The first time I golfed with Charles Barkley—18 years ago in Monte Carlo, where the U.S. Dream Team was tuning up before the Olympic Games in Barcelona—he was an average player. He hit some good shots, some bad, talked about breaking 80, tried to break 85, ended up shooting 90, but, like so many of us, came back the next day with hope in his heart. Nine years later in Phoenix we played again, by which point his game had become a study in swing psychosis, his hitch a jaw-dropping confirmation of the existence of golf’s crueler truths.
The fact that Charles has accepted with admirable equanimity the slings and arrows that have accompanied his fall from mid-teen-handicapper to poster-boy for futility (even Tiger Woods, who is to humor what Spam is to haute cuisine, does a hilarious spot-on replication of the Barkley Hitch) has given rise to the supposition that Barkley somehow enjoys being lampooned, that it’s become his shtick, and even, as someone suggested to me, that he’s faking it.
Here’s the truth: He’s not faking. He’s that bad. And he does not enjoy playing poorly. It tears him up inside, and the man has strong insides. He is the uber-model for all who have Lost It. He is the ultimate Golf Victim.
“Anybody who thinks I’m doing this for the publicity or the fun of it crazy,” Barkley told me during the filming of The Haney Project, The Golf Channel reality show he did with the swing guru last year. “This ain’t fun. I don’t like being bad. I want to be good again.”
Barkley got out for a round recently at Pine Valley with Philadelphia sports broadcaster Neil Hartman, who said that Barkley played reasonably well on the front and horribly on the back. Afterwards Barkley predictably entertained the masses at the 19th hole. “That’s what’s so sad when Charles isn’t playing,” says Hartman. “He’s so great for the game of golf that we want him back.”
But what Barkley misses is playing well, not schmoozing well. At the very least he wants to get through a round without falling prey to that nasty, body-wrenching twist from which no good shots can come. Barkley has become so frustrated by his hitch that on several occasions he has given up, but always he comes back, fulfilling what the poet Thomas Gray wrote in a different context three centuries ago: ” …regardless of their doom/The little victims play.” As you watch him struggle—and Barkley swing videos are a top-ten TV staple—remember that the comedy is all in the eyes of the beholder. He is not having fun. He is a victim.
Eleven-time All-Star Charles Barkley, 47, covers the NBA for TNT.