July 8, 2021
EDGELINE, Nevada – A year ago, in the middle of a pandemic summer, Charles Barkley landed the first ever fan-free edition of the American Century Championship.
“Well, I’m not going to hit anyone,” he said, asking about the lack of spectators. “So that’s always a welcome relief.”
This has been Barkley’s role in the golfing world for so many years: Comedy Relief. He’s self-deprecating. It has remained a good sport. Even when his momentum slackened and his game collapsed, he kept popping up.
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“To say that I ‘fought’ on the golf course is the greatest understatement in the history of civilization,” said Barkley in advance of this year’s event. For decades, he added, there was no escaping his swing. It had acquired cultural relevance as iconic badly. Tiger Woods had its own imitation of the famous mid-swing attachment. The attempt (and failure) to fix Barkley’s game became the subject of an entire television show. He was the owner of what is literally the most famous bad golf swing in the world.
“Look, I haven’t had fun playing golf in 25 years,” he said. “I only play in Lake Tahoe because I like to come there. And I’ve attended some of my friends’ celebrity golf tournaments to raise funds for charity. It wasn’t like having fun on the golf course; I won’t tell you this lie. “
Barkley had given up hope, and he had all but given up golf, too.
“You know, when you get old and fat there are only a few things you can do – golf and fishing,” he said, reaching into his catalog with one-liners.
It wasn’t always like this, Barkley recalls. When he first picked up a club, golf was wonderfully easy.
It was his second or third year with the Philadelphia 76ers when Barkley, in his mid-twenties, spoke to teammate Andrew Toney about his plans for the day off. Toney said he would play golf.
“I said, ‘What is that? Is that thing where they hit that little white ball around? ‘”Barkley recalls. “He said, ‘Yes. Do you want to go?’ I said, ‘Damn it, I want to go, I have nothing to do today.’
“Man, I’m on this track. And I actually hit that damn ball. “
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For the next several years, Barkley focused on his game. He turned into a single-digit handicap, reliably hitting 85 and cracking 80 on a good day. He was an above average, happy golfer.
“And then I did the stupidest thing ever,” complains Barkley. “I started taking classes. I said, ‘I want to get better.’ I should have been lucky to get that score because I was having fun, but I wanted to get better. So I started taking lessons from every single person in the world. And the next thing I know is that I have 10 voices in my head that are over a golf ball and I went from 80 to 100. “
It wasn’t all bad, Barkley insists. He loved to escape his fame for a few hours to talk rubbish with his friends, whom he calls “All That Has Been”. He enjoyed the rest. He enjoyed being outside. And he enjoyed having a specific name for every single brand of bad shot. But the good shots were all but gone and the game had grown tiresome.
At this year’s American Century, Barkley’s bag arrived before him. Two friends were guarding his PXGs. Barkley strolled over a few minutes later, an unmistakable 6’6 “presence in a gray Nike shirt, black shorts, and huge black golf shoes. A row of spectators suddenly appeared behind him at the railing, moths to a strange flame.
“Karl!” shouted one. “Let’s see this new swing!”
Barkley has been working on his game for months. Don’t just play golf. Work on it. Fans of The Match saw it last Thanksgiving when a less intrusive Barkley teamed up with Phil Mickelson and prevailed against Steph Curry and Peyton Manning. For years, one of the only certainties in golf was that Barkley’s swing was irreparable. Had Barkley suddenly just – fixed it?
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The road to recovery, he says, began with an open mind. The process began with a conversation he had with a former touring professional who became a teacher, Stan Utley.
“He said, ‘Chuck, let me do a little work with you.’ I said, ‘Stan, I’ve worked with everyone in the world,’ ”Barkley recalls. “He said, ‘Well, one of them won’t hurt.'”
The first thing Utley did was ask Barkley a simple question. When you’re on the ball, how many people are talking to you?
Ten, thought Barkley. At least ten. One vote for every teacher he’s been through. Utley issued an instruction: Forget them all. During a three-hour range session, they focused on one particular thought. The next day they added another one.
“He calmed my brain and said, ‘Hey man, you can’t think of ten things on a golf ball.'”
On Thursday in Edgewood Tahoe, Barkley relaxed into his range session. He thinned his first iron shot. Hit a grounder with the next one. But then, four or five swings, his swing got longer and smoother, and suddenly the ball flew toward the distant Nevada pines, falling gently from right to left. A big tie!
Over the next 30 minutes, Barkley hit more balls. He shook more hands. He did it to the fans. And while he won’t be confused with any of the Champions Tour hopes anytime soon, it became clear that solid contact was the rule rather than the exception. The hook was gone. The ball popped out of his face. A crowd continued to gather, not just spectators, but media representatives and other celebrities as well.
Barkley’s personality always has something magnetic, but on Thursday there was an extra dose of wellbeing in the air. Barkley was happy. Everyone around him was happy for him. There is basically something inspiring when someone fails for so long and then finally succeeds. Barkley’s success on the driving range was the happiest corner of a downright lucky golf tournament.
How can you understand the whole thing? Utley insists that Barkley’s transformation was as easy as calming his mind and focusing on the mechanics.
“I find people funny who think he has mental problems with golf. Charles’ problems were pure skill problems, ”he said. “They have nothing to do with confidence, not mental. He had some bad golfing skills that he has improved. “
Thursday was Celeb-Am, which meant Barkley finished his range session and headed for the first tee. He played last and fastest, standing over his ball a fraction of a second before ripping the driver.
The ball started on the right and continued to the right, eventually ending up in a fairway bunker at the adjacent 10th hole. Nevertheless, the medium-sized crowd cheered warmly. But the Celeb-Am is a mess, a forgiving format with the group playing from the best tee, which meant Barkley dropped a ball in the center of the fairway, about 130 yards from the flag. His approach landed in the center of the green, rolled past the hole, and stayed about 20 feet away. And his putt found the center of the bottom of the cup. Birdie for Barkley.
He grinned all the way to the next tee, stopped for photos, punched fists, and joked with a young girl in a Steph Curry leotard.
“Are you a Steph fan? Is that because you are all the same size? ”He asked. Sir Charles felt fine.
So what can you expect from him at this week’s tournament? It’s still hard to say.
“I predict he’ll play really well on day one and I don’t know how much he’s going to be celebrating,” Utley said with a laugh. “I don’t hang out with him at night. And I have an idea that I didn’t want anyway because I couldn’t keep up. “
As for Barkley’s own expectations? He invests in his own success. A few weeks ago, William Hill announced 17-1 odds on a bet that Barkley would end up in the top 70 in the 89-person field.
“Listen man, I’m going to be in the top 70,” Barkley said at the time. “You have to bet more than $ 100 on me. You need to let me know which casino this is because I want some of it. I can’t wait now. “
A few months ago, Barkley had all but given up golf. Now he’s on his own. That is a step in the right direction.
Dylan Dethier is Senior Writer for GOLF Magazine / GOLF.com. A native of Williamstown, Mass. joined GOLF in 2017 after fiddling around on the mini tours for two years. A graduate of Williams College in 2014 where he majored in English, Dethier is the author of 18 in America describing the year he lived off his car when he was 18 and in each state played a round of golf.