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.