Baltimore’s homegrown all-time Olympic hero was willing to serve his golf apprenticeship in front of a cable television audience as part of the Golf Channel series “The Haney Project.” Now, Michael Phelps is ready to take his new avocation to another level.
Phelps has signed on to play in front of a national broadcast television audience in the American Century Celebrity Golf Championship next month at the Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course in South Lake Tahoe, Nev. His commitment to play in the event was confirmed Tuesday morning by a tournament official and acknowledged on a conference call involving swing coach Hank Haney later in the day, but the official announcement will not be made until next week.
It’s not the U.S. Open, but it’s a real tournament featuring a number of terrific celebrity golfers, some good enough to play on the PGA Senior Tour. It’s also the event that made the horrible swing of basketball great Charles Barkley so infamous that Haney tried to fix it on the same show that recently showcased Phelps and his budding interest in golf.
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Obviously, Phelps isn’t afraid to face his new sports challenges in front of the world. He showed up at Orioles spring training in February with Haney in tow to take batting practice with his hometown baseball team. He got off to a rocky start in his first few rounds, but eventually made some good contact and got some praise from manager Buck Showalter and Adam Jones.
Haney isn’t making any bold predictions about how Phelps might do on such a big stage less than a year after turning his attention from swimming to golf, but he said that Phelps has been a joy to coach.
“It’s obviously an advantage to coach anybody that’s used to having coaching,” Haney said on a conference call. “This year on my show with Michael Phelps, it was great because he’s been coached his whole career by Bob Bowman, who is obviously one of the greatest swimming coaches ever. Michael is so used to taking instruction and being coached that it’s a big advantage. And great athletes are easier to coach, there’s no doubt about that. Charles [Barkley] might be the exception. He’s a little tough, but when it’s all said and done he’s one of my favorite people in the world, so I love him and I love helping him.”
It’ll be interesting to see just how far he has come with his golf swing. He certainly didn’t win more Olympic gold medals than anyone in history by not preparing well, so it’s probably fair to assume that he’ll hunker down over the next few weeks getting ready to take on the likes of Michael Jordan, comedian Larry the Cable Guy and former Ravens quarterback Trent Dilfer in an event that is at times a serious competition and at other times — usually involving Barkley — a theater of the absurd.
“Michael is obviously incredibly competive,” Haney said. “I mean, he’s the greatest Olympian ever. I’ve seen him when he’s in competition, even when it’s just having a friendly bet with some friends. He can really turn it up, so I expect that he will give his best, but having said that, a year ago he was pretty much a beginning golfer.
“He played six times after the Olympics and shot between 98 and 117. Now, the last time we played he shot 85, but that wasn’t at the American Century Championship. … It wasn’t in front of all the people and with the television cameras on, so I don’t expect that he’s going to win the tournament, but I think he’s going to hit a lot of good shots and he’s going to show some improvement and I think everybody’s going to enjoy having him play in the tournament.”
Phelps was not available for comment, but will likely take part in next week’s official media announcement.
Other Baltimore celebrities and athletes have taken part in the event, notably former Ravens quarterback Kyle Boller, who found his way into The Baltimore Sun in 2006 for something other than throwing a football or dating Tara Reid. He finished 37th in the 80-golfer field, but made one of the signature shots of that year’s tournament after a fan dropped a “Tin Cup” challenge on him when his tee shot landed behind a large tree on the 18th hole of the stunning lakeside course.
Boller obviously was no slouch with a golf club because that tee shot traveled 338 yards, with a bit of help from the thin air at the more-than-mile-high lake. The fan thought Boller was going to punch out trouble and rushed up to the ropes.
“You didn’t come here to lay up,’’ he yelled.
Boller looked over at him and smiled.
“You’re right, I didn’t,’’ he replied before curling a 163-yard pitching wedge over the water and right to the middle of the green for an eagle opportunity.
Phelps will have a tough time matching that after just a few months of golf training, even with a premier coach such as Haney, but it would be a mistake to underestimate a young man who has won 18 hold medals at the Olympics. He may be a fish out of water in his first nationally televised golf tournament, but with Haney at his side, he probably has a pretty smooth stroke in this sport, too.
The tournament, which is played in a Stableford scoring system that gives points for pars, birdies and eagles and deducts points for anything over a bogey, takes place July 16-21 and will be televised on NBC and the NBC Sports Channel.
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" at noon Fridays on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.