Tuesday, May 12, 2009

By rights, the golf police should've physically barred me from entering the Hank Haney Golf Ranch. The suburban Dallas complex, run by one of the top teachers in the world, is for people who like to work on their game. I hate to work on my game, which is probably why I don't have much game. I've never taken a lesson or read a page of instruction. When the other members of my regular foursome get to the course early to hit balls, an activity of which they never get tired, I stay in the cart and munch on a bagel or waste my time on the putting green, searching out those over-hill-and-dale putts I'll never confront during a round.

But there I was last week at the Haney ranch, for one eight-hour day and another four-hour day, picking up tips from Tiger's swing doctor. I was not the object of Haney's attention, of course; rather, I was there to chronicle the struggles of Charles Barkley to rediscover his golf swing, a picaresque journey that is being chronicled on the Golf Channel in a multi-episode reality show called "The Haney Project." But — suddenly, unwittingly, osmotically — I was being exposed to all those things I should be reading about in golf magazines and trying myself on the range, where I have never felt at home.

\nNot so steep, Charles.
Try to put it on an even plane, Charles.
One continuous motion, Charles.
Nope, terrible! You started out okay, but got off-track, Charles.
Stay committed to the swing, Charles.

\nI usually stood a few feet away from Haney and Barkley, being careful to stay out of the view of the Golf Channel cameras but close enough to hear the instruction. Gradually, I started hearing "Jack" instead of "Charles" at the end of Haney's sentences. By the third hour, I was standing in place and approximating hip turns. By the fourth hour, I had put down my pad and tape recorder and was taking full swings, the equivalent of playing air guitar. I caught our photographer, Ben Van Hook, doing the same thing. We acknowledged each other in embarrassment, and 15 minutes later we were comparing our velocity by swinging a pole equipped with a sensor that measures speed. "I got it to one-oh-two," I reported to Ben, a reading that is reportedly some 40 miles per hour slower than Tiger swings it.

\nBy the sixth hour, I was over on the mats with Marius Filmalter, a South African teaching pro who works with Haney. "You've got to turn your shoulders," he said in his clipped accent. (Hell, now I was getting schooled by Gary Player.) "I bet you slice rather than hook, right? [Correct.] Don't tilt your shoulders — turn them."

\nBy the seventh hour, I was sneaking into Haney's indoor lab area, snitching a few clubs out of Barkley's bag and smashing balls into cushioned mats. I smiled weakly and stepped away when Suckki Jang, Haney's director of teaching, happened by, but he waved me back with a big smile and turned on the computer so my swing will be there for all to deride for all of eternity. See, fellas, here's what not to do.

\nLukas McNair, one of Haney's younger instructors, watched me take a couple of swings and said, "You know, your swing isn't bad, but you do kind of what Charles does, only, you know, not as exaggerated." Well, that's all I needed to hear. Get me therapists, Dallas area, please. Lukas was referring to my overly steep downswing, which, fortunately, does not include the head-moving, body-contorting hitches that make Charles, at his worst, seem like he is suffering from the physical equivalent of Tourette's Syndrome. Lukas, like Marius, patiently changed the way I took it back.

\nSurely, he had better things to do. But every guru I encountered at the ranch was more than helpful; had I been presumptuous enough to ask Haney for a swing adjustment, I have no doubt he would've taken a moment away from the Barkley instruction — or figuring how Tiger can win the Masters — and gazed upon my sorry efforts. He and his staff no doubt looked out upon the vast tableau of the show — Barkley and all of us mid- and high-handicappers who had come along — and felt the way a big-game hunter feels when he gazes onto the Serengeti and wets his lips at the sight of so many tasty targets. So many swing flaws, so little time.

\nI must admit that Lukas got into my head by conjuring up Barkley and me in the same sentence. I spent most of the second day close by, listening to Haney's counsel, trying to replicate the kind of loose, circular swing he was trying to communicate to Barkley.

\nI came home excited about the coming golf season, my head full of swing thoughts. I started babbling to my wife about the physics of the swing the moment I got off the plane. As it turned out, the weather was unseasonably warm in Pennsylvania the following day, and she said to me, "Why don't you hit some golf balls and practice the new stuff."

\n"Good idea," I said, and started for the garage to pick up my clubs.

\nBut, then, suddenly, the urge was gone, and in its place was a torpor brought on by the thought of lugging a basket of balls onto a matted area that makes me think there's going to be a windmill turning 10 feet in front of me. I made a few desultory swings in the front yard — the mantra of you are not Barkley, you are not Barkley running through my mind — and put the clubs back in the garage, promising myself that I will straighten this all out. At the first tee in mid-April. I promise.

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