By Rick Reilly
Have you ever secretly longed to comb through airplane wreckage? Had a morbid curiosity about autopsies? Wanted to tour a torture camp?
I have. That's why I purposely set out to play golf with Charles Barkley. Wait, don't get mad! I've never met anybody in sports I admire more than Sir Charles. He is more fun than a Dubai expense account. He is unfailingly hilarious, generous and honest.
But his golf swing? Technically, it's not even a swing. It's a lunge. Scientists study it. He gets to the top, starts down and then—two feet from impact—just stops! Totally freezes! He looks like a man waiting for a rattlesnake to pop up so he can kill it. It's the only swing in the world with an intermission. Me, I'd quit and take up the tuba. But not Barkley. He plays golf all the time.
Which is where I came in. Through a clerical error, I was invited to play in this country's best celebrity golf tournament, the American Century Championship on the shore of Lake Tahoe. It was bizarre and cool at the same time. There were rooms in which every face you saw was famous. When was the last time the four people ahead of you in the taco-bar line were Lance Armstrong, Kate Hudson, Al Michaels and Lou Holtz?
(Random celebrity observations from the week: Michael Jordan's girlfriend is scorching. Aaron Rodgers nearly gets a facial tic when asked about Brett Favre. Ray Allen can actually rap. After a bad shot, Ray Romano will yell, "I could rip off my own ear!" Jessica Simpson, in town with boyfriend Tony Romo, is not a stickler for detail. When I asked her, "Jessica, is today your birthday?" she replied: "Yes! No! Wait! Yesterday! No, wait, is today the 12th? Then, day before yesterday? I don't know!")
Anyway, after much begging I was paired with Barkley for the first round. The night before, as I walked through the casino to go to bed, I saw him. He was standing on a stage, pouring mobs of people shots of Patron, on his tab, which would top $10,000. So you knew he was taking me seriously.
We had the day's largest gallery for two reasons: (1) The mayor of South Lake Tahoe declared it Charles Barkley Day to honor the $100,000 he donated to locals who'd lost their homes in fires; and (2) people wanted to see the Incredible Hiccuping Swing.
I have bad news. I saw it up close—and it's getting worse. In one fairway bunker Barkley took it back, froze as usual, then suddenly flinched and aborted the swing altogether. Balk. He gathered himself and made another run but, again, could not bring himself to finish the last two feet. It was like a man trying to shoot a favorite old cow. The third time, he finally swung but whiffed. On the fourth, he hit it. And this was only the first hole.
When Barkley freeze-flails, people laugh, shriek and gasp, but it's not funny. It is a pox on his life. "I've tried everything," Barkley says. "Tiger can't help me 'cause the hitch is there no matter what. I even tried getting hypnotized for 45 minutes and still woke up with the same crappy swing." And so it went the rest of the day: Barkley making people laugh and hug him, interrupted by these sporadic fits that made them look away in sympathy. "Hey, I know I suck," he yelled on the eighth hole, still lying two and not yet to the women's tees, "but I got nice equipment."
Thing is, he never stops having fun. I missed a putt badly on 12 and told the crowd, "I forgot—every green breaks toward Charles." He counterpunched with "Uh-oh, God don't like you bein' mean to fat people." Toward the end, I asked him why he puts himself through it. "Beats working," he shrugged.
Overall, in this 54-hole Stableford tourney, in which double bogey is the most you can take, Barkley took the max on 41 holes and finished last by a large county. No wonder that, in Barkley's group, the sign boy was given no numbers.
The best player of the week was ex-MLB pitcher Rick Rhoden. The wettest was Romo, who fell in a pond at No. 1 on Saturday. And perhaps the happiest was Rodgers, who was introduced at the first tee on Sunday as a "Green Bay Packers quarterback." Rodgers corrected the announcer, "Starting quarterback."
As for the nobody among the 82 celebs, I finished with a plus-two, good for 53rd place. But on the plus side, I was low sportswriter and beat Michael Jordan. One other crucial thing: I can remember when my birthday is.
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