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A Hitch in His Giddy-Up

By Leonard Shapiro
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, March 3, 2009 2:23 PM

In the space of six days, the wide world of golf on television went from the sublime, as in the much anticipated return to tournament play of Tiger Woods last week, to the ridiculous. That would be the first fascinating 30-minute segment of a seven-part series aired last night on The Golf Channel focusing on fixing arguably the worst swing in the history of the sport, courtesy of Charles Barkley.

The fixer will be Hank Haney, who also happens to be the swing instructor to Woods, arguably the greatest player in the history of the sport. Over the course of seven weeks of shows, Haney will work with his friend Barkley on trying to make the former NBA all-star into a semi-respectable, double-digit handicapper capable of breaking 90 on a real golf course, instead of the laughing stock of the pro-am crowd.

It's called "The Haney Project," and as Haney said early in the first show, "When I'm looking at Charles Barkley's swing, I'm thinking this is a serious project." Indeed, Barkley's bizarre mess of a move toward the little dimpled ball may best have been described in the show's opening as "a discombobulated jumble of body parts," and that's basically putting it kindly.

"He's been suffering for a long time, but there's no way I'd get on national TV if I had a swing like that," Seth Joyner, a former All-Pro linebacker with the Philadelphia Eagles and a long-time Barkley golfing buddy said in a promotional press release. "I hope he gets it fixed so we won't have to look at that ugly-ass swing anymore."

There were lots of looks at that swing in the debut show. Barkley at his very worst takes the club almost straight back over his head, and as he comes down, drops his head and stops the motion with the strangest hitch imaginable before continuing and eventually gouging out huge chunks of turf, while occasionally grazing the golf ball, if he makes contact at all.

It's not a very pretty picture, but Haney said in a telephone interview this week he has high hopes for a pupil who insists he's taken countless lessons in the past and even tried hypnotism to cure him of his itch to hitch.

"Charles is one of my favorite people in the world," Haney said. "This is something we had kind of talked about in the past. Now, doing it on television has raised his level of dedication. He's committed to a long-term process with this. He's worked on his conditioning, his flexibility, his nutrition. He's already lost 40 pounds... I'm determined to get him going. He's a great friend, and great for the game of golf. My goal is for him to enjoy it."

The series has been taped either in Dallas, where Haney is headquartered, or Scottsdale, where Barkley lives when he's not on the road handling basketball telecasts for Turner sports. Haney said last week they're about halfway through the project and he's already seen great progress in Barkley's swing, even if it hardly showed in the first episode.

How bad was it when they began?

"It was really bad, even without the hitch," Haney said. "The hitch is just the icing on the cake. When we started, he couldn't hit it very well. Now, on the range, he has many, many flashes of brilliance where you think that if he stays with it, he actually could be a five- or six-handicapper. I'll tell you this, he's a great putter, the potential to be a 2-handicap putter and maybe a 5-handicapper with his short game.

"Let's face it. He's a big man. He's got a lot of power. He just needs to be able to make contact and hit the ball instead of the ground. I think eventually he's going to play good golf. A lot of times, we do eliminate that hitch. He can play a little if he's not hitching. But once he starts doing that he gets discouraged. But I'm determined to get him going."

Barkley declined to be interviewed for this story. He has taken a mostly low public profile for the last few months since being charged with drunken driving in Arizona on Dec. 31. He pleaded guilty last week and was sentenced to five days in jail later this month. Clearly, his corrections minders could really make life behind bars really difficult for him simply by forcing him to watch his own swing for a couple of hours every day.

In a Golf Channel news release, Barkley said that golf was "really the only thing I've failed in life at. On every level of basketball, I've been really good. This is interesting to me to let this side of me out there. It's tough for me, but when I signed up for this I said to myself, 'it can't get any worse.'"

During an enjoyably entertaining first half hour, Barkley clearly played the good sport with plenty of self-deprecating humor and buckets of perspiration.

"I've been in golf hell a long time," he said at one point. "Ten years I've been struggling...I have no idea what happened. It's been a long and frustrating journey...It really drives me crazy. To me, it's the ultimate unknown."

At one point, he tells Haney on camera, "I haven't gotten a ball above my head in 10 years. I'm serious...I am terrified when I stand over the ball. I might shank it. I might miss it... I never have to look way out there" to follow the very short flight of his ball, or the worm-burning grounder that often occurs.

Woods made a brief cameo appearance in the first show, offering his own hilarious impression of his good friend Barkley's so-called swing.

"He's a jackass," Barkley shoots back on air. "He's just a flash in the pan. His hair is leaving him quickly. I can take it from him."

But could he take a typical day of Woods's usual practice routine, Haney asked out loud, offering his new student and viewers at home a window into what makes Woods the best player on the planet.

According to Haney, Woods's work day begins at 6 a.m., with a 90-minute aerobic and weight lifting workout, followed by a breakfast break before he heads to the practice tee at 9 a.m. For two hours, he hits balls. From 11 to 11:30 a.m. he works on his putting. From 11:30 to 12:30 he'll play nine holes, with a 30-minute lunch break before returning to the practice tee to hit more balls between 1 and 3 p.m. That's followed by an hour focusing on the short game, then back on the course at 4 p.m. for nine more holes, hitting even more balls from 5 to 5:30 p.m. and another 30 minutes of putting until 6 p.m.

Barkley hit over 1,000 golf balls on his first day with Haney, and by the end of what appeared to be the final drill of the draining session, the hitch seemed mostly gone and Barkley actually was making semi-solid contact.

"His commitment, his work ethic is incredible," Haney said late in the first show. "The only one who practices like this is Tiger." Said Barkley, "I want to work as hard as I can. I want to play some golf."

Stayed tuned.

Leonard Shapiro can be reached at Len.Shapiro@washingtonpost.com.

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