Charles Barkley bursts into the pro shop at the Hank Haney Golf Ranch in suburban Dallas, sets down his yellow-and-black bag and works the room, gathering a few smiling employees 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. I took steroids. My whole career is based on steroids."
So this is how it will be. There will be no bowed and bloodied Barkley, no humbled and hollow shell. Over the last few months the man has been nabbed, booked, sentenced and jailed more properly, "tented" as a result of his DUI violation on New Year's Eve in his hometown of Scottsdale, Ariz. At Haney's ranch, Barkley is submitting himself to another form of public humiliation, putting on display the best-known bad golf swing in the world, a contorted jumble of lunges and hitches that Haney, best known for playing Socrates to Tiger Woods's Plato, will try to fix for a Golf Channel reality series appropriately entitled The Haney Project.
It all would be more than enough to deflate a normal man, but the 45-year-old Barkley, predictably, seems undeflatable. He has already performed his scripted act of contrition for his DUI, apologizing for his misdeeds he was arrested after failing 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 as an NBA studio analyst on Feb. 19 after serving a six-week TNT-imposed suspension. But for those who want to see even more public groveling and behavior 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 not happen. The post-DUI Barkley is pretty much like the pre-DUI Barkley, with the exception of, one would hope, no more DUIs and, consequently, no more jail, though his abbreviated sentence and accommodations (three days in a spacious outside tent with work-release freedom on each of the last two days) did not exactly conjure up images of Shawshank.
Perhaps the Barkley haters can glean some measure of satisfaction from his travails on The Haney Project. Barkley's struggle to find his golf game is, to be sure, A-1 entertainment the ratings for the first episode, which aired on March 2, made it the channel's most-watched Monday-night nontournament program ever but there is 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 two days of shooting at the Haney ranch and a nearby golf course. This must be said, though: Rarely has so much sweat and pain been accompanied by so many laughs.
Part of the delight 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 its moments of scripted choreography ("O.K., Hank and Charles, we want you to walk in together like you're just arriving," says director Tom Farrell of The Workshop, the Pennsylvania-based company that is producing the show for the Golf Channel), but it is in no way a fake. Barkley's swing, pre-Haney and at its worst, was a genuine mess. After a fairly normal address, he brought the club back far too close to his head, then began a perilously steep movement toward the ball. As the clubhead approached the ground, Barkley stopped and hitched (up to three times) as if he were trying to pound into submission a mobile army of ants.