Barkley's swing has such a steep angle that, if he didn't stop midway, he'd drive the club straight into the ground.
Gregory Miller Photography/Golf Channel
Wednesday, March 11, 2009

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.

The show's hapless hero works endlessly with one goal in mind — "If you think that I'd hit a thousand golf balls a day just for exercise," says Barkley, "then you have your head up your butt" — while the tutor hammers home the teaching points, his renown as a swing fixer very much on the line. "Tiger said to me, '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 of Woods hangs over Project. It was at Woods's wedding to Elin Nordegren at a Barbados golf resort in October 2004 that Haney first worked with Barkley, making a few suggestions when he saw him lunging, er, swinging. Woods's joking replication of Barkley's hitch appeared on the first episode (Barkley pooh-poohs it, but in truth it's a fair approximation), and Tiger's barbs ring in Barkley's ears. Increasingly, Barkley doesn't have much return ammo. While Barkley's afflicted swing is available for scrutiny and ridicule in celebrity tournaments — he finished dead last at the American Century Celebrity Golf Championship last July — Woods doesn't shoot hoops in public. And once Tiger married a beautiful model and started a family, Barkley's insults about Tiger's lack of social skills lost their sting. About all Barkley has is the top of Woods's head. "Tiger has this pick he uses to try to disguise the fact that he's going bald," Barkley says. "It's just terrible." But Woods has a comeback even for that. When Haney tells Tiger that he instructed Barkley to lower his head at address, Woods jokes that the camera should get out of the way 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 Woods and/or Barkley's other superstar tormentor, Michael Jordan, show up to observe Barkley's presumed improvement would be the show's dream final episode. As of last weekend, however, neither had been booked.

"The average student," Haney is saying, could not work this hard and would not work this 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's athletic ability and his desire to get better."

During the morning session Barkley swings almost nonstop for 30 minutes at a time, moving from ball to ball with only a second or two pause between each swing, sometimes using a 70-inch driver — 45 is standard — so he can better feel the clubhead. Some balls are teed normally, others are waist- and chest-high, resting atop sawed-off shafts stuck in the ground. Some of the swings are accompanied by curses, when he hits shaft instead of ball. Most of the work is geared toward changing the plane of Barkley's fantastically flawed swing. Haney stands behind him, running through the whole pedagogical vocabulary of reinforcement. Real good. Niii-ce. Perfect, bud. There you go! Haney holds a long club and, like a nun with a yardstick sneaking up behind a naughty schoolboy, sometimes reaches into Barkley's swing and guides his club into the proper plane, trying to create an outside-in arc that replicates a counterclockwise loop. Barkley's main malady — this is simplistic to say the least — is that his swing plane is way too steep. Haney believes that Barkley's head-lowering hitch, rather than being the source of trouble, is a necessary self-correction. "If Charles didn't stop and hitch on the way down," Haney asks, "how would he hit the ball? He would theoretically drive the club three feet into the ground." The 53-year-old Haney says this in utter amazement. His experienced eyes are accustomed to watching an athlete with perhaps the best swing in the world take a hundred perfect ones, then, maybe on the 101st, go a trifle inside on the takeaway. So he says, "Tiger, that was a bit inside," and the flaw is corrected.

After lunch at a barbecue joint, a long video review and a few hundred more practice balls precede a supposedly casual stroll on the nine-hole executive course that rims the property. But lurking in everyone's mind as the cameras whir is the possibility that Barkley's muscle memory will turn to mush. Previous excursions to courses during filming have not gone well. Neil Hartman, a sportscaster in Philadelphia, a longtime Barkley golfing buddy and the coordinating producer for Project — it was Hartman's idea to put Haney and Barkley together — feels the pressure. "The last three years have sucked because, for the most part, Charles has just stopped playing," says Hartman. "That is just sad for someone who used to enjoy the game so much and brings so much joy to others who play with him."

The first hole is a short par-4. Barkley practices his looped swing with Haney looking on. Barkley does a fair takeaway and ... hitches on the downswing. And hitches again. The results, however, are not disastrous. Haney has also been working on club impact and follow-through, and Barkley looks no worse than, say, a bogey golfer, 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 a videographer who gets in his sight line. An hour of video work follows, and the exhausting day that began at 9:30 ends eight hours later.

At dinner that night Barkley has a few drinks. He says, however, that he will no longer get behind the wheel when he has had too much to drink, and, indeed, he does not drive 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's the extent of his knee scraping. "Everybody wants to be overly dramatic about what happened," he says. "I'll be all right. When I think about prison, I concentrate on how tough it is for the normal person. They take your money, your house and all your hope, and when you get out, you have nothing. Now, that is sad."

The dinner is not. The restaurant is crowded, and virtually every customer coming and going stops to shake hands with Barkley or request a cellphone shot. He is wary — the man 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-style motorcycle jacket, looking as if he might have gotten lost decades ago on his way to a Grateful Dead gig, offers Barkley a few swing thoughts. "I get advice from airport skycaps all the time," says Barkley, "but you know you really suck when a guy like that starts giving you tips."

As Barkley goes through his swing drills the following morning at the ranch, in preparation for a visit to Indian Creek Golf Club, Anthony Kim, the talented 23-year-old Tour player, strides up to watch. A Dallas resident, Kim was celebrating his girlfriend's birthday the previous night when he ran into Barkley at the bar and immediately bonded with him. (Barkley almost never goes anywhere without collecting a new best friend.) On the one hand Kim, a self-confessed "NBA freak" who as a 10-year-old in Los Angeles's Koreatown secured Barkley's autograph at a public park, is in awe of Barkley. On the other, A.K., as he's known on the Tour, is a brash, relentless trash-talker — "It's just my personality, man," he says — alternately fascinated and amused by Barkley's comical swing and spotty ball striking.

"Charles, you're not working on distance now, I hope," Kim says, as one of Barkley's practice shots dive-bombs into the water short of a practice green.

They goad each other, and one has to wonder if Kim's presence isn't affecting Barkley's concentration. "It's not as good a day as yesterday," Haney will say later, through pursed lips.

So the audience before which Barkley must perform at Indian Creek now includes a de facto replacement for Barkley's catcalling Greek chorus of Jordan and Woods. (They are the first two names on Barkley's so-called "hit list" of people he wants to shut up if and when his game improves.) A nervous tension settles over the small gallery — even Kim has stopped chirping — as Barkley stands over the ball on the 1st tee. And ... hitches on his drive. Haney tees it up again ... and Barkley hitches again. But like yesterday, the results aren't terrible. His ball striking is better, and once he chooses a drive that he likes, his progression to the hole is steady. Haney classifies him as "a three to six handicapper around the green" and "a scratch putter." (That's a bit of a reach.)

The ribbing from Kim continues, though, and Barkley scores a few points when he says, "I'm familiar 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're saying you think you could outrun me?" Barkley says.

"Let me see how much money I have in the car," says Kim. "I have no doubt I can outrun you."

"Son, you must not own any videotape," says Barkley. "I could really run in my day."

At that moment a discordant set of sirens sounds off, filling the air unceasingly for five minutes. "They heard you wanted to race me, Charles," says Kim, "so they already called for an ambulance."

The seven-hole workout 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 a week," says Barkley. Two or perhaps three Project episodes are still to be filmed, and the principals depart with a feeling of cautious optimism, emphasis on 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 holes with him, then reconstruct the round — at full volume — at the 19th. Haney, for his part, saw real improvement but not enough that he won't continue to see Barkley's swing in his sleep and dream up new ways of telling his pupil how to fix it. "The guy wants it so bad, and he's so good for golf," says Haney, "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 a great time during shoots, but he has a great time doing almost anything. And for all his antics, there is a whiff of fear and desperation that runs through this whole enterprise. No one is better than Barkley at accepting the slings and arrows of friends and strangers, but that doesn't mean they haven't gotten tiresome. He needs to shut them up. There is a chance that he will be able to do that ... but an equally good one that he won't.

This much is clear, 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, but he does not.

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