By David Zurawik
The Baltimore Sun
6:18 PM EST, February 23, 2013
“I’m 27. I’m retired. But I still want to compete.”
That’s Olympic champion Michael Phelps talking in “The Haney Project,” a Golf Channel series that stars Tiger Woods’ one-time coach taking on a new celebrity student each season. Phelps’ words pretty much summarize the premise of this year’s edition, which starts Monday night.
In the past, Hank Haney’s celebrity pupils have included Ray Romano, Rush Limbaugh, Charles Barkley and Maroon 5 singer Adam Levine. This season, the student is the swimmer from Baltimore who won 18 gold medals in Olympic competition.
Those viewers who are used to only seeing Phelps in the pool, arms raised in triumph at the end of a race, might be surprised to see him struggling mightily off the tee, gouging divots, shanking shots and throwing clubs.
He sometimes pouts when Haney pushes, he fails to master his Haney lessons before pro-am tournaments and he sneaks a hot dog in the middle of a practice session. Even he acknowledges his lack of focus near the end of Monday’s episode, saying, “I have let myself go in a lot of ways.”
If that sounds like formulaic reality TV, that’s because “The Haney Project: Michael Phelps” is a reality TV show — make no mistake about it. True, it’s an Olympic legend featured in the series — not Kate Gosselin, Honey Boo Boo or a noodling “expert” in Oklahoma who sticks his hand in the water hoping to be bit by a fish.
But Phelps is doing reality TV on a niche cable channel. Of all the doors open to him after one of the greatest athletic accomplishments of all time, the Baltimore native chose to star in eight hours of reality television that will play out over the next two months on the Golf Channel.
Phelps, normally not a man of many words, explained the decision during a telephone conference call last week.
“One of the craziest things was when I got my first set of golf clubs, I wanted to do it just to give myself, ... something away from the pool that doesn’t have to be always ... focused around swimming,” he said.
“I have friends that played in high school and played in college. And I was able to go out with them and at that point, I was like, ‘Wow, maybe I’ll just quit swimming and start golfing.’ But then, we decided that probably wasn’t the best idea,” he added.
Once the swimming career ended, however, Phelps said, he decided to go beyond golf as a “hobby” taking time off “to really focus” on the game.
“Being able to travel the world and play some of the best golf courses and learn from the greatest golf coach,” he said of the Gold Channel offer, “for me it’s just a cool opportunity of being able to learn a game that’s so challenging.”
The first hour definitely shows him being challenged by what’s referred to as “the geometry and geography of golf” on the show. And that’s part of the intended appeal.
As Mike McCarley, president of the Golf Channel, explained in a statement: “We stand in awe of Michael’s Olympic accomplishments, but it’s hard to put ourselves in his shoes except when it comes to golf. So, as Michael experiences the ups and downs of improving his game through ‘The Haney Project,’ Golf Channel’s audience can relate to his transition from Olympic icon to a guy simply trying not to spoil a good day on the golf course.”
But there’s a deeper appeal with this edition of “The Haney Project,” which it didn’t have with baggy-pants old guys like Limbaugh, Romano or Barkley: This is a guy in his 20s living a young, adult, male fantasy. Phelps has millions of dollars in the bank, girlfriends who pose in bikinis, a record of athletic accomplishment that will probably never be matched, the respect of other celebrities like Michael Jordan and lots of time to play, play, play.
On Thursday, for example, “The Haney Project” cameras followed Phelps around the Baltimore Orioles training camp in Sarasota, Fla., as the Olympic champion took batting practice and kidded around with the players and coaches. Then, it was off to play some golf. Pretty much a day in paradise for most young — and many old — men. Probably, some women, too.
Monday’s episode deftly mines some of that appeal with backstage videotape of Phelps appearing on the Golf Channel’s “Feherty” talk show with Jordan. More video shows Phelps lobbying Congress with actor Denzel Washington
In fact, Monday’s episode spends more time off the course than on with Phelps. The first portion of the hourlong episode is virtually all biography with lots and lots of Phelps in the pool running up the medal count.
Give the Golf Channel credit here — this is not just a cut-and-paste, video-clips job. The producers came to Baltimore for interviews with the Phelps family and his coach, Bob Bowman. Phelps’ mother, Debbie, tears up talking about the moment when Phelps came over to her and his two sisters in the stands after winning his first gold medal and stood there like a proud little boy, saying, “Mom, look what I did.”
And they even get Phelps himself to open up a tiny bit in talking about his past. Phelps is never going to be a chatterbox in front of the camera. On the course, however, he does seem relatively at ease with the reality-TV cameras surrounding him — relatively.
To be as successful as Phelps, an athlete has to be able to go to a private mental place where there are no distractions — and no thoughts of failure. It’s not a place most athletes talk about or share with anyone but coaches — certainly not the media.
A glimpse of that came through in the teleconference last week when I asked Phelps whether he could be more specific about vague “goals” he kept referring to in connection with golf and his participation in Haney’s show. Even though Phelps says the best score he ever had was 91, I asked if his goal was to be a professional golfer.
“Well, I mean, one thing with me and every goal I’ve had — in the sport of swimming, my mother didn’t know my goals,” he began.
“The only person that knew my goals were my coaches,” he continued. “That’s something — no offense to you guys, but I don’t think you guys are going to help me to my goals of X, if I do tell you my goals. So, I see my goals as personal, and I always have. That’s just been how I’ve worked.”
That’s not the way it usually works on reality TV, though, Michael. Sharing is a good thing on reality TV. Just ask Dr. Drew.
Based on what I saw in the first hour, I wouldn’t expect to see Phelps in a “confessional” room, like the one on MTV’s “The Real World,” baring his soul during this season of “The Haney Project.”
With Phelps, though, a few thrown clubs, sullen looks and bleeped words of frustration after bad swings might be enough for young male viewers watching him “live the dream” — or, at least, a pretty big part of it, divots notwithstanding.
“The Haney Project” starring Michael Phelps debuts at 9 p.m. Monday on the Golf Channel
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