We almost lost Michael Phelps to golf. Well, not quite. But the decorated Olympian did take up the sport to do something not focused on swimming. And at one point, he considered quitting the pool altogether for golf. “But then we quickly decided that probably wasn’t the best idea,” Phelps told reporters on a Golf Channel conference call Wed.
Phelps is the latest star pupil of “The Haney Project,” a series that follows student golfers across the globe as renowned coach Hank Haney whips them into shape.
As every golf aficionado is aware, it’s not an easy sport for anyone to jump into and do well—not even a superior athlete like Phelps. “It is probably one of the most humbling things I’ve ever done in my entire life,” Phelps said. Coach Hank Haney agreed: “As most unbelievable athletes see, translating it into golf is a little bit harder than it looks.” But Phelps’ size, height and the length of his arms do give him a clear advantage. “So much of golf is distance, it’s power and how far you can hit the golf ball,” Haney explained. Still, as much as size is an asset, “it’s also a detriment.” Speed and power “brings you wildness,” Haney added.
Aside from genetics, Phelps’ patience with the process of becoming good at a sport helps him achieve. “He knows what it’s like to be coached,” said Haney, which makes him “a dream student.” The decorated Olympian is learning something new every day—like the fact that there’s 50 or 60 different shafts you can put on a club—and that’s what draws him to the sport. The styles of play are varied and interesting, he said, and a real challenge to master. “It’s not like I can go out and play a perfect round and hit all good shots, but that’s what really keeps me coming back to try to reach that point.”
Practice makes perfect. So on the show we’ll see a lot of swings. “There have been many times on the show where we have hit 500 to 1,000 golf balls, just being on the range,” said Phelps. Little details like keeping the grip on, having the same takeaway, getting the full rotation—all keep his mind in the game. “There are a lot of things that are constantly going on in my head, and obviously repetition is the highest form of learning.”
So how about the pressure? Phelps said he does feel he has to succeed at the sport; and the pressure of coaching such a star athlete—in a short amount of time—has its challenges as well. “When you’re inhibited, if you will, by doing a series of shows, the time frame is pretty short, and you have to be realistic,” Haney explained. The key is to make progress and keep working at it. But if your students are good at it, even better. “Nobody enjoys their students’ good shots more than I do and nobody agonizes over the bad shots like I do,” Haney said.
Phelps promised reporters that there’s plenty of humor in the show. There’s universal appeal as well, he said, given the fact that so many people struggle with the sport. “I think with practice, you can being whatever you want to be, and with a goal you can go in any direction that you want to go in,” Phelps said. “So I think that’s something that I think a lot of people will get out of the show.”
How is he in front of the cameras? Admitting he was nervous at first, Phelps feared he’d hit the cameras filming him—and he nearly did. “We’ve had some close encounters throughout the show where we have almost taken a couple of the crew members out or multiple crew members out in one shot.”
When it comes to coaching styles, Haney and Phelps’ swim coach Bob Bowman are equally passionate. But Bowman was very sparse with praise, Phelps said. “I think there’s only like maybe two or three times where I ever got a "good job" from Bob.” For his 22nd medal and his 8th straight win in 2008. By contrast, Haney is more encouraging, which was a bit shocking for Phelps at first. “I will say, it does feel good. It feels good to get a "good job" or a "nice shot" every once in awhile,” he said. Haney joked that perhaps he should have embraced Bowman’s strategy instead. “He did pretty good with the swimming. I should have followed Bob’s lead a little better.”
Meanwhile, also premiering on February 25 is the net’s third season of “Feherty,” in which former pro golfer David Feherty interviews well-known personalities who share a passion for the game—from President Bill Clinton to Samuel L. Jackson to Charles Barkley. Guests this season include Jack Nicklaus and basketball coach Bobby Knight. Feherty admits he’s shocked by the show’s success, which was the most-watched premiere in network history when it debuted in 2011.
We can expect to see a different side of Nicklaus during that first interview, Feherty revealed. For one, he’s funny. Behind the scenes, the golf great “loves giving people a hard time… or taking the piss out of people, that kind of thing.” As for Knight, whom Feherty regarded with utmost deference, the former coach was indeed a master teacher. “The fact that he went 29 years at Indiana and only had four seniors I think that didn’t graduate is an astonishing achievement beyond anything in sports,” said Feherty. “His kids got an education. Just interviewing the man, it was easy to see why.”
Feherty is known for getting his subjects to open up. So what’s his strategy? It’s simple: “My strategy is that I actually have absolutely no strategy. I’ll forget what the question was halfway through it and my subject has to help me out,” he joked. In actuality, this sense of humility as an interviewer is his strength. It disarms people. “They know that I am not going to burn them…I’m not interested in that. I’m more interested in the person,” he said. The result is that viewers may see a different side of people. “That’s what gives me a kick.”
As far as format, we can expect “Feherty” to evolve–though the show’s precise direction is unclear at this point. “I may get some personal elements into the show as well, instead of just purely an interview show,” he said. His favorite guest thus far? Bill Russell. Meeting him was one of Feherty’s greatest moments. “What an extraordinary human being…You know you’re with greatness when you’re with Bill Russell.”