STATELINE, Nev. — Charles Barkley, the mentally challenged golfer, has played in the American Century Celebrity Championship swinging right-handed, left-handed, cross-handed, one-handed, with eyes closed and with business cards taped inside of sunglasses. That would seem to span the spectrum. Armed with such madness, he has finished last eight times and second-to-last 11 times over 23 years in what, regardless, he calls his favorite week of summer.
The NBA Hall of Famer and compelling television voice returns again this week to entertain with an oversized personality and play with a tortured swing that seems to yip when it doesn’t hitch. He has been playing day after day and says he’s improving. Yet he claims his lone hope is to “not come in last place. I set my goals very low.”
The natural humorist, at once, rates as the gallery favorite and longest of long shots at Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course’s nationally televised celebrity tournament. His odds for the 54-hole funfest are listed at 6,000-to-1; there’s reason for that low number. “It’s as high as we’re allowed to make the odds,” said David Cudney, a sportsbook manager. “I’d go higher if I could.”
Barkley goes on stage with a familiar sidekick. Chris Detsch, director of golf at nearby Genoa Lakes Golf Club, is caddying for him for the 13th time in the ACC. Detsch is something of Barkley’s candid golf whisperer, for he once told his friend in mid-tournament: “Are you going to swing one-handed, right-handed, left-handed or yip at it? You have to tell me what you’re going to do before I club you.”
Another time, when Barkley asked the looper why he was repairing someone else’s ball mark, Detsch said he wanted to see if he remembered how to do it considering Barkley doesn’t hit greens in regulation.
“I call myself the White Sherpa,” said Detsch, former Edgewood Tahoe club champion and employee. “I talk trash, point out the pretty girls and carry his bag.”
The two pals reconvene at one of sports’ foremost parties and one of golf’s best destinations, all things considered: 5-star Edgewood lodge, acclaimed layout open to the public, nearby casinos and the non-neon visual delights of snow-capped mountains, glistening lake and towering pines. And they come in eager to see each other for the first time since their annual get-together at Barkley’s New Year’s Eve party in Arizona.
Detsch is a “great caddie” and “probably the highest paid” one, to hear Barkley. He’s also one with stories. And any tales involving Barkley’s golf perhaps should start with the bizarre decline.
When Barkley played for the Phoenix Suns, he owned an 8 handicap. But then he overdid a lesson he hasn’t been able to overcome. The dip developed after a pro held the club shaft at the start of the downswing and advised Barkley to pull down to create lag. Then Barkley hit a spectator in a tournament. Then he hit someone else at another event.
“He’s afraid to pull the trigger,” Detsch said. “It’s all mental.”
Hence Barkley might be the bravest person in Tahoe, for he keeps putting his unsolvable swing on public display. Gary Player wasn’t talking about Barkley when he said golf is a puzzle without an answer, but the words apply. By all accounts, Barkley’s swing is fine on the driving range, where there’s no fear of beaning someone; a range 9-iron might go 165 yards, a driver 300, Detsch said.
“He’s so mentally messed up I don’t know if it’s fixable,” three-time ACC champion Mark Mulder said. “If he cared less, I almost wonder if it would help. But I doubt it.”
Barkley has tried everything. He has been hypnotized twice. Detsch has had him hit range balls on the course, hoping for a carryover. A couple of years ago, Detsch had him hitting good shots left-handed, but Barkley stopped because he didn’t want to admit failure.
The golf instructor also had his buddy hit balls with eyes closed, and Barkley did well enough to go over the green in two on Edgewood’s par-5 18th with a driver and 7-iron. He tried the cards taped inside the shades, when Detsch called him his thoroughbred with blinders on. He tried striking whiffle balls. He would hit three Solo cups not knowing under which the ball sat. When he hit the cup with the ball, he smashed a good shot.
“Charles has three swings,” Detsch said. “On the driving range, no yip. Off camera. And on camera. The closer the gallery, the bigger the camera, the bigger the yip.”
Barkley, though, hardly comes here just for the golf. There’s the charity. Among other humanitarian gestures, he once donated $190,000 for fire victims and solicited donations on the telecast.
“I didn’t think it was fair to go to that beautiful place and play golf and gamble and do karaoke every night and have shits and giggles all day and three miles away everybody had lost all their belongings,” Barkley said.
Ah yes, there’s the party. Barkley stays at a casino.
At night the past five or so years, he has taken about 25 people out on a boat to a remote part of the lake. Alcohol and stories again will flow around a catered dinner this week.
“We sit out there for three or four hours and drink and just talk about how great our lives are,” said Barkley, 56. “I can’t believe my life at times. I’m not going to lie. I’m a little fat kid from a small town in Alabama who grew up to be Charles Barkley. Life is pretty good for me.”
Jeff Rude has covered golf for more than 30 years, most notably for two decades with Golfweek, and has hosted multiple national TV and radio shows. He covered 82 consecutive major championships.