a cameo on a thousand MySpace pages—but usually accedes. Later,at a Dallas watering hole, a geezer dressed in a strange Western-stylemotorcycle jacket, looking as if he might have gotten lost decades ago on hisway to a Grateful Dead gig, offers Barkley a few swing thoughts. "I getadvice from airport skycaps all the time," says Barkley, "but you knowyou really suck when a guy like that starts giving you tips."
AS BARKLEY goesthrough his swing drills the following morning at the ranch, in preparation fora visit to Indian Creek Golf Club, Anthony Kim, the talented 23-year-old Tourplayer, strides up to watch. A Dallas resident, Kim was celebrating hisgirlfriend's birthday the previous night when he ran into Barkley at the barand immediately bonded with him. (Barkley almost never goes anywhere withoutcollecting a new best friend.) On the one hand Kim, a self-confessed "NBAfreak" who as a 10-year-old in Los Angeles's Koreatown secured Barkley'sautograph at a public park, is in awe of Barkley. On the other, A.K., as he'sknown on the Tour, is a brash, relentless trash-talker—"It's just mypersonality, man," he says—alternately fascinated and amused by Barkley'scomical swing and spotty ball striking.
"Charles,you're not working on distance now, I hope," Kim says, as one of Barkley'spractice shots dive-bombs into the water short of a practice green.
They goad eachother, and one has to wonder if Kim's presence isn't affecting Barkley'sconcentration. "It's not as good a day as yesterday," Haney will saylater, through pursed lips.
So the audiencebefore which Barkley must perform at Indian Creek now includes a de factoreplacement for Barkley's catcalling Greek chorus of Jordan and Woods. (Theyare the first two names on Barkley's so-called "hit list" of people hewants to shut up if and when his game improves.) A nervous tension settles overthe small gallery—even Kim has stopped chirping—as Barkley stands over the ballon the 1st tee. And ... hitches on his drive. Haney tees it up again ... andBarkley hitches again. But like yesterday, the results aren't terrible. Hisball striking is better, and once he chooses a drive that he likes, hisprogression to the hole is steady. Haney classifies him as "a three to sixhandicapper around the green" and "a scratch putter." (That's a bitof a reach.)
The ribbing fromKim continues, though, and Barkley scores a few points when he says, "I'mfamiliar with that country-club, frat-boy trash-talking on the Tour, but see,I'm a veteran of real trash-talking by real athletes."
At the 3rd hole,the two inexplicably begin talking about running.
"You'resaying you think you could outrun me?" Barkley says.
"Let me seehow much money I have in the car," says Kim. "I have no doubt I canoutrun you."
"Son, youmust not own any videotape," says Barkley. "I could really run in myday."
At that moment adiscordant set of sirens sounds off, filling the air unceasingly for fiveminutes. "They heard you wanted to race me, Charles," says Kim, "sothey already called for an ambulance."
The seven-holeworkout comes to an abrupt close. There is lunch to consume, and, for Barkley,a late-afternoon flight to Atlanta for his TNT commitment the next evening."I'm so happy to have a job that requires me to work only one day aweek," says Barkley. Two or perhaps three Project episodes are still to befilmed, and the principals depart with a feeling of cautious optimism, emphasison cautious. Barkley's golf has been better during these two days of filming,and Hartman clings to the notion that his old bud will once again play 18 holeswith him, then reconstruct the round—at full volume—at the 19th. Haney, for hispart, saw real improvement but not enough that he won't continue to seeBarkley's swing in his sleep and dream up new ways of telling his pupil how tofix it. "The guy wants it so bad, and he's so good for golf," saysHaney, "that I just can't accept letting him down."
As for Barkley,well, it's difficult to get a grip on how much pressure he feels. He has agreat time during shoots, but he has a great time doing almost anything. Andfor all his antics, there is a whiff of fear and desperation that runs throughthis whole enterprise. No one is better than Barkley at accepting the slingsand arrows of friends and strangers, but that doesn't mean they haven't gottentiresome. He needs to shut them up. There is a chance that he will be able todo that ... but an equally good one that he won't.
This much isclear, however: Though Barkley sees a golf swing in need of serious alteration,he wouldn't say the same thing about the man making it. Perhaps you would, buthe does not.
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Read Jack McCallum's 2002 feature and other insights into the life and times ofCharles Barkley.