Sports Illustrated senior writer Gary Van Sickle spent a few minutes with golf instructor Hank Haney on the eve of the final episode of Golf Channel’s The Haney Project to talk about what it was like to step into the world of his celebrity student, Rush Limbaugh.
The Rush Limbaugh ordeal is over. How did it go?
Our last show is Tuesday night. It actually went very good. He turned out to be a very good student, one of the better students I’ve ever had. He was a pleasure to teach. For as big a talker a he is, he’s even a better listener.
It sure didn’t look that way after first two episodes.
I know [laughs]. He really changed and became a great student. And then again, that’s TV, too, you know what I mean?
Right, you’ve got to have a story. But since you’re not an Academy Award-winning actor, it had to be somewhat legit. Rush just wasn’t going to do go the range and hit balls, and you were clearly aghast at that. You had to think, 'This isn’t going to go well.'
That was definitely his stance in the past [laughs]. But I think he knew he’d probably have to practice a little bit with me. He doesn’t have much time because he works so much, so I wouldn’t expect him to practice a lot. What really got him going was when I said, “Could you just take a hundred practice swings in your backyard? You don’t even have to hit balls, just make a hundred swings.” That got him turned in the right direction, just getting his flexibility better and his golf muscles moving. His balance and everything got better.
His fitness level could’ve been better, that might’ve helped.
No doubt about it. As a teacher, you have to take what you get. He kind of represents every golfer. That’s what you deal with when you’re teaching.
Yeah, we all devolve into that barrel-chested shape as we get older. Were you advising him on what shorts to wear as well?
I never knew what kind of outfit Rush would show up in, whether it was Loudmouth shorts or a Pittsburgh Steelers jersey [laughs]. He had some interesting outfits.
After watching the first few episodes and some trailers for later shows, Limbaugh looked like the kind of guy who, once he tasted a little bit of success, he was going to change his attitude and go after it.
That’s a great observation because that’s exactly what happened. That’s a great observation.
What was the moment when you first saw that change?
He couldn’t get out of sand traps before. When all of a sudden he could get out of traps every time, that changed it a little bit. Also when he started making better contact and not hitting so far behind the ball. We went to the Bahamas for a show with Tom Fazio and it was really windy. Rush hit the ball better, kept it in play in the wind and hit some great low shots. All of a sudden, his whole attitude and confidence turned.
Can you assess Rush’s game before and after you filmed the show together?
When I first started helping him, he hit a lot of good shots, but he hit a lot of really, really awful shots — he’d hit it right off the toe of the club and the ball would go straight right. He’d also hit behind the ball a lot, and he couldn’t get out of bunkers. He started to eliminate his really terrible shots. That was probably the biggest difference. He’s not hitting them off the toe anymore. If he hits behind it, it’s two or three inches, not eight inches. His misses are much more playable. We narrowed the field of play for him.
How did you do that for him?
One big thing was that he was convinced he couldn’t turn through the golf ball. Once I got him to do it a few times, he realized he could do this, and it freed him up. His turn through the ball became so much better, the bottom of his swing was more forward and he stopped hitting behind it. Then we worked on his backswing, trying to get the top of his backswing a little flatter. Rush always knew that he stuck the club up in the air like an antenna on his backswing, but he never tried to fix it because he didn’t know what to do and nobody ever tried to help him with it before. So when I showed him what to do to fix it and when he had a little success, it made him feel really good about his chances of improving.
Where is he now, what kind of handicap?
Last Saturday, he e-mailed me that he shot 82 at the Floridian. For an 18 handicap to shoot 82, that’s pretty darned good.
Who wins in a match between him and Bill Clinton?
Aw … [laughs]
They’d probably be too busying debating to play any golf.
At this point, you’ve worked with Limbaugh, Charles Barkley and Ray Romano on your TV show. What’s your batting average so far with these guys-three for three, one for three?
The show is over, but the golf doesn’t stop. Ray Romano helped his partner by 15 shots at Pebble Beach. They lost a scorecard playoff to make the cut and he’s never come close to making the cut before, so I’d say he’s done much, much better. Rush is doing well. And Charles …
That was the weird thing about Barkley. You did fix him. On the range and on the simulator, he had 300-yard drives. He couldn’t take it to the course. He had the mental full-swing yips, and you had him killing it.
Yeah, the change was that before he couldn’t do it on the range. Now he can do it on the range, but still can’t do it on the course. So he’s playing left-handed now. He’s actually pretty good.
It’s bizarre that a professional athlete wouldn’t be physically able to do it.
He is physically able to, he isn’t mentally able to. It’s bizarre when somebody shoots less than 50 percent from the foul line, it’s bizarre when Chuck Knobloch can’t throw it to first base, it’s bizarre when Rick Ankiel throws 18 pitches in a row to the backstop. But it happens.
So Barkley is in that club?
Who’s in charge of finding your next victim?
It’s a collaborative effort. I’m not sure exactly what we’re going to do. We’ve got a lot of great people who’d like to do it. I don’t think we have any shortage of candidates.
There must be a lot of celebrities who’d like to have their game fixed.
We have plenty of A-list celebrities who want to do this. I don’t want to speculate who it might be. We haven’t talked to anyone yet.
Here’s my nominee: do Barkley again as a lefty. That’s crazy as hell. I’d watch that.
That’s a possibility.